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Teaching at Eburru Secondary School: Jennifer Sturdy  Jan-Mar 2012

Just a brief introduction to myself and to my period of teaching in Eburru:  I have taught for many years in the London Borough of Croydon.  I started off as a teacher of German, but as the demand for this declined, I taught more English as a Second Language, ending up as an advisory teacher for refugees and asylum-seekers.  This brought me into contact with pupils from around the world, and I became particularly interested in the situation in Africa.  I decided that I would like to work as a volunteer teacher, to try to assist with the education of young people in this continent.

Through contacts with friends, I was put in touch with Evans Ondieki, the principal at Eburru Secondary, who kindly said that he would be happy for me to work at his school.  Also through personal contact, I was able to find accommodation on Green Park, which enabled me to offer 8 weeks of teaching at the school.

Although I had spoken to colleagues at Langley Park School for Girls, who had already been to Eburru, I still had not much idea of what to expect.  I knew that it was more likely to be chalk and talk, rather old-fashioned to our way of thinking.  But it was still somewhat of a culture-shock.

I first visited the school the day after arriving in Kenya.  The high altitude made for a rather breathless walk up the hill, but luckily I had a guide to show me the way, and subsequently I was confident to walk alone, although I always maintained a wary look out for buffalo.  Mostly I met other people walking up or down from Eburru, and they were enormously friendly and always wanted to chat.  My life became one long English lesson!

The first surprise was to see so many children in one class.  I have never taught a class of 50 before, and it was just a sea of faces.  I observed one or two English lessons, and realised it was not my style of teaching at all.  There is a set textbook, and there is the expectation of covering one unit per week.  This mainly entailed exposition from the front, a few questions, and follow up homework.  The lessons are only 40 minutes long, short by our standards, but quietness and discipline are not a problem, so a lot of ground can be covered in that time.  It worried me that not all pupils would be able to keep up.  I saw no evidence of lesson plans or note keeping.  I asked some colleagues about writing reports, or talking to parents at parents’ days, and they said they kept all information in their heads.  I also asked about inspections, and they said the last inspection was 5 years ago, and they doubted that the inspectors could find the school!  Rather liberating, I felt.

My colleague in the English department with whom I worked most closely was Consolata, a young teacher who joined the school last March.  She is enthusiastic and popular, with a particular interest in drama.  I worked very rarely with Daniel, who taught mainly literature, and as I did not know the set books, he kept that area of the curriculum to himself.  I did not see him with lesson notes, nor did he ever set written homework. 

My desk and Consolata’s were always covered with piles of exercise books:  we both set and marked work constantly.  I marked at least 200 books each week.

I made it clear to the pupils that I would like them to talk to me, and that this was a great opportunity for them to practise their speaking and listening skills.  At first they were a little bit shy, but as time went on, they became more confident.  I taught mainly the two Form 2’s, but I had the occasional lesson with Form 3, and I took out conversation groups from Form 4.  The Form 1’s arrived half way through my time there, so I did not get to know them as well.  I was in school 3 days every week, sometimes 4 days.  I covered lessons for absent teachers if required.  I think my colleagues realised that I was prepared to turn my hand to most things.  I was interested in the setting up of the computer room, and tried to assist there.  I also helped Consolata with the drama club, which entered into a competition as I was leaving.

The staffroom conversations were very lively, and we discussed many topics; education, politics, marriage, the role of women, health care, corruption, really absolutely everything.  As in most staffrooms, it became apparent that although they were all friendly towards me, and on the surface to each other, nevertheless there were some undercurrents, one of which revolved around corporal punishment.  This is a situation which has subsequently been dealt with, but whilst I was there, I had some very intense discussions with colleagues who were distressed, as I was, that it was still continuing.

I also took an interest in the welfare of the boarders, and visited both the girls’ and boys’ dormitories.  They are clean and tidy, and seem well organised.  I did talk about fire risk, and no-one seemed to have thought about having a fire drill.  As they are single storey buildings, the pupils could get out of the windows if necessary, but I still feel that a discussion of the possibilities is necessary, and also perhaps the provision of more extinguishers.  The one and only is currently locked in the Chemistry lab.  As a result of an appeal, all girls and boys now have an extra blanket, as I was concerned that the majority only had one, and the nights are cold at 3,000m.

The two cooks do a fantastic job catering for 300 pupils.  The food is basic but perfectly adequate.  Lunch was rice and beans or ugali and sukoma wiki.  I certainly got used to it.  The pupils seem happy with that: the boys in particular were pleased to have meat on Sundays, but no-one looked under-nourished.  Many of the staff live in pretty basic accommodation in the village, a school lunch was their main meal.  They and many day students stayed at school in the evening because of access to electricity and water.

Any student who was sick had to sign the “hospital book” and visit the dispensary in the village for medication.  A student who needed referral was put on a boda-boda and sent off.

All the staff are very keen to improve the status of the school, and they were eagerly awaiting the KCSE results, which arrived on my last teaching day.  They were very good, and there was great jubilation.  The principal is a good leader, always approachable, and well-liked by staff and pupils alike.  He has a good relationship with the governors, and is grateful for the continuing support from TAS and the residents of Green Park and the Heritage Hotel Group.  He knows that his school is far better endowed than many.

I enjoyed my time there enormously, and am so grateful to all the teaching staff and the pupils for making me so welcome.  I feel that 8 weeks was about right.  It enabled me to get to grips with the curriculum, and the classes, but was not too long that I would undermine the normal code of practice.  I kind of added a novelty value I think.  I also tried to brighten up the classrooms by making posters, which was also well received.  If I returned, there are many other things I would take: coloured chalk, posters, drawing pins, more postcards of London, basic musical instruments, to name but a few.

If the opportunity presented itself, and if the principal would permit, I would dearly love to return.  I learned as much as I taught, I am sure.

I would like to express my thanks to many people: to Jennie Stoker who brokered many of the arrangements, to TAS for encouraging me, to Jan Strevens and Gisela Macintyre for on the ground support, to Evans Ondieki and all Eburru colleagues, plus the many people who stopped and talked to me everywhere I went.

I wrote a blog about my experiences: there are anecdotes and photos for anyone who may be interested in a more personal viewpoint.  http://jenkenya.wordpress.com/

Jennifer Sturdy

24 March 2012

jcs64uk@yahoo.com