Notes from the field: Molefi Senior Secondary School

Before I begin this post, I just want to apologize for any future rambling that may occur on this blog. Honestly, there are a million things I would like to share every single day with you and I simply can’t make them all separate blog posts. Because you’d kill me. So, you’re going to have to accept the rambling. If you made it through these first few sentences and feel like you want to continue reading–well, then you’re into rambling. Which means, I’m into you.

This week, I had the pleasure of visiting Molefi Senior Secondary School in Mochudi. Prior to visiting, I had planned out all of my school visits based on geography. I thought I’d start somewhere close (in Gabs) and then branch out. Well, thanks to Google Maps–I was no where near the center of Gabs (as I thought). Instead, Mochudi takes an hour (without traffic) to get to. As stated on Botswana’s Tourism site, “Mochudi is home to the Bakgatla people, who migrated from present day South Africa in 1871 to escape Boer encroachment of their lands. They settled at the base of Phuthadikobo Hill and along the Ngotwane River. Like most major villages in Botswana, Mochudi is a mixture of old and new, traditional and modern, as is best seen through changing architectural preferences in housing.”

Like many names in the area, Mochudi is not the proper spelling. Rather, it's the British mispronunciation of the town. It stuck and hasn't been changed since.
Like many names in the area, Mochudi is not the proper Bakgatla name. Rather, it’s the British mispronunciation of the town. It stuck and hasn’t been changed since.

Mochudi high school is a sprawling campus that serves almost 1,600 Form 4 and Form 5 students! Rather than grades, schools in Botswana are organized by forms. As far as I understand it, Form 1 is 12-13 years old, Form 2 is 13-14, Form 3 is 14-15, Form 4 is 16-17 and Form 5 can be anywhere from 17 to 19 (even 23 or 24). Most students I observed looked 16 or 17 years old. Form 5 is the last level until you graduate and move onto post-secondary options such as university or technical colleges.

The campus is absolutely massive. How do I know? Well, other than seeing it with my own eyes, one of the history teachers took me on an HOUR AND A HALF TOUR. Granted, I met almost everyone that worked at the school (including the cooks!) it’s a huge space. I also visited teacher housing. YUP, you read that right. In Botswana, teachers and other civil servants (cops, etc.) receive subsidized housing. Simply cross a street and you find yourself walking amongst rows of smaller homes and apartments that teachers and their families rent (sometimes furnished) for $20 a month! I think this concept is so cool. Many villages are remote in Botswana or urban living can be very expensive. By providing quality housing near campus, you attract and keep teachers. So, US GOV—if you want to start paying my rent in Willow River….I’m down.

School Schedule and Choices (Not the Betsy DeVos kind of choices)
Schools in Botswana are organized and for the most part, ran very different than schools in the United States. First, both teachers and students move about campus. It has a very college feel to it. The schedule is AH-MAZING. Everyone arrives at 7:30 and leaves at 4:30 but students are only in classes from 7:45 to roughly 2pm. Teachers are guaranteed two hours per day to prep!!!!!! There are a variety of classes including all of the typical science, math, art, special education (this school specialized in visual impairment–Berglund, I met your counterpart and she was just as amazing as you!! No Butche though, I’ll be on the lookout.), agriculture (students actually maintain a huge field of crops and a chicken coop!), design and technology (Industrial Tech), English, Setswana, Development Studies, Home Economics (think finance, home management and FASHION CLASSES!!!) Social Studies and History. Social studies and history are actually two separate courses with two separate departments. This still feels strange to me as my awesome little department at Moose Lake does it all. Students are fed breakfast, lunch and if they live on campus, dinner. (Sidenote: Because many students live far from the nearest schools, most village schools offer dormitories or “hostels” for boys and girls. They even come with house mamas to make sure everyone is behaving.) From 2 to 4:30, students take part in extra-curricular activities, meetings or study/prepare for the next day. The school schedule is what amazed me the most as like the movement of classrooms, it runs similar to a college schedule. You have certain classes on certain days and large breaks in between. For example, Only one history teacher has a class tomorrow and the rest have the day for “marking” or planning. Now, this may be because Form 4s are currently not at school. They don’t come until the end of the month (don’t ask me why, it confused me). So, while the schedule was slightly different this month…typically teachers will have three class periods a day. If they want to grade at home, they do. Almost all of the 165 or so staff members LIVE on campus.

Students in Botswana take monthly exams (2 hour tests) as well as every year are required to take final exams in each of their classes to see if they pass onto the next form. These are not your average final exams like students in my classes may take but I’m talking nerve-wracking, we-don’t-like-them-in-the-USA, standardized tests. I was able to view the last few years of final exams administered by the Government and they are quite intense. Regardless of who you are and what your ability is, this test determines whether or not you will finish school and be able to go to university. Anxiety, Disability, Lack of sleep, study, home life does not matter–you live and breathe by the test. Teachers are expected to teach the entire syllabus (standards) and make sure their students know very specific details related to the subject in hopes that they will do well on the test. As an American teacher, I struggled with this concept but the history teachers at Molefi like it. It provides “focus” and still allows them time to explore things not necessary in the syllabus (I don’t know how they do it.)

The classrooms were in brick buildings typically arranged by subject. Metal desks and chairs were scattered about and in almost every class I observed, there was no seating chart. Some ceiling tiles were missing and chalkboards rattled while you wrote on them but other than that, they were typically clean and void of garbage (and lights). I saw no white boards, smart boards or computers in any of the classrooms. But, don’t let your mind wander to where it probably is wandering. When I first started at Moose Lake, I had a chalkboard too. Teachers didn’t take attendance and there were no phones in the classrooms to get a hold of students/teachers. Each department has an office or three (Haasis–maybe you belong in Africa?!) and that is where all books, papers and their lives are stored. While all teachers have their cell phones on them, no cell phones are allowed in school. PERIOD. Not hidden in their pockets, not in student lockers (no one uses lockers) and not in a bin in the front of the classroom (like the failed policy of this teacher). Ain’t nobody got time for students with cell phones at Molefi.

My Week’s Schedule
I spent most of my time on Tuesday engaged in conversation with the head of the history department and the Ministry of Education’s regional social studies officer. (Per usual, a letter was required a week in advance and then my supervisor had to pick up the regional officer who then had to formally introduce me to the Head Master and then I met the head of the department. Government bureaucracy at its finest.) On Wednesday, I continued interviews and was also able to observe two classes. Today, I taught a lesson (YIKES!) and observed another lesson and finished up with interviews. Tomorrow, I’m heading into school to say goodbye and then spend my day at the local museum, the Phuthadikobo. Because there are a million little notes I took over the past few days, I thought I’d just list some random thoughts/questions/observations about my time at Molefi.

Random things I learned, thought about, questioned and observed while at Molefi:
-Corporal punishment is legal in Botswana. Teachers may use a stick to tap students but I did not see any punishments during my week. One of the history teachers told me that by the time students reach this age, it’s unnecessary.
-Form 5 spends half their year on African History and half their year on Modern World History.
-The history department at Molefi believes that Americans only know about America. They don’t know about the world, its geography or history. They believe teaching the world is vital. They have to teach their students to be global citizens because they have to survive in this world.
-Unfortunately, I can’t disagree.
-Social studies and history courses are not required in any senior secondary schools. Social studies is required in junior secondary schools. The history department says they have to fight for their subject and even the students in their classes. Again, even though it’s not required–THERE IS A STANDARDIZED TEST FOR STUDENTS ON IT.
-The history department was very educated and talented. They were excellent teachers who related to their students, used humor and were not afraid to hold high expectations.
-Students are extremely dependent on teachers. They often were afraid to say anything for fear of mistakes.
-I pretty much realized that students are similar regardless of where they are in the world. They are social creatures who when giving presentations still lack confidence, get nervous and do awkward dance moves when they don’t know their information.
-Students at Molefi were the most disciplined and respectful students I have ever seen in my life. They were silent. They raised their hands. They said “Yes, m’am” after everything. They were well-prepared and they got stuff done. It was unbelievable. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. But, I saw ONE behavior problem in over five hours of classes. Classroom management is a breeze because there are virtually NO CLASSROOM ISSUES. Do you know how much learning can get done?
-At the same time, things sometimes felt robotic. Students were sleepy, and often sought teacher approval irregardless if they actually understood the information.
-Teachers told me that there are very few parent problems. Once a child is at school, the school is the parent. BOOM. No interference. If your child is brat and needs a whooping, they get a whooping. If they need guidance and love, they get it. The history teachers were flabbergasted at the notion of a parent calling into complain/change a student’s grade/challenge a teacher or the school. “Are you serious?” they asked. Ahhh, yeah–you don’t have helicopter parents here? Apparently not.
-Teaching styles are definitely lecture-based with heavy focus on the teacher.
-Everyone who attends school in Botswana wears uniforms. According to the teachers, it’s about equity. Some of these kids literally come from nothing. You can’t tell anyone’s background when everyone is wearing the same thing. They also remarked that bullying is virtually non-existent. Hmmmm, interesting. The uniform debate has long existed in the US.
-I’ve very curious about their school inclusivity. How do they accommodate special ed? Do a high percentage of students struggle with anxiety–as is becoming very common in the US? I saw virtually no differences between students. I know that all students take classes and special ed students are in the classrooms but it must operate very differently than in the US.
-While the teachers definitely encourage students to ask questions, almost no one did. This is so similar to the United States. Why is this? Why don’t students question things? Why do we just accept things as they are? I mean, cmon, I was in school once. I understand extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation and that sometimes in high school, you just want the easy route, but IT DRIVES ME NUTS.
-Students are divided up by “high achievers” and “low achievers” for every class. When observing them, the high achievers were less prepared and acted out more than the low.
-I saw the exam scores for the month of January for one of the classes. It was a “low” class and the highest score was a 71. The lowest was a 9. Kids in the US would be on my front door demanding I “give” them a better grade.
-Definite emphasis on rote memorization as all of the examples are necessary for the exam.
-Are students problem solvers? Are they learning how to tackle problems of the 21st century?
-I know that absenteeism is a huge issue in the states and according to the history teacher, also a problem here. Only if you reach 20 days you are EXPELLED from school. No coming back until the following year.
-The teachers understand that the media plays a huge role in what we know about each other (Batswana and Americans). Misconceptions and stereotypes are built from this. They fully admitted that even they would assume all Americans are rich, no one is living in the streets, we all love Trump (I’m not kidding) and we’re personal bffs with Beyonce and Jay. What do students think of Americans?
-Many students were shocked to see me in class. I know that my presence definitely affected their behavior–and apparently in the positive. One of the history teachers asked me to stay in his class forever.
-After I taught my lesson this morning, the history teacher told me that the kids will remember me forever, that she will remember me forever. Why? Because white people don’t visit the school and they certainly don’t teach if they do.
-When they teach colonialism (which unfortunately, I didn’t get to see–they were on European History in Form 5) they teach of both the positives and the negatives. They use primary resources at times but most often, are dependent on their textbooks or information packets.
-They suggested I seek out museums, oral histories, Chief papers and historical sites as primary sources to use in my classroom to help students understand this period in Botswana’s history.
-Teachers basically use standards-based grading and I really liked their system. They want to eliminate subjectivity. I can see what they enjoy teaching to the test and the focus that comes with it. Students must prove what they know.
-People are incredibly nice and welcoming.
-It made me miss my little school and the people in it.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Molefi and wish I would be able to spend more time there. Next week, I move to a village school only 5 kilometers from Gaborone. (That’s another thing—WHY DOESN’T THE UNITED STATES USE THE METRIC SYSTEM OR READ DEGREES IN CELSIUS?!?!!?!?!! I feel like an idiot trying to constantly convert. We are seriously one of the few countries in the WORLD who doesn’t. UGHHHHHHH. End rant.). It’s a wonderful experience to be able to observe other teachers and schools. There are things that obviously help my project, but it also allows me to build partnerships with people around the world and take ideas home to improve my own teaching.

Hallelujah and Happy Almost Friday!

P.S. I have every student/teacher’s permission to use their photos in my blog.
P.P.S. I had my first Setswana lesson this week and can now successfully say hello, my name is____, I teach history, goodbye and thank you. People totally laugh every time I speak Setswana but it’s awesome to finally be able to contribute a bit to the conversation.
What comes after P.P.S? Here is the link for photos of the week:

One Comment Add yours

  1. Ramble on, sister, that was an awesome post, your teaching style shines through, learned lots.

    Liked by 1 person

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