When I first arrived in Ghana and started my internship with Louis Marie School, the contrasts I immediately made with American schools were stark. My first assessment was the physical condition of the classrooms; they were small, dark, and unbearably hot (for me, at least), with the dirty colored paint chipping off the walls. There were a few posters hung around the room: a world map, the water cycle, and human anatomy. The desks were squished together—children had to climb on top of them to get in and out of their seats. There was one shelf with the students’ text books on it, a filing cabinet with their exercise books, and a cluttered teacher’s desk. The room was loud, as the noise from kids yelling in classrooms to our left and right carried in through the our room’s windows that don’t close. “It would be hard to learn in this room,” I thought.
Continuing throughout my internship, my focus became less on the physical condition of the school and more on the functioning of the class. I was surprised the first time I heard the teacher of the third grade class I help yell “shut UP! Put your ass on your seat! I will lash you!” when he wanted the kids to settle down. I was saddened when he read the students’ cumulative exam scores out loud to the class in ranked order, and exclaimed “I will kill that boy! He should have done better!” about the student who ranked third. I was frustrated at how the teachers seem to disappear for the last 2-3 hours of every day to roam about or hang out in the teachers’ lounge, leaving the kids unsupervised with nothing to do but to have a free-for-all. And I continue to be horrified every time the fourth grade teacher walks unannounced into to classrooms that aren’t his with a meter stick and hits kids at random to “discipline” them (though I read the way he does it as him showing them who’s in charge).
Initially, I was shocked at how this school functioned. My brain didn’t even get a chance to objectively observe and take everything in before it started to make immediate negative judgements. I was already saying “this is bad” and “that’s wrong” and “how could they do that?” before I even asked “what is this?” or “why is this?” Despite generally being aware of my western lens and how it can affect my interpretation of non-western spaces, and despite my efforts to remove it and take things as they are, the “western is better” mentality still crept in and won out. Having only ever experienced suburban, middle-class, American/western schools, I have grown to see them and the way they function as the norm and the goal even within America. While I know that not every school in America meets the standards of the kinds of schools I went to, it seems that the kinds of schools I went to are always the model to build theirs up to. Some characteristics might include sound building and “egg crate” construction, clean environment inside and out, safe drinking water, ample learning materials, effective and efficient functioning, kind yet respected teachers, orderly, student freedom to be creative, behavior management without corporal punishment, the list goes on. Learning about education policy and the evolution of American education and schooling in my classes at Davidson has confirmed these to be standards of quality schools.
It took me a bit to realized I had been measuring Louis Marie to those American standards, though Louis Marie is not an American school. The standards that Ghanaian society and culture impose on Ghanaian schools are likely not the same standards that American society and culture impose on American schools. I shouldn’t be making these negative judgements when I don’t even know what the education standards here are or anything at all about how the Ghanaian education system works. In fact, I began to think that maybe I should actively try to make some positive judgements. What positive attributes does this school have? What good comes out of all the disorganization and chaos? What can I learn from this school that I can take back with me to schools in America?
One positive observation I made was that the free-for-all time allows the students to practice their conflict management skills—to figure out how to solve their problems by themselves instead of relying on adult intervention. When the teachers leave the kids unsupervised for multiple hours at a time, mass chaos ensues. It’s loud and kids run all over the place. Accidents happen and fights break out. But every time I’ve witnessed a child getting hurt, there has always been another concerned child that comes quickly to make sure they are okay, to console them, or to go get help if necessary. And every time a fight has ensued between two students, there are always at least 4 more children that intervene and break up the fight. In one instance, two boys had pushed another boy down and started kicking him while he was on the floor. Some other students grabbed the boys, told them things like “stop that!” “what are you thinking?” and “you can’t do that, you’ll hurt him for real!” and took them to the headmaster’s office to be punished for their wrongdoings, all before I could even squeeze through the mess of desks to get to them. While the lack of supervision might provide the opportunity for fights like these to happen in the first place, it also allows the children the opportunity to learn how to be active bystanders and solve problems on their own, which I think is a beneficial lesson for them to learn.
Another positive observation I made was that during these same free-for-alls, it is typical for students of all ages to interact with each other. In most American schools, the same-age classroom structure forces students to spend the majority of their time with peers of their same age, plus or minus a year or so. But I (and many scholars and researchers) believe that mixed-age classrooms and interactions are very beneficial for both the older and younger students. It allows the younger children to learn from older peers who they look up to, and it allows older children the opportunity to apply their knowledge and teach the younger kids educational and life lessons. This also encourages children to depend on each other instead of always being spoon-fed by adult teachers. I see these mixed-age interactions all the time at Louis Marie. I feel so proud of the older kids for being able to communicate so well with the younger ones and teach them what they’ve learned, and I feel proud of the younger kids as well for respecting the older ones enough to listen to what they have to say. While I still think these last few hours of the day are crazy and I’d rather escape to the kitchen to help Auntie Rose (the lunch lady) wash dishes, I’m happy to see kids learning and growing with and because of each other.
I’ve made a lot of smaller observations and conclusions, too. Like how it doesn’t really seem to matter that the room is small and cramped—when the kids are sitting at their squished desks listening to their teacher, they’re still learning the same information as they would be with the desks farther apart (I also think Ghanaians care less about personal space than Americans do, so the close proximity to one another is not bothersome). Or how they don’t really need an elaborately designed room with games and extra educational tools and infinite posters like some American schools have because they are not necessary for the curriculum here. Rationalizing things this way is how I’m attempting to re-evaluate my initial judgements and adjust them when possible.
I’m still struggling to make sense of the demeaning way that teachers talk to students here and the way that they are so willing and ready to use the cane (beating stick). On one hand, I rationalize it by thinking “that’s normal here—that’s just how they do it…” maybe the students just accept it as the way it is and has always been and don’t think much of it. But then I remember that corporal punishment was used in US schools until just a few centuries ago. Up until then, it was the norm. But that didn’t mean that kids were okay with it. Is it the same here? I also wonder what it’s doing to the kids psychologically; is it burning into their brains that they’re not good enough? That they deserve bodily harm for talking out of turn or just sitting there? I don’t know the answer to these questions—I only have an idea of their answers for kids in US school systems—but if the answers were yes, would the cultural norms be valued over the impact it has on the kids? I don’t really know how to make sense of it all. Every time I try to ask a teacher these kinds of questions, the only answer I really ever get is “it’s just our tradition.” Alright then.
During my time at Louis Marie, I’ve thought a lot about my western lens/bias. If you could tap into my brain, you would probably hear the following on repeat: When is it [western bias] okay? Is it ever okay? Should I always try to be objective? Is complete objectivity even possible? What things about the American school system are actuallybetter? Is “actuallybetter” even real? (Does that make sense?) Kids being hit for disciplinary purposes is bad in every context, right? Or is that only what America has taught me to believe? I’m glad I’m seeing some positives, but would the negatives even exist for me without my pre-existing western lens? Should I compare apples and oranges? What does this all mean? Aaaahhhhh!!
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