The Real Frontlines of Global Education
What teaching trials, tribulations and triumphs does our Burkina Faso-based Peace Corps correspondent experience?
As a Girls' Education and Empowerment volunteer in Burkina Faso, I am supposed to work with girls — and their parents, of course — to improve girls' school enrollment, retention rates and grades.
However, I am not supposed to actually teach in a formal setting. Yet at the beginning of the school year, I found myself at the front of the classroom, facing the daunting task of imparting some knowledge to 55 third- and fourth-grade students.
Whatever the students gained from the experience, I now have heightened appreciation for the difficulties facing teachers, especially in the rural areas of this country.
Teaching certainly isn't an easy task here. While most children in cities and large towns go to school, many people in villages don't see any benefit in their children receiving an education. In rural areas, the percentage of children enrolled in school can be as low as 20%.
This generally affects girls even more than boys. Parents see no reason to send their daughter to school because she will probably be married by the time she's 15, after which she's expected to stay home — and tend to the innumerable household tasks with which women here are saddled down.
And you don't need to know how to read in order to fetch water from the pump or pound millet, so why waste your money?
Money is the usual excuse given by parents when asked why their children aren't in school. However, the school fees in villages are so ludicrously low — 1000fCFA, or approximately $2 per year — that this is really just an excuse.
Any parent could come up with the money — if he or she wanted to. For many people, it seems that they just object to school because it isn't part of their tradition, or because they view it as a big-city institution and not something for villagers.
Many are also intimidated by educated people and think that their children will rebel against their native culture if they receive an education. Thus teachers are faced with very low enrollment rates, children who periodically drop out or are pulled out of school by their parents — and little to no interest in the school from the village.
My own forays into teaching started when the school director in Borguindé was accepted to a very selective year-long teacher training program, which required him to move to a different region of the country.
This wasn't a bad thing in itself, and from his point of view it certainly was a very good thing. But he left on short notice at the start of the school year, and his departure deprived the primary school of its director — and also one of its three teachers.
The primary schools in most small villages in Burkina Faso are standard three-room buildings, with two grades — and one teacher — per classroom. Each room has a blackboard at each end, and the children from different grades sit facing away from each other and towards their respective blackboards.
Thus with the director gone, two grades were left without a teacher until I offered to help keep the students occupied while a new teacher was found.
Not surprisingly, it turns out that trying to teach two grades simultaneously is extremely challenging.
The method I adopted was to stand in front of one blackboard and give the third-graders exercises, run to the other end of the room to give the fourth-graders a lesson, set them copying down the lesson in their notebooks, and then run back to the third-graders end to give them a lesson.
Whichever class I wasn't currently working with inevitably finished their work long before I was done with the other. Just as inevitably, as soon as they were finished, they all started to chatter, quickly making it impossible for me to be heard.
It was a few weeks before one of the other two teachers advised me to first give one grade some exercises and send them outside to work under the trees — and then work quietly with the other grade.
Teaching was complicated by the fact that most of the children spoke extremely limited French, the official language in Burkina Faso. At home they spoke either Fulfulde or Moore, depending on which part of Borguindé — a small town of around 3,000 people — they were from.
None of them learned French until they started school. Moreover, their French was mainly limited to what they absorbed by learning their lessons by heart, meaning that they usually memorized words without understanding what they meant.
There was no call for them to use any critical thinking. If they could recite the right lesson at the right time, they would get a good grade.
Thus, getting them to understand my directions was very difficult. Generally, I had to translate what I was saying into Fulfulde, which led to confusion on their part — and mine.
It didn't help that not only had I never had any training on how to teach. Of course, I was also fairly unfamiliar with the Burkinabè curriculum and what students at various levels should already have studied.
I looked at their schedule one day and it said the fourth-grade students were supposed to learn about weights in the metric system. I wrote down a short lesson explaining that there are 1,000 grams in a kilogram.
No sooner had I done so when one of the other teachers walked into my classroom, read the lesson — and pointed out that these particular students had only learned to count to 999. They did not yet know the number 1,000, and therefore I couldn't teach them about kilograms.
This sort of experience was common and incredibly frustrating because I never knew if my lessons were too easy for the children — or far too difficult. I couldn't even rely on the official program to get an idea of what they should already know.
The reason for this was simple: Because the teachers were always behind schedule, the students hadn't covered a lot of what the schedule said they should have studied.
Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a three-part series by the author on her experiences in Burkina Faso.