Teaching English is Hard

When the teacher walked in through the front door, the students in a second level high school English class all stood up, all reciting, “Good morning, sir.” As an observing student-teacher, I, too, do the same. This particular action has reminded me of my elementary education in Vietnam, among many other cultural similarities that are influences of French colonization. This classroom, however, showed me a much different side of Senegal – one that demonstrate the lack of emphasis on a formal education by the national government in rural regions as it rather pushes its youth to enter the workforce than to provide the necessary resources to increase enrollment in higher education.
The quality of education here varies vastly between the different regions of Senegal, and I have been researching about the differences between an education in Dakar, the capital city, versus one in Kédougou, the region furthest Southeastern of Senegal that I am currently living and working in. Throughout my time here so far, I am often frustrated by what I have observed, seeing the way how educators, including parents and teachers, and students view the importance of education. Furthermore, living with an educated family within a poverty-ridden region, I directly see and feel the impacts of the disparities between my host siblings and the students that I co-teach.
First, I want to talk about the students. On my first day of class, I was met with a surprise that many of the students that I am teaching are of the same age or even older than I am. These students, as I was told, have been studying English for four to five years. With that in mind, I was a bit at ease as classes are taught in French and my French skills are practically non-existent. Again, however, I was surprised when I interacted directly with the students and came to know that many students do not speak English beyond basic greetings, even with years of training. In class, we are still reviewing simple present, past, and future tenses because students are not remembering how to conjugate irregular verbs, which are often important conversational words such as to be, to do, to buy, to go and more. Asking the class representative about this dilemma, I learned that though they already speak multiple languages of French and several native tongues, they view English as a difficult language and they do not have the resources at school and at home to be able to practice speaking and writing, two essential components in mastering a language. From my uncle who studied English at a university in Dakar, he said that he didn’t even learn the alphabet until he graduated from high school and learned how to accurately pronounce words by studying the different phonetic sounds instead of memorizing pronunciation word by word, which is what I have been tasked to keep repeating words over and over again in teaching vocabulary in hopes that the students would somehow remember.
Not only that students don’t have the motivation to learn, teachers are also to blame in Kédougou because they often do not want to be here. Interviewing a teacher at my school, I learned that teachers are posted to Kédougou as not many people who has gotten an education want to live here. On several cases, many would-be teachers who got posted in the region would just flat out abandon the job rather than moving here. Without enough adequately trained teachers available, many schools in rural regions often have English teachers that do not speak English at all, as in the case of my friend’s school in Mako, another village in the Kédougou region. Furthermore, those that do take on the job are not enthusiastic about providing instruction for the students to actually learn instead of forgetting what they are studying every day.
The combination of both unmotivated students and teachers have contributed to the high drop-out rates in the region, leading to an increase of enrollment in the main technical school in the region that teaches skills in tailoring, car and motorcycle mechanics, construction, and agricultural techniques. The kids who work at my tailor shop, Yaya (age 15, pictured below), Wuro (age 13), and Mousa (age 13), have all dropped out of school to learn how to tailor as their life career. Even with a university education, they said, jobs in more professional fields are scarce, even in the main economic hub of capital city.
As the Senegalese government is often nicknamed the government of Dakar, there is a growing frustration that the government is unable to diversify educational resources across all regions of the developing nation. While the problems that I have observed frustrate me, I have no choice but to sit back as I don’t have the answers to these problems that are institutionalized by the government and culture of the region. Without a college education, I am unable to navigate through the complex structure of society here and thus I cannot come up with sustainable solutions to fix the alarming rates of how many students drop-out to attend technical school. In the words of staff members at Alexander Hamilton Scholars that has helped me through this proess, though I can only observe for now, I will be able to take my experiences to college and take advantages of my coursework in the best way possible so that in the future, I’ll be equipped to navigate the nuanced world of global development work.
P.S. Though the Senegalese education system faces many challenges, there are also many pros about going to school here. As I got the chance to converse with several students in Pulaar and fragmented bits of English and French, I asked them about their dreams for the future. Each of them had their own career goals such as being politicians and business owners or just to one day travel the world. In class, the main teacher and I would discuss many current event topics, ranging from Brexit to COP22 to Middle East conflicts to the historic election of the United States. Even the kids that I work with in my tailor shop express huge amounts of curiosity in learning other languages such as English and Spanish with the hopes of someday getting enough money from working to go to school again. Students here want to gain more knowledge and create change in the systems that block their advancements in society today. As they say it in Pulaar, the changes to the broken systems here will only change seeda seeda, or little by little, as more people demand for more resources to gain access to a better quality of education.