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Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

My Second Year in the Peace Corps

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I wrote this blog post back in October at the beginning of the school year, but somewhere along the way failed to post it. It may have lost some of its relevancy, but seeing as how tomorrow is the end of Christmas vacation and the beginning of our second trimester, I thought I would go ahead and finally publish it, for whatever it may now stand for. It’s crazy to think that I only have 8 months left in Madagascar, and what the older volunteers have said in the past is definitely true: the second year is much easier, and passes so much quicker!

I am simultaneously dreading and excited for the upcoming school year that we began at the beginning of October. The dread stems from memories of last year, yelling at children to be quiet, and growing frustrated at not being able to communicate properly with my pre-intermediate level English students, and the thought that I have to do it all over again. Excitement shortly follows when I realize that I can explain myself significantly better and really believe I can do all of that better. As they told us in our Peace Corps training, “it’s a new job. You won’t be good at it immediately.” So much learning on the job, getting better through trial and repeat, occurs as a teacher.

What they didn’t tell us is that native English speakers tend to have a much higher learning curve for teaching English, according to an academic study which sought to answer “is it better to have a native-speaking teacher or an experienced one?” For starters, native-speakers tend to make more use of real English media (songs, magazine articles, radio clips, etc.), as opposed to the stuff textbooks provide, in the classroom. Ultimately, it is better for our students to grow accustomed to real-life usages of English than poised, polite, and often cheesy textbook dialogues. Additionally, we correct our mistakes quickly, and possibly because we aren’t concerned with how well we speak English, can focus more on our teaching techniques. Again, most new English teachers, especially the ones who have gotten hired with no teaching experience but solely based on their fluency in the language, realize their shortcomings and are anxious about compensating and becoming good teachers.

While their defense of the inexperienced, native-speaker oozes reassurance for our sorry lot, my one year of experience feels like my strongest armor against in-class riots and blank stares – especially since my Malagasy has improved tremendously and their level is too low for me to expect a class of 60+ students to pay attention without using their native language.

As for results, I have only been teaching for two weeks now, but have already taught them more in six hours of lessons than I probably accomplished in the whole first trimester last year. For starters, I have gotten over my shy-kid-loathing for singing in public (since songs engage students while giving large classes an opportunity to practice speaking and pronunciation without getting too rowdy) and taught my kids “Hello, Goodbye” by the Beatles. Lots of giggling was involved. Now I sometimes catch one or two singing it while we copy things from the board, and do something that was also rare this time last year: smile.

Photo: (1) Two girls who came out of the bushes to chat while I was hanging out at a waterfall in Ile Sainte Marie; the older one complained about how terrible her English teacher was!

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

My Peace Corps House is a Middle School

neighbor

In the late night cover of darkness, I wander out to the naked goal post in the school’s field. The gates are locked up, the lights turned off, and blissfully, all the schoolchildren have gone home. The grounds have become nothing more than a cluster of sealed off, dark and empty buildings. I jump up to hang from the goal post, emulating the teenage boys that monkey around on it between classes. I try to do a pull-up, and fail. Suddenly the thought occurs to me: I’m the odd, unmarried schoolteacher from out-of-town living in a little house on the school compound; the teacher I read about in historical fiction novels about small towns with one-room schoolhouses in pre-industrialized America. The thought depresses me as I retreat to the pink doll-house I call home, and read myself to sleep.

Among Madagascar’s education PCVs, living on the school compound, often in an old classroom, isn’t all that unusual. I feel lucky to have a house separate from the building itself, but for whatever other problems it saves me, I still wake up to the sound of hundreds of screaming, laughing children, boys banging coins on the metal goal post, and the obnoxious drumming out of beats on wooden desks. I forever remain both impressed and horrified that these kids can make their voices sound so ugly, with a guttural shout I lack sufficient words to describe. In these moments, at precisely 7:00am, 9:00am, and 3:30pm each day, the nightmares of being trapped in a room with my overly-energetic little brother, age 11, come rushing back. Sitting though these breaks make me feel as though I’m living with 200 duplicates of his 11-year-old self, only this time I can’t shout “seriously, would you STOP that?!?”

To add to the terror, every once in awhile a stampede of children storm through my front gate on the pretext of cleaning the school compound. My first warning arrives in a deadly silence broken by a roar of shouts as assembly disperses. It is quickly followed by the pattering of kids running to fetch brooms, flip-flops slapping against their feet. I know what’s coming and rush to close up my doors and windows before I hear the ubiquitous slap-slap of my wooden gate. “My god, I’m under attack! Quick, get out of here!” I think. I know cleaning my backyard area is a part of cleaning the school – and we all know I’m not going to sweep up a yard full of dirt – but I hate being the subject of my students’ curiosity, hate that if I leave a door or window open they seize the opportunity to peer in (once while I was changing), and hate that they steal the unripe peaches off my tree in peach season. In this arrangement, the idea of keeping professional and personal lives separate falls apart. Or maybe, it never existed?

Living on a school compound is stressful at breaks, eerily quiet on Sundays and at night (although the architecture of Malagasy schools thankfully lack the quintessentially creepy high-school hallway popular in 80s slasher films), yet convenient on the odd morning I oversleep before class. I don’t think I’ll ever quite be used to the constant chatter of children, the bats that live in our rafters, or half a dozen students saying “hello teacher!” while I make my way across the yard from front door to “toilet” (it hardly deserves the title), but such are the challenges Peace Corps throws at us.

Photo: My neighbor’s son; the school is his playground.