Impressions of Airfield School – J. King

I only had a short stint at Airfield School…I learned a lot by observing and then teaching classes the first few days I was there. Even though teaching was not my primary task, it was an excellent way to start. I got an overview and began to understand the similarities and differences between Airfield and American schools. It had been awhile since I was in a classroom of preteens or teenagers—I’ve been teaching adults, which is very different from teaching teenagers in any country!—and I had forgotten how difficult it is to keep their attention. It is difficult in any setting, but the heat and humidity added to it. My accent was an additional hurdle—Say, a teacher and also the Pagus rep, warned me that the teachers had a difficult time understanding me when I introduced myself at a faculty meeting, so I knew to speak slowly and choose my words wisely, but that too is a challenge when teaching mathematical concepts such as obtuse, acute, and right angles. When introducing new concepts such as these, the Airfield teachers use both languages, expanding on English vocabulary with Ewe explanations. Since I could not do this, I had to find additional ways to incorporate repetition, well-labeled drawings, and extra feedback devices to determine more frequently whether the students followed me.

My time at Airfield was unusual in that it was the end of the school year, so I was never sure if I was experiencing a typical school day or class. That said, I taught Primary 6 one particularly hot afternoon when KG1, KG2, and others were at recess. Due to the U-shape of the school, the little ones play in the security of the U, which made for a very loud classroom. I really had to YELL to get the P6 kids to hear me over the noise. I taught a total of six times during my three weeks at Airfield, and that day was particularly challenging because of the noise. I felt overwhelmed by the chalk, which constantly breaks, and the chalkboards, which are difficult to write on and erase (they’re very bumpy), and by efforts to get each student paper and a pencil. I’m not sure the students can see the writing on the board well—the erasers aren’t good either. These issues combined with the heat and listless students to bring me down and make it difficult to maintain an upbeat, interactive teaching style, and helped me to understand a possible contributing factor of the lackadaisical attitude among the teachers.

As a teacher, you learn early on that it is easy to misjudge or blame other teachers and that it is usually misplaced blame, so I feel guilty writing that the Airfield teachers do not spend a sufficient part of the day involving students in learning activities, but that is my impression. Again, I recognize that my three weeks were short, and not typical weeks; in these final weeks the students had revisions, and exams. Nevertheless, it was so incredibly different from an American classroom where even when at play, students are carefully supervised. Here classrooms were often left unattended and students free to roam about and play without an adult eye on them during breaks.

Supplies are scarce, and as a result, become sacred and locked up for ‘later’. My instinct is in this direction too, so I understand this impulse. But once our supplies are out and in use the kids are so appreciative! They are desperate for things to touch and do and as long as we are using our things wisely, I think we can trust they are better for that than waiting for that perfect, later moment.

As an example, I unpacked a big box of Base 10 blocks, used to teach addition, subtraction, and place value. They had been carefully packed by color and in individual baggies for each student. I started panicking during the first class when the tiny ones-units fell on the floor and weren’t always returned to the correct bag. (Although I do believe all of the cubes were returned to a bag—I saw NO sticky fingers the entire time I was at Airfield. Likewise with the crayons, books, colored pencils, and games—items were always returned, but rarely to the correct shelf or box.) Anyway, my protective hording instincts kicked in until later in the week when I found an entire box of dusty 100-blocks that Pagus had donated a few years back that were kept in the library. These 100-blocks were mixed with two- and three-dimensional geometry shapes. So during the next break, I let the kids play with the old 100-blocks. They built elaborate houses and structures, and this became an activity that had far more value than the blocks sitting in the library unused, and probably even more value than the use they’d have gotten in a math classroom. (I still feel guilty for allowing the math manipulatives to be used in this way! Hopefully Connie’s set, which is complete with 1s, 10s, and 1000s blocks will be used for math.)

Future volunteers will probably struggle with the issue of whether to save or use supplies too. In the three boxes of materials that the PAGUS scholars and I organized, there are hundreds of worksheets for primary school math. There are anywhere from 1 to 100 copies of a given worksheet, with no discernible identifier helping one anticipate which worksheets are in short supply and which are plentiful. So the next PAGUS volunteer will have to decide whether to encourage the primary teachers to take and use the copies of the worksheets that are plentiful, or whether to only allow worksheets to be borrowed, no matter the number available. Of course it would be a shame if the last copy of any worksheet was accidentally used, but I would hate to see the worksheets that have 100 copies go unused. I think it would mean a lot for the Airfield kids to get their own copy of something that they’re allowed to write on and bring home for homework, or give to their parent with a grade on it. (Make sure the blank flip side is used for something too, though!)

Whatever is done with the worksheets, some type of sign-out procedure will be needed because the Base 10 blocks, teddy bear counters, clocks, rulers, and other math manipulatives will be used in the classrooms, but will live in the library. And students and teachers will need to be asked (trained?) to put items back exactly where they were found. This was a noticeable difference in how the American volunteers operate versus the Ghanaian students and teachers.

Lack of running water is a problem at the school. Helen implemented the tippy-taps, which were a big hit, and will help the situation a lot next year. For me, it was difficult to clean my hands sufficiently to feel comfortable touching my food. My very grimy hands were always on my mind. The bathroom gets dirty early in the day, and I saw a teacher yell at some KG1/KG2 girls to use the stall rather than go out in the bushes. The girls started crying, and I realized it was because they are too little for the toilets! This probably contributes to the uncleanliness (there were feces on the floor on more than one occasion).

I hope that future volunteers find opportunities to involve the teachers more. Perhaps it’s because I was a young (or youngish!) female volunteer, but the male teachers were more present in the library, and more interested in the work I was doing. I encourage future volunteers to reach out to the female teachers.

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