Classroom Personalities

When you begin teaching, you may quickly realize how each of your classes becomes a small community. As each class develops their own individual personalities and quirks, you too must develop a certain way of interacting with them. John, a WorldTeach Rwanda volunteer, recounts the traits of his individual classes as he prepares to say goodbye to them.

As the end nears and I begin to contemplate my final week of teaching in Rwanda and thus prepare a highly awkward and blabbering goodbye speech to my students (which will no doubt be met with blank stares and silence!) I feel it may be a good time to provide you with a little evaluation of each of my four classes. We’ll start with the youngest and therefore the loudest.

Senior 1

What can I say about these little rascals?! Embarking upon their first year in a Rwandan secondary school, they’re full of the excitement, trepidation and naivety that greets any child when beginning life in a ‘grown-up’ school having left the safety and security of the primary years. Add to that the fact they’re now enrolled in a boarding school and therefore for months at a time their new guardians/mother figures are Catholic nuns and they’ll spend their days, evenings and weekends praying, washing floors, fetching water, praying, debating, playing sport and praying. To make matters worse, just days into this bewildering and daunting new experience, into their classroom walks a strange, tall, white teacher in a tie clutching a notepad and a small box of chalk who claims he’s here to teach them a brand new subject entitled ‘Entrepreneurship’. A recipe for disaster. I feel I’ve managed to avert an actual disaster but at times it has felt as if we’re all hurtling towards the rocks leaving nothing but an unsalvageable wreck! Senior 1 has proved to be an undulating teaching experience with bouts of immense triumph and total misery in equal measure. The age range of the class is fairly broad. There are a few students who fit the senior 1 image perfectly. Tiny, nervous-looking souls who peer at you with eyes that say ‘help, I don’t know where I am’! There’s a boy who fits this description perfectly and I’m not sure I’ve heard him speak all year. These students are in the 12-13 age group I imagine. After this it’s difficult to put an age to many members of the class. There are a couple who rival me in height and I generally think that a handful of the students may well be in the 16-17 age group. I only actually teach this class for two fifty minute periods each week so in general I don’t know nearly as much about them as my other classes but nevertheless I’m still fond of them, even though they’ve driven me to near insanity at times.

The main problem I’ve experienced with Senior 1 is maintaining their interest for any extended period (i.e. beyond five minutes!). Entrepreneurship clearly isn’t a strong priority for them and why should it be? They seem more interested in shooting paper at each other through the end of a pen, passing notes across the room, sleeping and having their own little discussions which I strongly doubt revolve around the benefits of savings or the legal obligations of a trader. According to the curriculum I have to teach them about commerce, banks, ‘supply and demand’, buying and selling goods (including the use of order forms, invoices, delivery notes, receipts, etc), trading and other such interesting topics. Don’t get me wrong, all of these will potentially be of use to them in the future, it’s just a mission endeavouring to convince them of this in the present. So, in short, teaching them entrepreneurship is in all honesty a nightmare! It got particularly bad a couple of weeks back as I attempted to explain the notes on the board and it dawned on me I was wasting my breath. So, in the next lesson I spent the entire fifty minute period writing the notes on the board whilst saying absolutely nothing. At the end I asked them if they understood the notes and if there were any questions. When two or three hands went up I exclaimed, ‘too bad, if you don’t want to listen to the explanations I give I won’t answer your questions’. They were silent for the first time in fifty minutes. One girl appealed to my good nature, ‘Teacher, forgive us’, she pleaded. I told them we’d see how the next lesson went. The following Monday I began the lesson, wrote a few notes on the board and as I stood there with my back to them writing on the blackboard it suddenly occurred to me...you could hear a pin drop! I couldn’t help smirking to myself but as I turned around and they sat there scribbling away in near silence it felt a little strange. They’d lost their character. I felt like I’d destroyed their spirit and it unnerved me. At the end I congratulated them on their much improved behaviour and rewarded them with a five minute Q+A session. This is generally the only time I ever get the whole class listening at the same time as I let them ask me anything they want. As a class they’re pretty good at this as they’re an inquisitive bunch. Their favourite topic is generally family and more specifically, Jack, the border collie. In summary, if I’m honest, I probably won’t miss teaching entrepreneurship to Senior 1 but I will most certainly miss them as people. They frequently make me laugh (often unintentionally) and their hearts are in the right place. When I described my ant and wasp problems to them they offered to come to my house at the weekend and battle the intruders on my behalf. That’s loyalty!

Senior 4 EKK (English, Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili)

The first of my two senior 4 classes, 4EKK, are linguists. Their core three subjects are languages (as stated above), supplemented by various other courses, including, needless to say , Entrepreneurship. Now, 4EKK have been an interesting class and it feels as if we’ve spent a year acclimatising to each other. I would equate our relationship to that of maybe the British public and ‘The One Show’. We were suspicious of each other at first. Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley were new faces on our screens and their regional accents were out of place for a primetime slot on BBC1. We weren’t sure of their motives, who are they, what do they want from us and why are their faces being beamed into our living rooms every evening?! However, in time the union has blossomed into one of general ease, calm and reassurance. 4EKK were a tough nut to crack. For the first two terms I stood before them never quite knowing if they understood anything I said or whether they cared. A huge portion of the class sat, expressionless, devoid of all familiarity with me, their teacher. A handful would offer me something; a question here, a smile there, but generally I struggled to extract a modicum of emotion from the vast majority. Apologies if this sounds weird and I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I felt as if I was a particularly out of touch father, trying his best to be trendy and ‘down with the kids’ but failing miserably! Everything I threw at them was met with blank faces, rolls of the eyes and colossal disinterest. In my head they were firmly adjudged to be my least favourite class and I came close at times to vaguely dreading our time together. It wasn’t meant to be like this I worried. We somehow muddled through two terms though and then at the start of term three the ice just seemed to melt, like the emergence of Spring, our relationship blossomed like a beautiful golden daffodil...well, not quite, but it vastly improved. I believe it was due to a number of factors but predominantly it came about due to a change in my outlook. In my mind I had come through the first two terms unscathed and in entering the third and final term I developed a more relaxed and composed persona in the classroom. The pressure of having to be a serious and dedicated Entrepreneurship teacher seemed to lift off my shoulders and I’ve spent more time just conversing with my students about anything and everything. If a thought comes into my head I generally just put it out there for them to respond and they seem to enjoy this. In one lesson we discussed why I’m not a fan of hip-hop music, in another we delved deep into politics and the legacy of colonialism and at one point two students became a little heated over whether Colonel Kaddafi of Libya is the figurehead of Africa or a terrorist! In one bizarre episode we discussed the possibility that most of Westlife are in fact deceased as a student was adamant they are. I informed him that all the members of Westlife were still alive and very much kicking when I left the UK back in December and unless there had been a tragic boy band-related disaster since I’d been away I believed it remained that way. He was sceptical though and went on to tell me that the members of ‘Blue’ were also no longer with us! Just this week we spent around forty minutes discussing cats and dogs and their role as family pets. I actually perhaps went a bit too far when we were got onto the subject of names. They know our dog back home is called Jack so they asked me if all dogs in the UK are assigned human names. I told them that we can call our pets anything we choose and went on to say that if I wanted to call my dog ‘Paul Kagame’ (the President of Rwanda) I could. Some sniggered, others said nothing, a few students gasped. There’s clearly a line and I’d just put one giant foot over it! I’m waiting for a knock at my door in the middle of the night and a request to explain my comments.

Senior 4EKK are also the class that like to test me. It doesn’t matter what I teach them, they always seem to have a question which is supposed to make me squirm and I believe they’re waiting for me to one day crack and fall before them , on my knees, a sobbing mess, and reveal all. They want me to come clean and admit that I’m most definitely not a qualified entrepreneurship teacher and that this has all been a sham! They’re like a team of detectives interrogating me, relentlessly probing me with questions designed to build the evidence to form a case that will uncover my facade and they’ve got their two best men on the case. Remy and Jean Damascene. Both are very likeable students, polite, interested, conscientious and very personable. However, both are skilled in the practice of vigorously testing the teacher. Jean Damascene has a very methodical approach to his cross-examining. He rises from his desk carefully, avoiding any unnecessary noise. He straightens himself, hands by his side and clears his throat. He exclaims, ‘Teacher’ and then BHAM!!!! There it is, a question which I have no hope of answering unless I’d spent three years studying advanced economics or my father had been Robert Peston. The class fall silent, I mumble something loosely related to the subject in question and then, with an air of finality, enquire, ‘Ok?’ and I’m usually greeted with blank faces and silence, and then we move on. But not before a girl in the front row jots something in her notebook...probably more evidence to be added to the ‘Our teacher is a fraud’ file. The other chief interrogator is Remy. He adopts a more light-hearted approach, I think it’s his way of lulling me into a relaxed state and a false sense of security. He too is an expert in his field. He rises from his chair with a grin on his face and unlike his partner he slouches and at times I often think he looks a bit like Detective Colombo as he raises his hand indicating he’s about to request an answer to a monumental conundrum. And then, he speaks the words which strike fear direct into my heart...’Teacher...I wonder...’. What follows is usually some kind of bizarre scenario he’s thought up in his head and he wants me to either endorse or reject the possibility of such a situation occurring. I like Remy a lot, he’s a really nice guy but sometimes I just want to shout, ‘Remy, for the love of God, please stop wondering!!!’ However, I feel if he did stop wondering it would make my life a lot easier yet somehow less interesting! In summary 4EKK are a great class to teach, even though we spent two-thirds of the year getting over our suspicions of each other. They’ve gone from being my least favourite class to quite possibly my most enjoyable class, and for this reason, I’ll miss them.

Senior 4 HEG (History, Economics and Geography)

The second of my senior 4 classes, 4HEG, are social scientists. Their three core subjects are History, Economics and Geography. Their ages range from around 16-23, which is very similar to 4EKK. My relationship with this class has practically been the exact opposite of that with 4EKK. For the first two or three months they were my favourite class but in this final term something seems to have changed. Maybe they’re sick of my terrible jokes, which are terrible to an English ear let alone a Rwandan trying to understand English! Maybe they’re a step ahead of 4EKK and they have conclusive evidence of my fraud status. Or maybe they’re just sick to death of Entrepreneurship. I’m really not sure what has happened but in the past few weeks I’ve found their lessons a little tough. They were a lot more open it seemed during the first two terms. They’re a bright bunch but the language barrier can be a problem. They have just one unit of English each week which doesn’t seem nearly enough considering their whole instruction is given in English. I feel many students throughout the school just copy the notes they’re given without in fact grasping what they actually mean, but as long as they can regurgitate them on their exam papers at the end of term their marks will be good. It’s a system which needs work as it prohibits independent thought and opinion and drastically restricts critical thinking.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to give you a bad impression of 4HEG. They’re a pleasant class to teach. Polite, well-mannered and extremely friendly. There’s a girl who sits in the front row who has a belching problem but it seems everyone has accepted it so I make no attempts to quell it! Another student has his heart set on being a famous hip-hop star and often wanders around school freestyle rapping to himself. He very generously gave me some of his music and although it wasn’t my cup of tea I’m certainly no expert in this field of music so my opinion is irrelevant. There’s another girl who very rarely displays any emotion and looks as if she would still be disappointed even if I walked into the classroom, presented her with a blank cheque, informed her Ben Fogle wanted her hand in marriage and that BeyoncĂ© needed her to appear in her next music video. I often feel my greatest achievement here in Rwanda is getting this one girl to crack a smile. I know I shouldn’t have any favourites but there’s one student in this class who I’m particularly fond of. Arsene always gets top marks and understands almost everything I say. That of course is not a major factor though. It’s more to do with his unrelenting jovial demeanour. He never fails to have a smile on his face and he’s always quick to step in to salvage a potentially disastrous situation. He’s curious and forthcoming and I can see that if he pushes himself he has the potential to go far. In many ways it’s a privilege to teach at this school as so many of the students have enormous capabilities and it’s uplifting to believe they have the potential to play a significant role in Rwanda’s future. One of the major redeeming factors of 4HEG is their love of football and more specifically their keen interest in Argyle. They’re adept at displaying the correct emotions if I tell them Argyle have won or lost at the weekend and they seem to have abandoned the idea that I should possibly choose another team! Overall 4HEG have been a nice class to teach. I feel they’ve generally enjoyed my presence, rather than my teaching and I’m sure I’ll keep in touch with a few of them. One student even proposed to accompany me to the airport when I leave. It’s difficult to know what to make of this offer...do they want to be present in order to wish me a fond farewell...or do they want to see me onto the plane to make sure I’m actually leaving the country?!!

Senior 5 EKK (English, Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili)

The most senior of all my classes, 5EKK are also linguists. The ages of the students in this class range from 17 right up to 30, however the majority sit in the 19-23 bracket. It has been a rollercoaster journey with these guys. There are days I’m sad our lesson has ended and other days I find myself constantly glancing at my watch. Fortunately the good days far outweigh the bad. I often feel there’s a greater maturity about this class compared to the others and as such they intimidate me more! It’s a little daunting having to set homework and quizzes to students similar in age to yourself. I regularly think to myself that when I was the same age as many of these students I ‘d already finished my first degree and was studying for my Masters. Their situations are of course far different from mine however and I’ve no doubt many of these students will go onto university. This class includes my thirty year old student, Lambert. I’ve mentioned him before in my blog and I have a great deal of respect for him. It must be a tough experience at thirty living in a boarding school amongst students a generation younger than yourself, but it doesn’t seem to faze him. He’s got one thing on his mind...to get an education. It’s certainly working. His level of English is highly impressive and there are times he assists me when I’m trying to provide the definition of a word to the rest of the class but failing miserably. He wants to be a teacher and in my mind he’d be perfect.

My relationship with 5EKK is unconventional in many ways. As I think I mentioned before the boundaries between teacher and student have been vague at times. My level of discipline began with a degree of lenience and since then I’ve probably neglected all authority altogether. It has its benefits but on occasions can create aggravating situations. I enjoy our lessons though. We’ve had some engaging conversations over the course of the year and they were huge fans of the music lessons (before the injunction!). Quite a few of them commented on the talent of the Beatles which was very satisfying. The state of my shoes has been a running joke. Rwandans pride themselves on wearing immaculate, glistening shoes and anything less than this is positively shameful. The problem is during the rainy season the road to school is a mud bath and during the dry season it’s a dustbowl. Hence I very rarely appear in adequately clean shoes. In fact as I walk around the school grounds students will often just stare at my shoes in a state of shock and disbelief. It always baffled me why all the other teachers’ shoes were spotless but then one break time the answer revealed itself. The other teachers bring a shoeshine kit to work with them and spend every available moment scrubbing their shoes!

5EKK are the debating kings. It is widely accepted amongst students and teachers alike that there’s no contest if 5EKK are involved in a debate. I’ve witnessed them on three separate occasions and each time they’ve emerged triumphant. It doesn’t matter what they’re debating, they always win. Unfortunately this was to my detriment last week as I got into a debate over the day of their next test. I suggested Tuesday, they preferred Thursday so we debated the issue for a moment...to be fair Thursday is a more suitable day, it gives me the whole weekend to mark the papers...!! 5EKK also hold a special place in my heart as they were the class that posed for a photo proudly clutching an Argyle shirt, scarf and flag. The photo has very recently been published in the Argyle matchday magazine and therefore they have achieved relative fame/notoriety and successfully helped to prove that the Green Army is an international phenomenon! In summary 5EKK are perhaps my most interesting class due to the vast gulf in ages of the students. It’s difficult to know their situations outside of school and as I try not to pry too much and they’re not forthcoming with information it will remain a mystery for me long after I leave. I’m sure I’ll keep in touch with some of these students as they’ve been an enjoyable class to teach. It would also be nice to know the paths they take once they leave St Bernadette de Save.

In conclusion, I think it’s fair to say that each one of my four classes has its various merits and I feel very honoured to have been able to play a part in their education. I hope I’ve made a positive impact and managed to teach them something in between the various moments of confusion, absurdity, comedy, monotony, enlightenment and various other bizarre scenarios! There is definitely one thing I’m sure of though...I’ve learned a lot from them.

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