All I really need to know about teaching I learned from teaching without a light switch


My first experience teaching English was in Burkina Faso – at that time one of the ten poorest countries in the world.  My only resources were a box of chalk, a chalkboard, and a florescent light bulb.  The light bulb turned on (most days) by maneuvering two wires sticking out of the wall precariously to make them spark.  My ride to school on the unpaved roads of Ouagadougou involved dodging livestock, steering around deep ruts in the road, and waving at the bright smiles of barefoot children seeing a nasara for the first time in their lives.  Many of the fundamental tools I still use in teaching, I learned in that sparse classroom.

  1. Students who want to learn can accomplish unlimited things. I had one student ride his bike two hours one way to come to my English class because he wanted to practice speaking with a native speaker to improve his English before he went to seminary in English.
  2. There are always resources we can’t afford.  Using what is available goes a long way. While we didn’t even have textbooks, we used songs, quotes, and the chalkboard.  We did groupwork, individual work, and pairwork.  We wrote on the chalkboard, used photocopies, and memorized poems.
  3. Students are first individuals, students second. Until teachers know what affects students’ realities outside of the classroom, they are limited in their knowledge of how to help them learn inside the classroom.
  4. What happens inside my classroom is not the only factor that affects students’ attitudes. The developing world makes it very easy to remember that humans do not completely control what happens around them, and that this sometimes spills over into the classroom.  The donkeys braying outside my classroom every afternoon made this quite clear. On rainy days, my students didn’t come to class because the unpaved roads turned to mud and made travel challenging.
  5. Sometimes the bigger systems keep the little systems from working right. Hungry children do not focus as well as fed children.  Access to money means access to education means access to freedom of choice.  Corrupt governments oppress the poor and enable the wealthy.
  6. Being a teacher holds inherent power, whether we recognize it or not. In Burkina Faso, I represented America – as much as I hated to admit – and the power that came with it.  Regardless of where my classroom has been, the position of teacher has given me a platform which affects others.  How it affects them is left to whether I handle my power with humble servanthood or proud dictatorship.
  7. A smile goes a long way. Even without the ability to communicate with language, smiles speak a message of their own.

This isn’t to say that resources are bad – they are, in fact, very helpful.  It’s just that sometimes the most potent realities of teaching don’t have anything to do with resources for teaching is an act that occurs between two human beings, not two computers or two pieces of paper or two textbooks.

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2 thoughts on “All I really need to know about teaching I learned from teaching without a light switch

  1. These tips are a very helpful reminder to every teacher throughout the world. I agree with you that teaching means interacting with others with whatever resources are available. I recently taught a class without access to a chalkboard. It was a very interesting experience!

    Thank you for sharing your story about your first teaching experience. I found it very inspirational.

  2. Great post! My first teaching experience was in a similar situation. I taught English to Spanish speakers in Iquitos, Peru where I had a whiteboard, a few markers, and a classroom that doubled as a chicken coop. Iquitos is in the Amazon, and every time it rained (which was often) the dirt floors of my classroom would flood and become muddy and unmanageable. Despite the lack of resources, my class was always overflowing with students. I had more children than places to seat them, and their parents would often look on from the windows, excited to be learning along with their kids. Resources are important, and could have greatly helped me improve my classroom, however a teacher’s ability to improvise and have faith in their students is an important indicator of success. My students came from extremely poor backgrounds which sometimes affected their ability to attend class due to economic needs, however they were all excited to be there and tried very hard to succeed. We became great friends during my time there, and I hope that the knowledge I transmitted to them will help them achieve a better future. Iquitos is a tourist city, where speaking English can greatly contribute to economic success and a career in tourism. Education is an incredible tool that can lead to opportunities to greatly improve an individual’s quality of life. As teachers we have a great responsibility to serve our students to the best of our ability and advocate for them because their time with us could be the key to a better life.

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