The Student Becomes the Teacher Becomes the Student

by Scott McAllister

Work is finally picking up. I’ve completed the first of (hopefully) many teacher mentorship programs at my hub school. I decided to kick start the program with my Peace Corps assigned counterpart, Kinfe. In addition to being the school’s only eighth grade English teacher, which means he teaches seven interminable periods a day, he is also my good friend and strongest advocate. But before I delve into the success or failure of this program, I want to give you an outline of how the program is supposed to be organized, that way you can compare the ideal with the real just as I have to do every single day.

The Teacher Mentoring Program (TMP) was designed by a PCV from the first cohort of education sector volunteers to come to Ethiopia nearly two years ago. The TMP is designed to work with teachers of all grade levels; and its objectives are aligned with those of the Ministry of Education here in Ethiopia. Put simply, the TMP is a four-week program that aims to assess and improve a teacher’s pedagogy. To be more specific about its goals, here’s an itemization of the ideal objectives:

  • The PCV will observe the teacher in the classroom; the PCV will collaborate with the teacher to discuss the teacher’s pedagogy and how it can be strengthened.
  • The PCV will teach and co-teach classes with the teacher in order to model active learning methodologies.
  • Teachers will attempt to implement active learning methodologies in their classrooms and will receive feedback from the PCV.
  • The PCV and teacher will collaborate to design an action plan tailored to areas identified as in need of improvement, e.g. classroom management, participation, tardiness, etc.
  • The PCV will provide continuous assessment and support for the teacher through periodical observations, written feedback and formal pedagogical training sessions.
  • The teacher will understand the concept of active learning by the end of the TMP; by the end of the program the teacher will be able to articulate three benefits and three examples of active learning.
  • The teacher will begin a reflective journal; by the end of the program the teacher will be able to articulate three benefits of keeping a reflective journal.

All of these goals are supposed to be achieved within a four-week period. And here’s how.

Week One: In the first week, I observe a teacher inside and outside the classroom to understand their pedagogical style. I take notes during these observations and discuss the classroom lesson objectively with the teacher, using time indicators paired with the students’ or teacher’s actions, such as, ‘For fifteen minutes the teacher reviewed the previous day’s lesson,” or, “One student (male) answered five questions during the class period”. This sort of feedback is designed to help the teacher become more aware of his/her pedagogy in order to foster a more reflective discussion on teaching styles.

Week Two: I teach the class and the teacher observes me. While observing me, the teacher is to keep a reflective journal of objective observations just the same as I did while observing them. After class they share their feedback with me and, together, we work to identify what worked well, what failed, and what differences we saw when active learning methodologies were used. While teaching, I still stick to the content of the teacher’s lesson plan, but I may adapt these lessons if I find them to be unsuitable, e.g. if they are beyond the comprehension level of the students, which, as it turns out, they all too often are. I also involve the teacher in the process of my lesson planning, imparting knowledge about the tenets of active learning methodologies – pre- and post-assessments, motivators, etc. – and how they can be (need to be) inserted into nearly any lesson. Finally, I also work with them to create/find teaching aids and resources.

Week Three: We co-teach during the third week. The focus here is for us to collaborate on the lesson planning. The teacher will continue journaling about this experience and consider what differences the active learning strategies have made in the classroom. During breaks or before/after class, I make an effort to learn more about the teacher’s professional goals and objectives in the context of pedagogy and active learning, that way I can catch a glimpse of how to continue monitoring and evaluation with the teacher once the program is finished.

Week Four: This week is similar to the first. The teacher teaches their class again while I observe. Ideally, I am able to note improvements. Finally, the teacher and I will work together to create an action plan that extends into the rest of the school year. For example, the teacher might identify a gender disparity in participation as a problem they want to solve. Together we will brainstorm techniques for solving the problem. I’ll provide continuous assessment in this endeavor by occasionally revisiting their class throughout the year to monitor progress.

OK. So now you understand the ideal goals of this program. Let me talk about the harsh reality of it.

So the first week was pretty much a breeze. I observed classes, noted some areas that Kinfe could improve upon, and did my best to gauge the comprehension levels of the students. What I found was that Kinfe unflaggingly sticks to the textbook and its inadequate, ofttimes obtuse exercises. I also noticed an incredible disparity in comprehension levels amongst the students. Some could have a short conversation with you in English, while others just stood there blank-faced and dumbfounded when spoken to; some were developing literacy, others were so illiterate as to suggest the presence of some sort of dyslexia; and some would simply use English class as an extra study hall to complete their math homework. Oh, and another thing, each of these English classes had upwards of fifty students, which made classroom management a perpetual tooth and nail struggle.

On the plus side, however, Kinfe did have his class organized into groups. Conventional wisdom holds group work to be one of the best methods of militating against the classroom management problems intrinsic to large, multilevel classes. Getting that right, Kinfe went even further in that direction by assigning a team leader to every group. It was their responsibility to disseminate classroom directions and keep their group on task. But group work can be a double-edged sword in a culture with too much of an affinity for it.

For better or for worse, the culture here is one that, to some extent, sanctions cheating. Such permissiveness is germane to the culture of community-first that prevails here. As a result, Kinfe’s overreliance on group work cultivates cheating. But in an Ethiopian’s eyes it is not cheating per se. It’s helping your friend, being a good neighbor, being selfless. Indeed, to students and teachers alike, allowing someone to copy your work is a merely an extension of Samaritanism, an integral part of being Ethiopian. It’s by no means uncommon to see teachers – yes, teachers! –copy each other’s lesson plans. For me, the wacko American, it’s a practice that’s hard to swallow.

And then there’s corporal punishment to add another lump into your throat. Technically speaking, it’s illegal to hit a student in Ethiopia. But old habits die hard, and all of us education volunteers have had very uncomfortable run-ins with it. I want to say it was the first day I was observing Kinfe, or maybe the second, I don’t know for sure, but I do recall seeing a kid have a piece of chalk thrown at him and hit him square in the face. His offense, you ask? Hell if I know. And there were a few other incidents throughout that first week:  a knuckle spike on the top of the head, a lightning fast backhand to the cheek, and maybe a few other such displays of barbarism that I’ve managed to repress or sublimate by now.

At first I held my tongue, decided to bide my time until the end of the week. I didn’t want to burn a bridge I had spent months building by calling my counterpart out in the middle of his class and in front of all his students. Ethiopia, in some ways, is still very much a shame culture and, based on the experiences recounted by other volunteers, I figured it’d be best to confront him outside the confines of the school during the coming weekend.

And so I did. That Friday at the end of the first week was Nations and Nationalities Day (just one of the many holidays that mottle the Ethiopian calendar here) and so we had a half-day of school. I was on my way out, reeling from the fact that no one so much as mentioned the fact that it was a half-day until half the day was over, when Kinfe and the school director, Abreha, invited me to a café. It was not yet noon so I figured coffee or some tea would be in the offing. It was a holiday, though, and our destination boasted a drink menu consisting solely of beer. What better way to broach the subject of hitting children than over a few brewskies?

Surprisingly enough, my views on corporal punishment went over pretty well. They both readily acknowledged its illegality, that it is ethically abhorrent to hit a child, but they also strove to enlighten me with some cultural knowledge so I could better understand why it continues to happen. Apparently, parents still very much engage in corporal punishment as a means to maintain household discipline. As such, most kids, they argued, respond only to the corporal forms of discipline. I had to admit, they had a point, but a tenuous one at best. They asked me what we did for discipline and punishment in the States and I told them all about suspension, detention, etc. The more we got into it, however, the more I began to realize how untenable most of these Western forms of discipline are here. Take afterschool detention, for example. Teachers here are grossly overworked and underpaid as it is. Some commute an hour to and from work, which makes their every workday a solid two hours longer. Moreover, maintaining the household is more of a full-time job here than in America being that these folks live in a country where clothes are washed by hand, where food is often prepared over a coal fire, and where nearly every other act of domestic upkeep isn’t facilitated by some machine. As such, there aren’t very many teachers eager to volunteer their already strapped time for the oversight of an afterschool detention. Nevertheless, I did manage to have both my counterpart and school director agree to abstain from using corporal punishment so long as I am around. I simply told them that, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am also a representative of the Ethiopian Ministry of Education and, as such, I cannot condone corporal punishment without being obligated to report it.

Shifting to the second week, this is when things got fun. It felt good to be in command of a class and to wow the students with my wildly different teaching methodology. Although I stuck to the content of the teacher’s original lesson plan, I threw out the normal (boring) textbook exercise in favor of activities and games of my own creation that I thought would be more active and engaging. But this was no easy task. If you can grant me a little ego-petting, it does take some out-of-the-box thinking to make learning the past continuous tense any semblance of fun.

Although I can say with some confidence that my teaching was a success, I cannot say the same for the concomitant part of week-two – the part where Kinfe was supposed to start his own reflective journal. No matter how many times I showed him my notes from the first week and impressed upon him the necessity for doing the same, he’d somehow weasel his way out of it. At first he told me he didn’t want to waste the paper in his lesson-planning notebook, so I bought him a small notebook. Then he started saying that it’d be better to just tell me things verbally since he couldn’t write English quick enough to keep up with the pace of my class, so I told him to take notes in Tigrinya. Then, once I thought I had him backed into a corner, he started dipping out of class early because of his so-called social chair obligations. Granted, he was the school’s social chair, which meant he was charged with a whole slew of responsibilities that to this day I am still unclear about, but I nonetheless felt a twinge of betrayal when he’d dip out of my class without so much as a word of apology.

Now for some salt on the wound. An incident happened one day after Kinfe absconded. I had a student up at the board to write down their answer to some exercise question when a commotion from the nearest table whirled me around. A student, a rather diminutive stripling of a boy actually, was flying across the top of a table in the likeness of superman, fists balled up and both arms jutted out overhead. He barreled straight into a shrieking girl like a linebacker from ESPN’s top ten. The two of them crashed to the ground in a jumbled heap, taking two other students with them, and all pandemonium broke loose. Instinctively I raced to the scene and landed on the boy before he could land another blow onto the girl’s face. He had her pinned, her legs flailing helplessly, his arm cocked back for another swing, exposing his armpit like the strap of a backpack, and so I yanked him up off her with one arm like he was nothing more than a dumbbell awaiting a bicep curl. The look on his face – on all of the students’ faces – was priceless, probably because I might have loosed an angry stream of curses during the course of my intervention. Suffice it to say that they knew I was pissed off, and they’ve never seen me angry before. Never have I heard a class that quiet. Hoisting him in the air like I was doing a one-armed shoulder press lockout, I carried his limp, defeated body out of the class, across the school grounds and straight into the principal’s office. The student’s English and my Tigrinya were nowhere near commensurate enough to flesh out what the hell just happened, so I left him with the director to explain himself. I then marched back to the class, found all of the students still frozen in a speechless and thunderstruck state, and approached the girl to see if she was okay. She seemed fine enough, a little shaken up, and so I escorted her to the principal’s office.

I never did find out what the hell happened to cause that ruckus. Who knows? Those kids probably don’t even know. All I know is that that probably wouldn’t have happened if Kinfe was there in the class…

I talked to Kinfe about my disappointments at the end of this second week. I made it clear that if he wanted to participate in this mentorship program that he’d have to do things on my terms, that he’d have to actually be present for the whole mentoring part of it to work. I told him that I wouldn’t tolerate any more shirking of responsibility. If he had questions, he could ask; if he had other obligations, he’d better explain them. Judging from the hangdog look that he lugged around for the rest of the day, I assumed he damn well got the message.

Then came the co-teaching, which went well until Kinfe’s father got sick. It was a Wednesday, lunch time, we were lesson planning over a meal, mixing business with pleasure, fine tuning the morning lessons for the upcoming afternoon ones, when Kinfe received the phone call. I couldn’t understand much of anything with that rapid-fire Tigrinya they get to using, but I could see this shroud of concern descend like a storm cloud down onto his face. Despite his usual stoicism, his mien was unable to belie the fact that he just learned about some calamity befalling a loved one. Call finished, with tears welling up and a quiver in his voice, he asked me for permission to take a short leave from our business lunch. Ever the sucker for an older man one the verge of tears, I obliged and remained behind to wonder what could have happened.

When Kinfe came back inside the restaurant I asked what the matter was. I learned that his father most likely suffered a heart attack, and that he was in critical condition in a hospital in Wukro, a town about an hour outside of Mek’ele. What shocked me most, however, was that Kinfe didn’t come right out and say he’d be leaving for the day to go visit his (possibly) dying father. Instead, he said he’d remain with me to teach for the remainder of the day, that he could make the trip tomorrow, so long as it was alright with me.


I couldn’t fathom why he wouldn’t go, why he wasn’t rushing out that door right that minute. I urged him to go, to go now, but he resisted with protestations about the importance of our having to complete this week of the mentorship program uninterrupted. Our little talk from the previous week obviously left its mark, and now I was feeling guilty for perhaps having overdone it. So I continued urging him to go. His immediate concern, though, had to do with who would teach the kids for the remainder of the week if he had to overnight in Wukro. As mystified by his commitment as I was, it was nevertheless quite obvious that his true desire was to go and be with his family. He was perhaps feeling a little guilty for letting me down the previous week and was trying to make up for it with this show of deference and commitment. I told him that I could fill in for him, that he could take the rest of the week off if he wanted, and with that his eyes lit up with the realization that he was off the hook, forgiven, free to go and be with his family.

That moment revealed to me the truth of Kinfe’s dedication to my being a volunteer here in Ethiopia. There will always be misunderstandings between people of different cultures and upbringings. The differences – no matter how superficial they may be from a scholarly, anthropological viewpoint – can all too easily open rifts in a relationship. Friendship can be lost in that abyss, swallowed up by pride and stubbornness. Indignation and spite can race to fill the vacuum left behind, and so it is that self-righteousness comes to bests the better, more humane parts of human nature. It takes a shock, a truly visceral display of humanity to mend what was broken. In our case, it was Kinfe’s dedication to the success of the mentorship program. He proved that what always remains are the universals, the core values that all of us humans share in common, regardless of culture or language. Integrity and respect are two of these, and they stand as a testament to our friendship.