Friday, January 4, 2008

Happy 2008

Here I am, in January already. It is a new year… it’s strange to think that I’ll be here in Africa for this entire year... School is still on break, and I am back in Basse, after a short trip back to Fatoto to see my family and gather a few things to work on here while I’m waiting for pay day (which should have been at the end of December… but oh well…). Also, Josiah should be coming to visit later today, so I wanted to stick around and catch up with him a bit. Our Christmas Terdukin was very successful. I did not get to help with the slaughtering and de-feathering of the birds, but I did get the interesting job of de-boning the duck and helping to put the entire thing together. The finished product was delicious! We also had garlic potatoes, fruit salad, salad, stuffing, and various sweet things. I helped make a rice-pudding type thing that had pumpkin in it… it was no pumpkin pie, but it was good. The transit house was decorated with Christmas ornaments, we listened to Christmas music… it was as close to Christmas in Africa as we could get (even though it was especially hot that day… possibly in the 90’s).

For New Years Eve, we did a “tour” of different Basse establishments. Daniele, one of my Basse PC friends, had received a box of glow bracelets from America, which she gave to me as a Christmas gift because I had told her once that I love glow sticks… so I brought these along and handed them out to everyone in our group. As if the toubabs don’t stand out enough already, now we were glowing toubabs! But the Gambians loved them as well… we ended up sharing them with various characters we met along the way (and we did meet some interesting characters!). The retired VSO couple from England, David and Sarah, joined us as well. We had a fun night. On the last stop of our Basse tour, we ended up at a place called “Mike’s”. The owner had put up a bunch of balloons and bought a bunch of fireworks. At 12:00, he set off the fireworks… some of which were set off inside the building, and some outside… I found myself running for cover more than once. Gambians and fireworks… it’s a good thing New Years only happens once a year!

Now that I’ve had my little “vacation,” I’m looking forward to getting back to school. Looking back on the semester, I feel as if I’ve learned quite a bit about working in a Gambian school that I didn’t know before. For example, I learned that I can’t count all the school days as “learning days.” Between the various last-minute holidays and the “cleaning days,” It seems that I have even less time than I thought to teach my students all of the information they are required to learn for the WASSCE (West African Senior Secondary Certification Exam) . So I’m going to start offering classes after school to my 12th graders who want to catch up on WASSCE material. I’m afraid I’m still not going to have time to cover it all, but I’ll do the best I can. I’ve also learned that I desperately need more resources to teach from. So if anyone is thinking of sending school-related materials, any sort of resource materials would be helpful. Especially text books (Chemistry, Physics, and Biology).

Before the end of the term, my grade 12 students took “practice” WASSCE exams in all of the subjects. Unfortunately, the school is not intending for these tests to be for practice alone. The school wants to use these test results to determine whether the students will be allowed to take the WASSCE at the end of the year… If they didn’t pass at least 3 out of the 7 subjects, they cannot take the WASSCE and will have to repeat grade 12. The problems with this scenario are numerous… for starters, the students haven’t even finished grade 12 yet… they still have more material to learn. Also, they were lacking a science teacher for a large portion of grades 10 and 11, so they are missing more material than they should be. Not to mention the fact… and I’ve probably said this before, but I’ll say it again… that the information these students are expected to learn is not realistic for the time spent in the classroom and the resources provided to Gambian students. Here are some statistics:

West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examination, WASSCE 2006

6358 candidates did 9 subjects

25 candidates got credits in 9 subjects 0.4%

66 candidates got credits in 8 subjects 1.0%

71 candidates got credits in 7 subjects 1.1%

158 candidates got credits in 6 subjects 2.5%

210 candidates got credits in 5 subjects 3.3%

(This totals to 8.3% who got credits in 5 subjects or more)

3239 candidates got credits in 0 subjects 50%

To explain these results a bit further, “getting credits” means achieving a score of 50% or higher. “passing” is a 40%. Also, these results are from those students who tested in 9 subjects… my students only have 7 subjects, due to lack of teachers (which is another whole problem in itself)

When my students took their “practice” WASSCE tests, 10 out of 41 of them did not obtain at least a 40% or higher on at least 3 out of the 7 tests. These students have now been told that they cannot sit through the WASSCE this year. They will have to repeat grade 12. At least two of my students have told me that they may not return to school at the beginning of second term… or maybe not at all. Furthermore, many of the students are discouraged by the tests themselves now… while this may provide the needed motivation for some of them to study harder… others are saying “what’s the point? I’ll never learn all of this information in the next 2 terms anyways.” And perhaps the most difficult part for me is that I just do not know all of the information they need to learn well enough to teach it… and the few resources I have are only slightly helpful… oh what I wouldn’t give to have internet in Fatoto! After they took the WASSCE tests, I was given a copy of the test without an answer key and told to grade them…. But I had to find the answers myself first. I have to say, that task may perhaps be the most frustrating experience I’ve been through so far. How can I expect these kids to know this stuff if I don’t even know it some of it myself? And the hours I spent pouring through my resources only helped a little. In the end, I had to ask another teacher about a few of the questions… he is the science teacher for grades 7 and 8, and is not a qualified teacher. In fact, the only qualification he has is passing the WASSCE exams… we just really needed the teachers. But he’s young, so it wasn’t that long ago that he took these exams himself… and passed… so although I felt like he might have been guessing himself on some of the answers, I trusted his “guessing skills” better than mine. So this is how my students were scored in the end… Fair? Hardly, I would say.

The science teacher I just mentioned is one of three unqualified teachers that we have at our school. And keep in mind, my school is an Upper Basic School (grades 7 thru 9) as well as a Senior Secondary School (grades 10 -12). The teachers consist of the following: Two qualified teachers (which means they have been trained to be teachers), three unqualified teachers (they have finished Senior Secondary School and have passed the WASSCE in the subjects they are teaching), and three volunteers… myself, and two Nigerians volunteers who are both teaching Mathematics. The vice-principal has a load of classes that exceeds any of the other teachers, and the principal helps with teaching as well. Since teachers are appointed to their posts by the government… it is the districts like mine that are hurting the most for teachers. We were supposed to get more teachers than this, but they just didn’t show up. They didn’t want to leave their families and travel as far away as Fatoto to teach for the measly amount of pay that they would be receiving. This is why we have been given special permission to hire non-qualified teachers. We desperately need the help… and these poor unqualified teachers work very hard for very little money. One unqualified teacher who is teaching just grades 7 and 8 told me that he makes less than 700 dalasi a month. (700D is about $28). If he teaches both the Upper Basic and the Senior Secondary students next term, his pay will increase to just under 1000D a month (1000D is about $40). It also means he would be double-shifting, or working the morning shift (8:00 to 1:30) as well as the afternoon shift (2:00- 6:00). The qualified teachers make much more than this, but not much… I don’t know the exact amount, but I think it’s somewhere between 2000D and 4000D depending on experience and positions if they are teaching at the Senior Secondary level. It’s much less for the lower basic schools.

These are the things I have to remind myself of when I begin to get frustrated with things like the WASSCE… of course the students don’t know the information. They don’t even have text books for things like science… but even if they did… they may be missing teachers too. Despite the odds, there are still those special individuals who are working very hard to improve the quality of education for students here in The Gambia. I can give two examples of teachers at my school (I am hesitant to list their names because I have not asked their permission to do so)… these two teachers have been posted to Fatoto for the past two years. Not only have they shown up to their post in Fatoto while their families are in Banjul and the surrounding areas, but they are both double-shifting and teaching multiple subjects to students at the school to make up for the lack of teachers. They also lead after-school clubs, Saturday school for students who have to take tests at the end of the year (grades 9 and 12), and help in administrative tasks (we are also lacking some administrative and clerical employees)… I never hear them complain. They work all morning, then the second shift in the afternoon, then the clubs and organizations after school, then go home to grade papers, etc… then they do it all again the next day. The only time they see their families is when they have enough holiday time to travel, (unlike some teachers I’ve seen who leave their students in the middle of a term just to do a bit of traveling… another reason why students aren’t getting as much classroom time as they need). One of my greatest wishes is that the government could recognize the teachers like this and reward them… with much, much more money than they are currently making… it would keep these teachers in the profession (The Gambia looses hundreds of good teachers every year who leave the profession due to long hours and poor pay), but it would also justify the travel that these teachers are required to do for their jobs as well as inspire good teachers to come into the profession.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for me as a Peace Corps Volunteer is that the most simple solutions to the problems are the ones I can do nothing about… all I can do is what I am doing: Work with what I have and try to take small steps. Luckily for me, I am not alone in my aspirations, and for every frustrating experience I come across, there is also an inspiring story to go along with it… I hope to spend more time on some of these stories in the future…

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