In just 5 days, the Armando Aid team has seen vast improvements in our little fledgling school. This is the first week of classes with a full set of 5 teachers. Before this week, Maria and Ruth had been teaching 46 children and organizing everything just between the two of them, bless their souls. For two weeks, they had another helper, then a few days before we arrived, another.
By Monday morning, we had a ragtag group of 5 teachers ready to roll: a Canadian inner-city high school teacher, a college professor from London with her PhD, a British
university student, and Cristian and me (him a college professor and me, a recently-returned Peace Corps English teacher.)
The first day of school with a full staff of 5 teachers was chaotic. We started in the big tent to divide into classes by levels and ages, and I ended up taking 3 or 4 babies whose big brothers or sisters were in class. However, somehow the message got out to the camp that “there’s a nursery!” and I ended up with 14 toddlers all by myself! (This is not a legal ratio. Now the nursery is closed.)
In the nursery, the situation quickly escalated to anarchy. I had a crying 9-month-old on each hip and 11 others in varying stages of playing-fighting-crying-throwing tantrums-beating each other over the head with plastic chairs. I had to stay by the door, because I had three toddlers trying to jailbreak with a tent stake they found somewhere. Seriously.
Cristian took the energetic, rough band of 7-9 year old boys into the second big tent. At
any given time, he had between 5 and 16 students, because the tent has no door and kids were running around like crazy all morning. Curious parents, assorted siblings, babies who escaped the nursery, etc. would wander in.
How can we even describe the scene? Children screaming and laughing (and fighting) in two big tents and in the three tiny, hot classrooms. Random NGO officials coming by to take notes and take photos of our hectic classes. A stifling hot day with intermittent strong winds that would slam the classroom doors shut, scaring the crap out of all the students. Children who have never been in a school setting and/or have been out of school for months coming to class with no idea of discipline, sharing, taking turns or paying attention. Teachers who are used to Western classrooms now dealing with wildness.
Without any Farsi, we were all just babbling English words that had no meaning, like, “please be quiet!” or “SIT DOWN NOW!” or “DON’T KILL YOUR CLASSMATE WITH THAT PENCIL.” These kids had no idea what we were saying.
The next day was slightly better. Kids showed up really late, but so did some of the teachers. We didn’t have a set schedule yet, so nobody knew what was going on. A new busload of refugees had arrived the night before, so the class sizes doubled in some cases.
I moved out to work with Emily in the 5 to 6-year-old group. We had little boys at each other’s throats, which frightened us. But we also got to teach some things. I taught two
girls to share the colored pencils by taking the pencils out of their clenched fists and being very serious, in their faces: “one for you, one for her. One for you, one for her. No, no grabbing. Just one.” We did the same thing with the building blocks with the boys to a less successful degree.
Cristian’s class had a steady flow of kids in and out of the tent the whole time, never teaching the same group of students.
The third day, the five of us teachers set down some rules: class starts at 9:30 am (kind of); recess at 10:30; no running in and out of classes and slamming the door; no children under 5 years old.
Some students were waiting for us at 9:30 am. In Emily’s and my class, we were able to get them to share the blocks and colored pencils without trying to stab each other. The crying episodes decreased.
Cristian’s class finally moved inside to one of the little classrooms, which made it easier for him to control their erratic boisterousness.
After class, a volunteer behaviorist shared her wisdom on giving these kids consistency,
setting a clearer schedule, and trying to use positive reinforcements (except in cases of children strangling each other–we still had to learn the Farsi words for “sit down” and “stop it.”)
Thursday, we had our first organized recess. Cristian came to each tent to give us a 5 minute warning, then rang the bell and we wrangled the kids to the back garden for games and football.
Emily’s and my kids successfully learned how to line up by number and we “choo-chooed” in to recess together. (The only possible way to get them to do anything collectively and not lose half of them as soon as we left the tent.) When two of our boys fought, we were able to pull them apart and Emily cradled one of the little boys until he slowly stopped sobbing.
Cristian could see the light at the end of the tunnel with his boys. Some began to understand the lessons better. They lined up in the classroom to go out to recess. There
were many small victories.
With the behaviorist’s tactics, we were able to give more positive reinforcements to the kids based on their attention-seeking tactics, rewarding them for good things before they had the chance to turn to bad tactics.
By Friday, we had seen a transformation. Each teacher knew their students by face/name/personality now. We were equipped with some basic Farsi phrases for classroom management (I love teaching them to say “please” and “thank you” by saying, “lotfan-please” and “tashakur-thank you”)
Emily’s and my class actually sat down long enough to learn counting. That was a miracle in and of itself. She taught an awesome lesson on the board, having them count apples and
understand that when she erases two, the total number is smaller. I got them to write their names in the English alphabet with varying degrees of success. When it was time to play with the blocks, the kids helped us put away the blocks rather than trying to steal them! We were so damn proud of our students!
Cristian had a 5-minute window of time when you could walk into his class and see the rowdy boys all quietly sitting down, writing in their notebooks and learning the lesson. While it only lasted 5 minutes, it was 5 minutes longer than any day this week, which is the definition of success.
After the morning classes, we were all invited to eat together. The principal’s wife, one of our adult students, had cooked an amazing Afghan meal for us. We had chicken simmered in spices, crusty bread, spicy lentils, Greek tzaziki sauce and grapes to share around the table. Over lunch, we chatted with two Worldwide Tribe volunteers about their work (check it out here) and rehashed the week.
All together, we felt a sense of accomplishment and progress. From Monday to Friday, we had seen an incredible difference in the kids’ behavior, the school organization, our collaboration to make things happen smoothly, and of course, in the students’ learning.
On Monday, we had 40-something students; by Friday, we had over 100.
On Monday, we had kids strangling each other; by Friday, even the fit-throwers were participating.
On Monday, the teachers all looked shell-shocked; by Friday, they felt more in control of their classrooms.
On Monday, we were pleading with kids in English; by Friday, we knew the right Farsi words to get things done.
On Monday, all the children were new to us; by Friday, they had become our students, our little friends and the highlights of our days.