A Problem

I don’t think it’s bragging to say I’m a good teacher. This year is my first of full-time teaching so, obviously, I have a lot to learn but I think I do a good job.

One reason that I think I’m successful (in the Rwandan context, especially) is that I have created a good rapport with my students. When I teach I try to encourage a comfortable, light-hearted atmosphere where students can do silly things and take risks in doing different activities in order to learn. They also feel comfortable to ask questions and tell me if they don’t understand (a big deal for students here!) I do this by being a little silly myself and showing students that I can laugh at myself when I do things like accidentally writing the answers on the board along with the questions for a quiz.

Even with this upbeat, collaborative tone I also maintain discipline and order in the class. My students now all know how to say “Sit down, now.” “No, go sit in your own seat,” “Go wait for me outside” and “Stop talking.” They also understand “Do I look happy right now?” and “You’re being disrespectful.” They actually chide each other in English now saying, “Go sit, go sit” or “Go outside!” when they think another student is getting out of line. (I also confirmed this week that a teacher slamming a textbook onto a table is a universally understood sign of displeasure.)

But, and this is important, I maintain discipline without shaming students, intimidating them, disrespecting them or, certainly, hitting them.

My students hit each other often (following the examples set by their other teachers) and I try to stop it. I tell them repeatedly, “Beating is bad.” They haven’t learned how to use personal pronouns yet so when they tattle on each other they do it in an amusingly mixed-up way saying, “Teacher, I beat you!” while looking aggrieved and pointing at the offender. As much as they may hit each other, they know that I would never ever hit them and they know that “gukubita ni bibi,” “beating is bad.”

Yesterday, though, another teacher came into my classroom and disrupted my violence-free ethos.

She was escorting a student who had ditched class into my room. She took the opportunity to scold my other students, too, focusing on one girl in particular.

She approached the student, a quiet, smart girl who has never caused any trouble in my class — and grabbed her ear, twisting it sharply. The girl pulled away so the teacher, a large, deep-voiced, intimidating woman, grabbed the top of her head in her hand, like an NBA player palming a basketball, and forced the girl to look at her. “Don’t look away,” she said, “look here.” She continued scolding her. After a minute or so of yelling, the teacher left. As soon as she walked out the door the girl laid her head on the desk and cried.

With only two minutes left in the period I tried to comfort the girl and refocus the shaken students who had been spectators. I told them I didn’t agree with what had happened and apologized to the girl. Meanwhile the students said “sorry sorry” to me, too. They were sorry I had had to watch the ugly scene.

Really, what happened is not very noteworthy because similar scenes occur often in other classes. It’s just that up until then my classes had been a bubble where the coercive force common in the school did not enter. Now that has changed. A student was made to feel ashamed and disrespected in my classroom.

I know my class understands that I don’t support what happened. They know that I’ll never do something like that again but I feel bad that I wasn’t able to stop it from happening in my class, while I was there. I feel bad that the experience of being hit, pushed around and beaten are familiar for my students. I feel bad that teachers here sometimes use their position of authority to harm rather than to help.  I just feel so bad for my poor student. Such is life here. Violence is too often a way of life here.

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