ATER Huye Training July 20172017-10-12 08:15:40 by Brad Elliott
From my previous visit to Huye I remember that it is a pleasant place, with a large central boulevard lined with palm trees. Today, though I can’t really see if Huye is how I remember it or if it has changed, as I am greeted on arrival by a thick flurry of tickertape, banners, tricolour flags and klaxons blaring. Sadly for my ego, these festive manifestations are not for my arrival, but for the President, and Presidential candidate, Paul Kagame, who is a holding a mass rally in the city later that day for his Rwandan People’s Front party (FPR) before the coming election. Huye is Rwanda’s second-largest city, a two and a half hour drive away from the capital Kigali.
I am here because the Association of Teachers of English in Rwanda (ATER) is holding a Community of Practice (CoP) for local English teachers, in a restaurant down an untarmacked road parallel to the main boulevard packed with FPR supporters. I arrive at 10.45, just as the training session’s organiser, English Language Fellow Leah Jordano-Kudalis, is finishing off her workshop. It’s a teaching skills session, where the benefits of pair and group work are discussed and practised. Outside, temperatures have already climbed to near 30 degrees while inside around 30 Rwandan English teachers, from primary through to university, are diligently participating and offering their ideas. The session is all voluntary, from the teachers’ themselves who are giving up their Saturdays to hone their skills and share experience, to Leah’s – and my own – time.
This is the second such session that I have attended, but the first in which I am presenting. After two months of focusing on settling our family into the country I am eager to get my session – on error correction and feedback – started and resume training, one of my favourite aspects of being an educational leader. Before the session Leah and I have met in Kigali to discuss things, but we cannot know the language level of the teachers beforehand, so my planning is loose and I will likely have to adapt my Teacher language (TL) to cater for the range of language levels within the group. You might think teaching English as a foreign/second language necessitates at least a basic level of communicative capacity, but the realities of education in Rwanda - and Africa as a whole from what many people have told me – means that you shouldn’t assume things. So I try to keep an open mind.
In 2008 the Rwandan Ministry for Education changed the language of instruction in Rwandan schools from French to English for children aged 7 and above. This change was made overnight one day in 2009. While the intentions behind this decision – making Rwanda more open for business and investment globally, and especially with the USA and UK – made sense, the consequences of this change were wide-ranging, and placed Rwandan teachers in an invidious position. Suddenly they were expected to teach their subjects, including English itself, in English, a language a majority of them could barely speak.
As a former Belgian colony, Rwanda’s second language – after Kinyarwanda - was French for over fifty years. All qualified teachers in 2009 would thus have been educated in French; English was the predominant second language only among the diaspora – such as Kagame himself, who grew up in former British colonies such as Uganda. Many of the diaspora have now of course returned home, but for many teachers, the change to English was dramatic.
Whilst the language level of teachers has improved slowly over the intervening eight years – mainly through some form of osmosis, in 2017 there are still many teachers, particularly in rural areas, whose knowledge of English is limited at best. The downsides of their having to deliver Maths or Geography lessons say, in a language that they do not master to even a small degree, are obvious. It may be that the first generation of learners who had their principle education from 2009-2016 have missed out on both quality English teaching and education overall. It may also of course be that Rwandan teachers have delivered their lessons in Kinyarwanda except when the Head Teacher or school inspector is around.
How to effect such a large change effectively – gradually or with a bang – is a discussion for another post perhaps, but suffice to say that teachers here in Huye face some unusual challenges, beyond the typical developing world challenges of sixty-plus students in small classrooms, with limited or no teaching resources. English language proficiency is one extra challenge. At this early stage of my time in Rwanda I would need to find out more about what teacher training these teachers have received – but initial impressions suggests that this also is in its infancy. Hence training sessions such as these.
Leah finishes her workshop and there is a warm round of applause. It’s a fun, interactive session and some of the teachers seem quite fluent. After a break of milky mint tea from the restaurant’s urn and a bun, there follows a 45-minute pre-lunch session from a local Rwandan teacher. The title is a torturous ‘To The Youth, To Speak Out Is Your Right And Merit’ and the session deals with the sensitive issue of free speech. How much should children be allowed to express their opinions? What if they are critical of both their lot in life and the current power structure? I had planned on going over my workshop during the session, but my interest is piqued by these questions. Despite the title, the presenter seems to be saying that children’s arguments should be quashed if they are too challenging. If they express disquiet about why certain Rwandans are rich and they are poor the teacher should simply say that that is the way things are. Know your place! This provokes interesting debate. It is an aspect of teaching that I have rarely needed to discuss with my teachers in Europe and while fascinating in this context I am not sure it is the best use of the time at hand. My feeling from the outside is that these teachers could rather do with both English language training and workshops more focused on techniques to both overcome and leverage their particular teaching circumstances.
The session overruns, as seems to be standard here, but this turns out to be a good thing, as lunch is not ready yet. Lunch is a big draw which attracts teachers to these meetings. The promise of free food understandably supersedes other concerns – Leah has to negotiate with local ATER leaders to ensure that this will be provided for and paid for – as the level of participation is determined by it. The teachers requested transport paid as well but there is no budget for this. Teachers are given a small budget from the local education authority to attend professional development training and some of today’s attendees have made use of that. They are required to sign their attendance and stay the whole day. I have heard tales of past sessions where teachers have simply turned up at the beginning to sign their name to ensure payment and then gone home. Today’s teachers take things much more seriously. This does not mean that they do not make the most out of lunch, however. There is a minor scuffle to get a good place in the queue and each teacher piles their plate as high as possible with all the fare on offer. There is no opportunity for second helpings.
It is a well-fed, sated audience, therefore, that sits down after lunch for my session. Post-lunch sessions are often a challenge as energy levels can drop, but I have faith that my dynamic training style will jolt people awake. I also make things as interactive as possible. I am a firm believer in the participants doing the work; I know what I know and don’t need to show people it all the time. I’d much rather they express themselves and demonstrate their learning.
The session goes well. The teachers are by and large engaged & understand my English enough to be able to participate actively. There are two or three who are clearly don’t follow, including a smiley woman at the front of the class who does well to hide it. She is one of only four or so women in the group, while the gender split in teaching in Rwanda is roughly 60-40 in favour of women. This therefore represents a disappointing number; on the drive back to Kigali we discuss why this might be. Despite a pro-woman President and a large number of female MPs, it seems traditional patriarchal norms persist. This is mentioned in the report to ATER. Solutions need to be found.
For those that did attend, I am humbled by the level of gratitude expressed at the end of my session. Participants line up to thank me and there is an extensive hand-waving ceremony giving thanks for my efforts. One man in particular, who had contributed keenly to the discussion on the role of the teacher in giving feedback to learners, says my visit is a blessing from God. It is hoped that people like him – enthusiastic, conversant in English, are the future leaders of the CoPs, so that ATER no longer needs external trainers such as myself to run the sessions. Independence and self-generated content has to be the way forward in the future, although given the level of both English and pedagogical concepts, this remains a way off yet.
As we drive out of Huye the rally is gearing up. People are flocking to the centre, walking along the road dressed in their finest, as if going to church. There is a positive, joyous, energy, a carnival atmosphere. The enthusiasm for the rally mirrors what I have experienced in my session. People are so keen to learn, so grateful for any support and are young – not necessarily in age - but in the absence of the weltschmerz cynicism that often blights teachers in the west.
At the very end of the session, after the feedback forms have been completed, there is a small raffle. The most coveted prize is a pencil case full of pens. A whoop of delight escapes the winner’s mouth as he comes to collect his winnings. Such a little thing can make a big difference. But, as I consistently mention during my session, nine out of the top ten factors that influence learning depend on the teacher. The biggest difference to children’s lives is themselves. And by attending sessions such as this they add another small pillar which will make up the larger change that the country yearns for.