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Cross-Cultural Dialogue

Fiorella at the front of the classroom teaching a lesson on English

A cross-cultural story written about a teacher and her students in Guinea-Bissau

By Roz Wollmering - Peace Corps Volunteer:

I entered the school doors brimming with ideas, innovative teaching methods, and the desire to have an effect. Today was the first day of school in Guinea-Bissau, the tiny West African country where I had been assigned as an English teacher with the Peace Corps. After completing an exhausting and demanding 12 weeks of training in language as well as cross-cultural and technical skills, I felt more than adequately prepared for the challenge of teaching in an under-resourced school system designed on a colonial model.

Even as I entered the pastel pink building, I noticed a strange absence of noise, considering it was the first day of school. A few isolated students wearing white school jackets rambled about in the dimly lit hallway. As I climbed the stairway to the administrative office, I heard a distant mango drop to the ground with a thud and a chorus of children's voices break out in glee. Hoping to catch a glimpse of the fastest one carrying off the ripe prize being pursued by the others, I looked out into the schoolyard and saw instead piles of old desk fragments, broken bricks, and tree branches.

They must be cleaning the school grounds, I thought to myself. When I entered the office, the principal and his assistant were looking at a class schedule posted on the wall and discussing the large number of teachers that still needed to be hired by the Ministry. After greeting me warmly by inquiring about my health, my family back in America, and my life in general, they informed me that my teaching load had been increased by eight hours since the previous week. "No problem," I joyfully responded, "I love to teach."

The classroom where I was to teach was located a short walking distance behind the main building. Three lines of classrooms were arranged in rows much like military barracks. Since today was the first day of classes, I hopped on my bicycle and coasted right up to the door of classroom number 19—my classroom. "Always wiser to be punctual and prepared than be tardy and unequipped," I told myself. Two students were sitting inside the classroom playing cards when I entered. I looked at the official enrollment number of 47 and asked earnestly, "Where are the other 45 students?" The cardplayers faltered a bit and then mumbled, "They'll come, by and by." "Well, let's begin without them," I suggested, with a disapproving stare at the cards.

They shrugged their shoulders and offered instead to go and find the students. It certainly didn't seem reasonable to me to teach two students and then have to teach the same material again when the others showed up later. Be flexible, I reminded myself, and so I agreed.

One week later, there were 26 students outside my classroom still waiting for the rest of their classmates to appear, by and by. I noticed that not only were students absent, but teachers as well. Meanwhile, the principal and his assistant were still discussing the schedule on the wall, moving multicolored pins, and deliberating how best to resolve the shortage of teachers. That morning I had stopped by the administrative office again just to make sure that I had understood correctly the radio announcement made by the minister of education the previous evening. I thought that he had announced that classes were in session and was quite relieved when the principal verified my assessment. He assured me that I had understood the minister's announcement to the word and then asked me to teach an additional two hours a week. Lacking the experience to rebut his statement, "When there's a lack of teachers, we all need to pitch in a few extra hours," I nodded my head in consent. Considering that I wasn't actually teaching any students at the time, two extra hours didn't seem to be much of a burden, and I left, feeling only the slightest premonition that I might regret it later.

By the end of week three, I had managed to convince, cajole, and beg my students to enter the classroom. What other teachers did was their decision, I figured, but as for me, I was itching to do something other than wait on shore like a seafarer's wife. Once the students had entered, I discovered to my amazement that I couldn't get them to quiet down. Heedless of my requests to pay attention, they continued to socialize. Daisy painted her nails and chatted with Aminata about the new discotheque called Temptation that had just opened across from the mosque. Bebe took Nanda's notebook and wouldn't return it. Fatu gave me the peace sign and went outside to urinate.

A few others followed. Students wandered in late with irrelevant excuses like "It's hot" or "I'm tired." Nelson and Marcelino held competitive jive talks while their classmates gathered around encouraging first one and then the other. Other students, whose teachers were absent, hung around the open windows, throwing crumpled-up bits of paper to their friends. Others simply came to stare at me, a white woman who rode a bicycle to school. They shoved up against the outside wall, clambered over each other's backs, and stuck their heads in for a peek, yelling, "White woman, white woman, there she is!" The next day, still more "window students" appeared to torment me.

Such behavior continued daily and eventually I began to yell at them— "Get away from the windows!"—and resorted to pushing them out of viewing range. After one month at my new post, I reigned over 30 hours a week of complete disorder in a pseudo-classroom kingdom. This is madness, I thought.

For the next month, I devoted the first 20 minutes of class solely to establishing order and quiet. I was determined. I did this with gentle coaxes at first, but gradually evolved to using threats ("I'll call the school disciplinarian") and offering sweet enticement ("If you're good, I'll let you out early"). Late students were not allowed to enter, regardless of their excuses. It seemed the only way to control the chaos. Once I had my students' attention, I made them copy page after page of notes from the blackboard into their notebooks. I planned to inundate their minds with grammar rules and vocabulary lists so they wouldn't have time to talk. Other times, I made them repeat sentences in unison as if they were Berlitz parrots. Audio-lingual theorists suggest that language is acquired through repetition of recurring patterns, a proposition effectively demonstrated when I overheard my students mimicking me: "Be quiet! Go sit down!"

When the drudgery of memorization and repetition bored even me to death, I resorted to playing Bingo, Simon Says, or Do the Hokey-Pokey. I went to elaborate lengths to make nifty prizes for positive reinforcement and spent numerous hours designing creative educational posters to hang on the walls. For a time, I concentrated on visual stimulation and drama to reinforce right-brain learning, but the posters disappeared overnight and the drama idea erupted one day during a production of a local folk tale. I rather enjoyed their drama productions myself, and I figured they were reviewing English grammar and vocabulary by playing the games, but deep inside arose a persistent, nagging voice: "Surely, you can do more than baby-sit."

Gradually, as my disciplinary measures evolved to resemble boot camp philosophy, my classes began to develop a catatonic personality. Somber students stared back at me or out into space.

Apathy replaced the boisterous noise I had become accustomed to combating. They refused to open their notebooks until I had repeated the request three times. Orders and instructions mollified them, sure enough, but now they didn't seem to have opinions, concerns, or even interests. Some simply put their heads down and slept. Sit and listen they did, but participate and discuss and collaborate they didn't. I wrote in letters to my friends back home that paper plates had more personality than these kids. Their passive resistance soon infuriated me, and I yelled in frustration at them, "I am here to help you. Don't you understand that?" They stared at me in a dazed disbelief. "What do you want?" I implored them with open hands: "Do you want me to entertain you? To treat you like military recruits? To punish you?" They shrugged their shoulders and sighed, "Teacher, we are pitiful. That's life." "Go," I told them. "Go home. Get out." They refused, of course.

Against my usually discerning judgment, I finally called in the school disciplinarian. The moment he arrived, every single student in the classroom jumped up on tiptoes to attention. They greeted him in perfect unison with a resounding "Good morning, Mr. Disciplinarian." When he ordered them to sit down, an immaculate silence spread throughout the classroom like a divine fog. I was astounded. They looked so serene and innocent as they waited attentively for his words. Their pristine, woeful eyes and composure made them appear as mere harmless babes, and I began to imagine that they would convince him of their purity and that I was the evil abuser. I began to wonder, in fact, if this wasn't perhaps partially true.

The disciplinarian picked out several students who were not wearing school jackets. In addition, he selected students who were wearing jackets, but had not buttoned the top button. He accused and convicted them of intent to belittle their American teacher and expelled them for two weeks, dismissing them with a disparaging comment. He then read a list of seven students' names. Since these students had registered for classes but had not yet paid their school fees, he expelled them for the year, adding yet another insult as they crept out of the classroom. He then turned to me and said, "If any one of these students ever gives you a problem, even the smallest problem, you tell me and I will expel the entire class for the entire year. Not one of them will pass, and they will all have to repeat the year next year." As I struggled to come up with an appropriate response to his comment, he turned back to the students, held up one finger, and challenged them, "Just one of you try it. Just one and I'll whip your ass." He left, but not before making an attempt to reassure me with a vindictive smile. I stood in horrified shock and embarrassment. I had just lost 13 students. The students said nothing. They stared at me and waited to see what I would do next. I felt angry and stupid and offered a feeble apology. I fumed all the way home.

That night I dreaded ever going back into the classroom again. I contemplated terminating my Peace Corps service and going home. I was sure I could find a justifiable excuse to allow myself a graceful exit. It was now the third month of teaching and quarterly grades were due in 10 days. All I had managed to teach were two review units. Two review units! My God, I realized looking at their grades. Most of these students couldn't even meet the standards of the previous year's curriculum! How did they manage to pass? I was tempted to flunk them all myself this time around, but what would that accomplish? I looked in dismay at the stack of 25 lesson plans I had diligently prepared during the late night hours of the past two months and realized that I would never implement them.

So I switched strategies. That night I drew up a "No More" list. No more colorful visual aids to catch their attention. No more fancy vocabulary and grammar handouts for them to grab eagerly. No more games and no more prizes. No more school disciplinarian to resolve the ongoing state of classroom crisis, either. My next unit began with the following dialogue.

Teacher: I am angry. I cannot teach because you do not respect me.

Students: No, no, Teacher. Please, Teacher, please.

Teacher: I don't want to teach you. I'm leaving.

Students: No, Teacher, no. Please, Teacher. You see, you don't understand our situation.

Teacher: Well, tell me, just what is your "situation"?

This time the dialogue was theirs to complete and resolve.

Her Students' Perspective

It was Tino and Mando who came and told us that a skinny, sickly white woman had jumped off a bicycle, run into our classroom, and tried to teach them English that morning. Tino and Mando weren't even in our class: They were just sitting there waiting to use the soccer field when she rushed in like the rains. They weren't sure what to say because she looked so strange. Her hair was all falling down, and she wore a dress that looked like an old faded bed covering that one might have bought from a Mauritanian vendor in the used-clothing market. We all walked over to Nito's house and found a few more of our classmates sitting out back drinking frothy tea. We decided, even though school hadn't really started yet, that we'd go the next day to see what this new American teacher looked like. Tino and Mando assured us that she was as ugly as a newly hatched, greedy-eyed vulture.

We knew that practically no one would be at school yet. Most students were still on the farms finishing the harvest, and others were still trying to register and pay their fees. The Ministry had changed the admission rules again. All registrations completed at the end of the last year were now declared invalid, and so we had to wait in line, get new photographs, show our papers, and pay fees all over again—either that, or pay some official to put our names on the list, which actually was much easier than completing the registration process. We listened to the radio broadcasts by the minister at night reminding parents of school and smiled. Everybody knew he sent his children, for good reasons, to the private, elite Portuguese School. Teachers at the public schools never showed up until the third week. Didn't she know that?

As it turned out, we agreed to enter the classroom just when everyone else did. We always say: "Cross the river in a crowd and the crocodile won't eat you." From that first day, she never demanded our respect. She didn't seem to care if we wore our school jackets or not. She didn't write the teaching summary on the board like our other teachers, and she was always in the classroom before the bell rang. That meant we could never stand up and honor her entrance. She should have known not to enter until after the bell rang. And she never took roll call first, as she should have, and so we continued chatting and doing our homework. Of course, by this time, other students had heard about our white woman teacher and were coming by to look at her and watch our class. We couldn't resist joining in the fun. At times, we believed she was serious, for example when she told the students outside class to leave. But where were they supposed to go?

The area in front of her classroom was the designated student recreation area. Instead of ignoring them and us, she berated them with gestures and scolded us in Portuguese. Her Portuguese wasn't bad, but it sounded so amusing when she said "spoiled brats," you just had to laugh. We laughed even harder every time she said "Peace Corps" because in our Kriolu language "Peace Corps" sounds like "body of fish." We called her the "fish-body teacher" after that.

Classes were interesting because they were so confusing. She kept switching her methods, and we were never sure what to expect next. For a while she insisted that the mind equips itself and a teacher must not interfere in the process. She called it "The Silent Way." After "The Silent Way" came "Total Physical Response." We gave actions to everything and pretended to be desks, pencils, and other classroom articles. We contorted our bodies into their defining characteristics and played "What am I?" Then we role-played imaginary dialogues between, for example, two books fighting to get into a book bag at the same time. One day she taught us the song "In the Jungle." We loved that song and still sing it after school when we walk home. No, you couldn't really call her a consistent person, but we all have our little ways. Even so, "a cracked calabash can still be mended." Obviously, she cared about us because she worked so hard to prepare for class.

Most of our teachers were so busy at home or working a second or third job, they often missed class, and when they did show up, they never prepared anything. It's true that we've already learned more English this quarter than we learned all last year.

We always wanted to do more activities and play new games, but she seemed to think we needed to write. Because we didn't have books, she kept demanding that we copy information down on paper. But Guineans are oral people. We learn by talking; we make discoveries by sharing our experiences; and we help others by listening and contributing to conversations. Our history is a collective memory, and we are continually passing our knowledge on to others in our speech. She wanted us to raise our hands, one by one, and then talk individually. That to us seemed artificial and disruptive to the story-telling flow of human conversation. Only wolves howl individually.

She confused us even more by saying pointless things with vigor—"Wake up!" "Discover yourselves!"—or asking questions that had no obvious answers: "Why are you here?" or "What are you going to do?" Then she'd wait with such an intent expression on her face that we'd say almost anything to try to please her. We always enjoyed her facial expressions because they foretold what was soon to follow in speech—anger, joy, disappointment, praise, or contentment. She really should have learned by then how to hide and disguise her reactions in order to suit her goals more effectively, but she didn't seem to care. In some ways, she was just like a child.

We just didn't understand why it was our thinking that needed to change, and never hers. She wore a "bad eye" charm around her neck, so we thought she believed in superstition, but when we asked her, she said she wore it not because she believed in superstition but to show respect and affirmation for our culture. We asked her if that was why foreigners always wanted to buy our ritual masks and initiation staffs, but she didn't respond. She told us we didn't need World Bank handouts and International Monetary Fund debts. What we needed, she said, was to learn how to grow fish. Was she crazy? We need computers, not fish! Balanta women always know where to find fish. "Teacher," we told her, "you will come and go, but we stay here." How could she understand our culture? She had only seen the rains fall once.

After a while, the novelty wore off, and we got tired of even a white woman's ways. It's hard—waking up at daybreak, doing morning chores, and then going to school for five hours without eating breakfast. Her class was during the last hour and we were as hungry as feral street cats by that time. Some of us lived far from school, and if our stepuncle or older cousin-brother told us to go to the market before school, we had no choice. We were forced to run to her class with only a bellyful of worms because we knew she wouldn't listen to our misfortunes even if we arrived two minutes late. It's true! In America, time is money, but here we don't respect time. Time is just now, nothing more.

It wasn't only that we had responsibilities at home that came before school—sometimes we were sick. If we had malaria, we'd put our heads down and sleep. And if we had "runny belly," we'd just run out of class when the cramping started. The dry season was so hot we faded away like morning songbirds. One day she yelled at us. We admit, we weren't cooperating, but people are like that. We forgive each other and just go on. "That's life," we'd tell her. "A log as long as it stays in the water will never become a crocodile." Many things we just accepted as natural and impervious to change, but she considered such an attitude "fatalistic."

Finally, she called the school disciplinarian on us. She should have done that much earlier, in our opinion. We played our roles by allowing him to throw out a few students, because we all knew they'd be back as soon as he got some cashew wine money from them. Anyway, that's the right of elders in our culture, and we're taught in the bush school to abide by the established hierarchical roles. We didn't understand why she apologized after he left, and we couldn't believe it when she undermined his authority by apologizing for his "poisonous pedagogy," as she called it. Like a Guinean woman, she certainly had courage.

Today she did something different again. She came in and wrote a dialogue on the board. She asked questions about the dialogue that made us disagree. We had a lively discussion in English and then got into our groups and began designing some resolutions for the problem presented in the dialogue. We always say, "When the ants unite their mouths, they can carry an elephant."

We know she'll stay, too. We saw it in her eyes.