How to Succeed in English

By Jon Thomas
Oct. 5, 2019

As he stood in front of his classmates, a proud smile stretched across Aaron’s face.

He had just graduated at the top of his form (grade) in the subject of English. However, Aaron was not always so confident in his English skills. He had put countless hours into tutoring, many early mornings and late nights journeying from his home to the school campus, and an ample amount of effort into challenging himself.

Upon noticing his success, Aaron’s classmates eagerly began to seek me out after school for tutoring and extra help. Additionally, attendance on library days at the school noticeably increased. Most importantly, more of our students began to find confidence to speak at morning assemblies and in class.

Students sit at desks looking at the blackboard in a classroom
A look into Jon's classroom

On Malawi’s Northern Lakeshore, community members speak one of Malawi’s minority languages, Chitumbuka. However, the first few years of primary school are taught in the vernacular of Chichewa. After this, classes are taught in English. This means that many students in the Northern Region learn three languages before finishing high school. This can be a huge barrier for some students who may not be naturals at language learning.

So, some of these students, such as Aaron, came to me after school to request additional help. Aaron was extremely motivated. You could tell he was dedicated to those extra sessions as he would come to me after class every Wednesday for English tutoring and then spend extra time in the library studying on Thursdays.

Soon after I began tutoring him, I realized that Aaron, like many of my other students, lived several kilometers away from school. He would walk long distances to receive this extra help. I was shocked and impressed by his work ethic. Each day Aaron came to school determined to face any challenge with perseverance and persistence. He also learned how to speak up and use his voice to inspire others. Previously, teachers struggled to find students who were willing to speak during the morning assembly at our school. But, with the extra time that Aaron put into his studies, he began to courageously volunteer to give motivational speeches in English.

What Aaron, as well as my other students taught me during my first year of service was that finishing school in Malawi is challenging for students. Students often have to wake up very early and walk far distances to get to class. In some schools in Malawi, classrooms can be overcrowded, and, in extreme situations, there may not be enough desks for all students. Many students also face pressure from their families and peers to spend more time supporting their family financially than studying and investing in their schooling.

However, these challenges did not end with the students; many teachers in Malawi face barriers in their jobs as well. Fulfilling the role of a Secondary English Educator proved to be a more challenging task than I had first thought. In the classroom, I had to learn to teach large class sizes with limited resources and language barriers.

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Jon teaching in the school library

At points during my service, it has proved difficult for me as well to maintain motivation at times. In the classroom, encouraging students to speak up in class became a demanding task. They often feared that their fellow classmates would laugh at them if they didn’t give the correct answer. I saw students drop out of school due to family obligations or lack of funds for materials or school fees. I felt discouraged to see students with huge potential become complacent because of their circumstances.

When I first arrived at my community as a fairly new High School English teacher, I didn’t know what to expect. What I did know was that I wanted to use my service to spark inspiration in my students and in the youth in the community I would live in for two years.

What I didn’t know during those first few difficult months was that among all of the barriers to education, it would in fact be my own students who would inspire me to keep pushing through. The students who work so hard to overcome challenges in the education system serve as excellent examples of determination and motivation and encourage me to overcome my own personal challenges. In my opinion, there is nothing more encouraging to a teacher than seeing students, such as Aaron, exemplify what it looks like to do more than is required in order to truly succeed and achieve.

Jon looks down at a camera as another Volunteer points at it

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