Day 1 – The First Lesson

They told me that we’d have an assembly at 6:30, but when I wake up on Monday morning I can hear rain pounding the zinc roof of our hut in the Wemah House compound, so I assume that it will be cancelled. It seems that most things in Ghana are cancelled when it rains and rightly so. The rain is serious here. So I roll over and fall back asleep, hoping that my roomies will wake me when the time is right.

The rain stops in time for breakfast, which consists of bread and tea with lots of milk and sugar. Afterwards, I head with my room-and classmate Francis to General Agriculture. I’m excited for it, because I know nothing about agriculture, and because it’s my first class as a Ghanaian high school student. Francis shows me my desk, a misshapen contraption made of very hard, flat wood, and I sit down as students start to arrive.

The teacher, or Master (“Mastah” in Ghanenglish), is late. When he shows up, he doesn’t notice me and I wonder if it is unusual. It seems as though he doesn’t know any of the students’ names, so I guess that it’s probably not out of the ordinary for him not to realize that a new, and decidedly different, student is in his class. In any case, I learn plenty about market structure and function during the class which seems comprehensive.

The Mastah for the next class–Core Maths–is also late. When he does arrive, he wants to know what I’m doing in the class. He accepts that I’m a new student from Canada here to see what it’s like to be a Ghanaian student and we continue with the lesson. A student gives him a vector question that he reads to the class. It goes like this:

Given triangle PQR such that PR = u, PQ = v, the midpoint of PR = M, and the midpoint of RQ = L, show that PL = 1/2(u+v). Now, given that PX = 1/3(u+v) and PY = 2/3(u+v), express MX, RY, and XQ in terms of u and v. 

(If you’re vector-illiterate, have no fear. Please, continue reading.)

The Mastah goes through the first part of the question with no problem, but when we get to the second part he reads the question again and tells the class that there must be a typo which has rendered the question unsolvable. I’m shocked; in the time it has taken him to consider the problem, I’ve come to a complete solution. That the teacher hasn’t even attempted it surprises me. I raise my hand.

Before I know it, I’m at the blackboard, demonstrating that MX = -1/6u + 1/3v. Mastah considers my solution. “Ah, I understand,” he says after about a minute, “okay, let’s find RY then.” He reproduces the diagram sloppily, misplacing the point R then proceeds for a good ten minutes to mumble incoherently away from the students while he scratches away at the board with the chalk.

I feel bad. I’ve put the teacher on the spot and if I were in his position, I’d probably be equally challenged. I look back at the students from my desk at the front of the class and see a bunch of very confused faces. Now I’m torn; the students need to understand this, but I’m not a teacher. It’s not officially within my role to be the one to help them understand. Screw it, I think, the students are more important.

I get the Mastah’s attention and ask if I can show the solution. In two minutes, I’ve written the complete answer on the board and get many understanding nods from students. I’m still conflicted, but I tell myself that the students’ understanding rationalizes my not-so-humble behaviour. Mastah sits at the teacher’s desk at the front and stares at the solution wordlessly for the rest of the period.

After the class is over, Mastah calls me to speak with him. He tells me that the problem with the Ghanaian education system–the one in which he was educated–is a lack of practical use of the theory. He tells me that there is knowledge, but no skills.

He didn’t show up for his classes for the rest of the week.

This is why Striving for Humility is one of EWB’s core values. The actions I took in that class were not within my role to take, and taking such actions has likely had a bigger effect than what happened in the class that I cannot predict. Sure, maybe that effect will be positive. The important part, though, is that I don’t know whether it will be or not. The ripple effects are out of my hands and unmeasurable from where I stand. I didn’t correct a Master for the rest of the week, even when the errors they made were glaringly obvious.

It’s not surprising that my first lesson as a Ghanaian high school student had little to do with what was written on the blackboard. Funny, Isn’t that the case with most lessons in life?



4 responses to “Day 1 – The First Lesson

  1. So, I was also supposed to be at that assembly that day! I was reall excited to show up and do my little announcement (of the names of the students selected to be delegates) and you would be in the audience like *wtf* BUT alas, it rained and rained and the administration didn’t show either.

    Also, for a little wider context, I think TAMASCO is probably the worst of the schools in Tamale for accountability-like things. Because of its size it must be really easy for teachers (and students) to slip in and out unnoticed, and I’m not really surprised the teacher didnt know anyone’s names. But, like I said, wider context: other schools (my most familar example is of course Tamale Girls’ School) seem much more tightly-controlled and I bet the teachers are way more ‘with it’. BTW- what were class sizes like?

    • My guess is that Tamasco is definitely one of the worst, at least in Tamale, for teacher accountability, simply because of its size, as you mentioned. It’s not just students who are numbers at a big school, but teachers as well! Like I mentioned, I chose Tamasco because it has been in serious decline of late and I wanted to experience the issues myself.
      My class had 51 students and that seemed pretty average, based on the two other classes that I saw. Thing is, I don’t think that class size (or rather pupil-teacher ratio) is actually correlated with quality and I’ll explain why in a future post 😉

  2. Ouch, a lesson in humility indeed. Tough choices. Thanks for sharing!
    Maybe teaching is your calling – first vectors and then sex ed… Just saying.


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