School visits: stepping into an altered reality 

We’re hustling to visit the final few junior high schools in the nation before the end of our funding.   I went to Ainaro for a week with Mestra Mimi, and then Baucau for a week with Mestra Vero.  They observed and assisted the science teachers while I looked after the mathematics teachers.  In this blog and the next, I’ll give insight into what we found as we watched teachers do their best to teach with pratika: the simple, hands-on and inquiry activities they did themselves when they attended our trainings.

Visiting schools is both a lost cause and the only way to know whether the training we’ve done has had any effect at all.  It’s a lost cause because we visit each school for only one or two days, attempting to observe each teacher for all or parts of two classes and give them feedback or direct assistance. Even when we give suggestions and the teachers are open to it, we never know if it gets implemented. Much better would be to take up residence at a school for a week or two and meet every afternoon with the teachers to make a game plan for improvement.  But with limited time and funding, we chose to make a brief presence at each school, do our best to give full encouragement, and then hope for the best.

Visiting schools is like observing life in a mountain stream: as soon as you’ve stepped in, you’ve inextricably altered the situation, the silt swirls around, creatures dart from one place to another, and you get the feeling you’ll never really see what you came to observe.  Often it becomes something of a show. A few teachers set up their classes for us as theater, repeating a pratika activity that they’ve done previously, or having students ceremoniously present results they got the day before.  This is not what we want, because we can’t see how they taught the activity originally, and students pick up the idea that pratika is something formal to be perfected and performed, instead of something to be engaged in regularly on an informal basis.  With some teachers, it is clear that pratika is something only done for visiting observers.

As I watched some of the teachers struggling through the pratika lessons we developed for them, all linked directly to the curriculum, I sometimes found myself thinking, “Ooooo, they really need more training on this activity;  here in their school it is too late to help them much.”  But at the same time, in many trainings when the teachers were confused and ungrounded, drifting without anchor to the reality of their classrooms, I also recall thinking to myself, “Ooooo, it’s too hard to teach much at these trainings; just wait until we visit their schools and we can really help them out!”  Clearly, we’re muddling forth in the midst of a grand compromise.

At the schools we often get two or three teachers teaching in different classrooms, and then pop in and out of each, helping where we’re needed, and leaving the better ones alone.   We meet with them all when it’s over to get their self-assessments and give our own.  We always meet with the school directors to let them know about the requirements of the new curriculum.  And we have a look at how they’ve organized and stored the materials and supplies we’ve distributed over the course of our trainings.

On a bad day, the teachers and director are unresponsive and students are resigned to low expectations.  On a good day, we get the feeling we’ve accomplished something and quality education is on the wing.  Here are some photos.

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1 thought on “School visits: stepping into an altered reality ”

  1. Oh the frustrations. However at least many teachers and students have had a glimpse. Some will go ahead with all kinds of good ideas. Congratulations again to you all.

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