My primary assignment is Secondary English Education, meaning I am an English teacher at the middle and high school level. But, in addition to my two English classes, I also teach a strand of Life Skills.
Peace Corps worldwide encourages volunteers to teach some sort of Life Skills, whether through a class, club or training session. We briefly touched on in it during my Niger training, but to me it seemed like a Year 2 project when my French and Hausa were better. In Lesotho, though, it’s an actual class and the Ministry of Education recently created a syllabus and a series of textbooks to teach it throughout the country.
Although my school had the books, they were not teaching it. Although the MOE is pushing the course, most teachers don’t know how to teach it and really don’t want to because it’s more work. I came in with the desire to teach the class, especially emphasizing HIV/AIDs information.
My principal gave me one form, Form B (9th grade), as a test drive and other teachers were assigned to Form C and Form A. The textbook the MOE provides is useful, but it focuses a lot on Lesotho specific things, such as who to contact if you want to open a bank account and the hierarchy of village government. Although students really do need to know those things, that’s information I can’t teach because I don’t know it. Eventually I will, but for now I use the PC Life Skills manual and focus on making good decisions, voicing concerns and opinions in an assertive manner and forming healthy relationships.
As another volunteer told me recently, Life Skills is the hardest class to teach. These concepts of mental and emotional health are not focused on in this culture compared to America where every bookstore has a very large self-help section. Issues and feelings aren’t talked about in the open, so to discuss them can be very uncomfortable for 14 and 15 year olds. The language barrier is also greater because “gender equality” and “assertive behavior” are beyond my students vocabulary.
I have been following lessons and activities out of the PC manual but they were flopping. Most of the time the students wouldn’t participate or open up, mostly because they didn’t understand. Other volunteers shared stories about students coming to them with thoughts of suicide or questions of sex, yet I couldn’t get my students to even talk about how to handle someone who makes them feel bad about themselves. Many PCVs use a question jar and I tried that for a while, but students filled it with questions like, “Who is Rihanna’s boyfriend?” and “What do you eat in America?” When I found the question jar tucked in the rafters of the ceiling, I temporarily took it away (I may have also made the students write essays about respect and why they should respect their teachers. Whatever, it’s better than beating them with a stick).
One day, with time leftover, I sat in a chair and started to ask the students how they feel about corporal punishment and what teachers they like or do not like. It was an open conversation between them and me and it encouraged them to practice their English. It worked so well that I have now dedicated one period each week to just talking.
A few weeks ago, in honor of International Women’s Day, we talked about the difference between girls and boys. I prodded them along with questions about what work each gender was expected to perform and they had a really nice debate. The girls said they could do the boys work – looking after animals and fetching wood – but the boys couldn’t do their work – cooking, cleaning and caring for children. The boys said the exact opposite. I am not sure what kind of impact it would have, but it got them thinking, at least for a minute, about whether or not men and women are seen as equal.
When they told me about Lesotho, I told them about the differences of men and women in America. I told them about the definitive roles of men and women several decades ago and how that is changing. They all giggled when I say that nowadays some men stay home and care for the children while women work.
To give them more perspective, I explained to them what I saw in Niger – 13 and 14 year-old girls being taken out of school to have babies. They all groaned and shook their heads. Although on the same continent and with less gender equality than in the Western world, these Basotho students understand that girls need to be given the same opportunities boys are, meaning girls deserve an education. It was beautiful to see them all agree on that point.
Life Skills is still a hard class to teach and I can’t say that one of my students will be on the verge of making a bad decision and will think back to what ‘M’e Kenneoue said during Life Skills class. Yet, these little moments give me enough confidence to keep going. This is the type of work that PCVs don’t see the benefit of, instead it comes years later when the American is back at home and the native remembers something the volunteer taught him or her.
As much as I struggle with the class and want to give up some days, I realize that it is important and I just need to fight through those hurdles.