On Teaching

At around 1pm today, the last two teachers got on the bus to Apia.  My principal had left about an hour earlier in a cab and the 4th teacher never showed up today.  And my fourth week of school came to an end.  My school, like my village is very small.  We have one teacher for each two grades, and each combined class is around 20 students.  My project focuses on years 4, 5 and 6, which means that I have 27 students total.  I know all of their names now, and I’m beginning to learn nicknames.  The first week, I gave an individual assessment to each student.  The assessment had 5 sections: identifying all uppercase letters, identifying all lower case letters, producing all letter sounds, writing 3 simple sentences when dictated, answering 5 basic questions in English and reading a list of common sight words, with a score out of 50.  My highest score was a 42 from a year 4 student (her year 6 sister scored a 40.  Their father is a palagi and they are both essentially fluent english speakers.)  My lowest score was a year 6 who scored a 6.  Out of 50. You get one point just for knowing your own name.  I divided the 27 students into 3 groups based on their assessment scores.  Each group has students from all 3 grades and I pull each group out of their regular classes every day (Monday-Thursday; Friday is a planning/make-up day) for a 35-40 minute literacy lesson.  My daily schedule is flexible to accommodate the year 5-6 teacher who looses a third of his class each time I pull out a group.  I do my best to be as adaptable as possible since this strange dynamic will continue for the next 2 years, and I’d prefer for him not to see me as a combatant.  However, it’s hard not to feel like a nuisance every day, when he sighs heavily and frowns and says, “Well….I need to teach my lesson…can you wait?”  And so I will until I see him wander out for a cigarette.  It also doesn’t help that every time I walk past his classroom, every student turns, stares and at least a few of them will say hi or shout out their group color. (I labeled my groups with colors to try to avoid the leveled labeling that happens in Samoan classrooms: “at risk”; “advanced”; etc.  Everyone can easily figure out which are the high and low groups, but at least it’s not coming from me.)  I catch the eye of my tiniest student (a year 6 named Jonathan) who pumps his fist in the air and shouts “Green groups!  Green groups!”  We haven’t talked about singulars and plurals yet.  There are 8 students (all dudes) in green group(s) and I think only 2 of them scored above a 20.  In addition to Jonathan (who tried to erase my blackboard for me the other day and couldn’t reach the top of my handwriting even at a running jump,) I have the largest 10 year old I’ve ever seen.  He’s nearly the same height as me, and reminds me of my friends’ husky puppy.  He has huge eyes that never leave my face and always seems to have his mouth open.  He stares and listens, eyebrows working trying to make sense of my odd combination of English and poor Samoan.  He always stands or sits in the front row not realizing he’s blocking the view of at least 4 other students behind him.  He looks like he’d be a shouter, but whenever he answers a question he speaks very softly.  Green group also has John, who has more confidence and charisma than most of the other kids combined.  Samoan students are punished or reprimanded for answering questions incorrectly, so most of them will shut down if they don’t know an answer, or will sit staring/thinking until you move on and ask someone else or ask a different question.  On his assessment, John answered every single question immediately.  He named every letter, produced every sound, “read” every word on the sight word list.  When I dictated sentences to him, he filled the line with text.  He scored a 7 out of 50.  Less than 10 of his letter names were correct with zero correct sounds.  In his long elaborate lines of text, I could only detect 3 or 4 letters that weren’t gibberish.  Giving assessments was terrible.  It felt like administering torture.  In the space of every interminable pause as they would sweat and tremble and dredge the depths of their memory for information that simply wasn’t there, I just wanted to hug each one and shout, “Don’t worry! We’ll get there!  I’m going to teach you that.  It’s totally ok that you don’t know right now, because we’re going to learn it together.  Take a deep breath.  It’s going to be OK.”  And it will be.  And it is.  And we are.  All of my groups are 3 letters away from knowing the names and sounds of all the letters in the alphabet.  Thanks to the very generous gift of a teammate’s mom, who copied, laminated and mailed boxes of zoo phonics materials to several of us.  Each letter gets an animal, a sound and an action.  My green group still has a hard time with not making the K sound for G and producing any sound for J (the action for that one is too much fun so it’s all they remember) and X, Y, and Z, but if you show any of them an A, a T or an S, with huge smiles they’ll flap their arms in all kinds of weird ways and make perfect letter sounds.  


I’ve been frustrated by many aspects of Samoan culture lately, but one thing that I find truly beautiful is the way children are taught to love to serve.  That love is then often taken advantage of by adults who recruit children to do anything they just don’t want to do themselves.  However, if treated with respect and affection, these really are the sweetest kids I’ve ever met.  Getting to do chores for you is a delight to them.  I sweat a lot here.  You know that game you play in the car when you’re a kid and it’s raining.  You watch drops running into each other and combining and dropping faster and you make bets on which ones will “win?”  I frequently play that game on my own face.  (Where’s that sweat drop going, where’s it going?  Will it make it all the way to my chin?  Take a turn and run down the neck?  Meet up with that guy coming around the earlobe?  OOp there it goes!  Is my eyebrow going to be thick enough to catch that next one? Nope!)  So the other day I was sitting in my classroom after my groups were finished.  The 5-6th teacher was absent, so most of my kids were in my room “reading” books or just hanging out.  One girl asked me if I was hot.  What gave it away, I wonder?  Without thinking, I said yes, and immediately I was mobbed by students using the books they had in their hands to fan me.  Embarrassed, I gave an awkward “heh…” and picked up my sweat bandana and sheepishly wiped the larger drips off my face.  The girl who’d originally asked the question took the, damp, rank, cloth out of my hands and very gently, almost reverently wiped my face, neck and back.  She then tucked the gross, wet fly-aways behind my ears and told me I looked pretty. (Everyone else is still fanning all this time.)  Overwhelmed by this display, I laughed awkwardly again and said, “You’re treating me like a princess!” to which they responded by all calling me “Princess Rina” for the rest of the day.


The education system here is frustratingly broken (as it is most places,) and I was feeling glum about it the other day when I had an epiphany.  I was watching my school sing their morning prayers and the national anthem (the little year ones in the front row, eyes squeezed shut, mouths wide open, belting at the top of their lungs,) and I was thinking about their lives.  From what I understand about the Tribal Lands Act, properties just stay with families for generations.  Most family properties include at least small taro plantations and gardens.  Most families own some pigs and chickens and everyone’s close enough to the ocean to never go hungry.   “Living” expenses (in terms of survival) are essentially nil.  Not to mention that if you do have a need, your family or village will very likely take care of you.  It’s very easy to grow up, get married, raise a family and live a very contented life without ever needing any type of formal education.  Which provides little motivation to improve the system.  But what about the kids who want more than that? I wondered.  What about the ones who want to do something more than just grow taro and have babies?  Who want to travel or work or just like to learn?  An I realize that really the only thing you need to know in order to be able to teach yourself absolutely anything is how to read.  If you know how to read, you have the ability to grasp your education with your own hands.  


I’m not going to change the world by being here. I won’t fix the education system in Samoa in 2 years. I doubt anyone will.  There are some exciting changes taking place, but they will be gradual and slow.  In my two years I will be able to do essentially one thing:  I will teach a few kids how to read, and read better.  And that’s enough. 

2 thoughts on “On Teaching

  1. ❤ You really are awesome.

  2. Carolyn says:

    I loved reading this. I could see (and hear) your students, and feel how much you love them already… I’m glad you’re only at the beginning of your two years…you have so much time to enjoy them. I loved your epiphany about reading – it encouraged me too as I feel overwhelmed with homeschooling… If I teach my kids how to learn, give them tools and get them curious, they can do the rest themselves!

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