Notes from the field: St. Joseph’s College

Whewwwww…time is flying and I’m already at the half way mark of my time in Botswana. After all the roadtrippin’, I returned to my scheduled school visits last week by visiting one of the best in the nation, St. Joseph’s College.

Located on the outskirts of Gaborone (only a 15 minute drive from my apartment), St. Joe’s is located near Kgale hill on a beautiful campus. I had been hearing about St. Joe’s since my arrival. It was the first Catholic school in Botswana and is the only school that is supported by both the government and Catholic Church. It regularly scores the highest marks on the Cambridge exam and obtains some of the top students in the country. In fact, when I asked teachers about this they remarked that they get average students but that they have high expectations. Many other teachers I talked to at the various other schools I visited, commented that St. Joe’s has the best scores because they “recruit” the top students from other schools. Again, I asked about this and the teachers all told me that St. Joe’s does not control who they get. Various junior schools feed into St. Joe’s and they get who they get. Regardless, there was definitely a different tone at St. Joe’s than I have seen previously.

I visited various classrooms during my short visit including social studies classes and history classes. I even taught a lesson on the causes of WWI. My favorite part of my visit was definitely being able to present and then hold discussions on what life was like in the US and how it differed from Botswana. Check out my notes below:

-Class sizes are HUGE at St. Joe’s. I have been regularly hearing about classes nearing 50 but haven’t witnessed them because in most schools, history is a dying subject with few students. It seems to be quite popular at St. Joe’s and they aren’t concerned about numbers. Every class I observed was 40+ students, with the largest at 48.
-Exams run everything. This has been a recurrent theme in my school observations but it was especially heavy at St. Joe’s where they regularly score some of the highest marks in the country. It’s in the very air they breathe–you will do well at St. Joe’s. I regularly reflect on the exams and wonder how schools would differ without them.
-Students were highly engaged. In every classroom, students (particularly girls) were confident enough to ask and answer questions. I saw so much more involvement from students at St. Joe’s than I have previously. I think this is due to the culture they impose at the school. If you want to do well on the exams, you need to be involved.
-St. Joe’s has resources. Not only do they receive funding from the government, but they also receive funding from the Catholic Church. It’s also the only school I’ve visited that takes students on trips. They are also the only school I know of with buses! They have one 45-seater and one 75-seater. The social sciences department is currently planning their yearly international trip to Cape Town set for this July. They’ve been to various locations in South Africa, Victoria Falls and Namibia. They also try to take yearly local visits to various historical sites in Botswana. Students and their families pay for this trip but it’s organized by the school. I was highly intrigued in their trips as I also take students on trips (with an upcoming trip to Europe scheduled for 9 days after my return in June!). I wish that there was infinite money in the world that would allow teachers to be able to take students on daily trips and learn in various environments. I truly believe in experiential learning and there are so many great resources here (and in Minnesota!) but funding for these trips is almost zilch. The history teacher I was discussing the trips with told me that the trips are one of the reasons their department is doing so well here. Students get excited about history because they can actually experience it. I couldn’t agree more. Now, who wants to fund these trips for us?!?!
-Students not only go to school M-F, but they show up on Saturday mornings as well (teachers too!). It’s absolutely required that students show up from 8:15-10:15 on Saturday mornings to do extension lessons. Many teachers will show films or do activities that enhance the learning they have been doing during the week. If extension lessons are also needed during the week—teachers will hold classes before classes (6:45-7:30—Ufffffdah). There is plenty of time built in for studying and most of this is due again, to the pressures of performing well on the exam.
-Classrooms are clean, put together and students rise every time an adult enters the room. Then, in chorus, they say “Good morning/afternoon sir and mam”. Classes are the typical 80 minutes and desks are arranged per usual in straight rows facing the front of the classroom. Whiteboards are in nearly every classroom but they also have two different AV (or tech classrooms) available for students/teachers to use.
-The “stick” had a much larger presence at St. Joe’s than I’ve seen elsewhere. This is widely used as a way to discipline students across the nation but it’s still very shocking for me to see in person. Teachers in the states can’t even place their hand on a student’s shoulder without repercussions. One morning I was walking from the office and witnessed a total whooping of a student. Teachers also use the stick if students scores don’t improve from test to test, if they are late or not upholding expectations. Students asked me if teachers used the stick in the States and I replied that I would be arrested and lose my job if I did. They laughed and cheered. I often tell students and teachers that students in Botswana are generally far more disciplined and respectful than students in the United States. There is so much trust in schools in Botswana. Teachers could leave for 15 minutes and students will ACTUALLY keep quietly working. I believe a lot of this is due to the use of the stick but also the responsibility parents give the school. There are no helicopter parents and teachers are respected AND expected to be the parent at school—which means if a student isn’t behaving, then you get your butt whooped. One teacher at St. Joe’s told me that in order to get their kids to behave that you need to “beat their ass.” She said it so matter of factly. While I don’t believe I need to use the stick to encourage students to respect each other, the space and me–it’s something to think about. How can we build discipline and respect without it?
-Many teachers during my time in Botswana have commented on the need for change in the educational system. That the way it worked for their parents (teacher-centered, lecture-based) just isn’t cutting it, but that “change is hard”. St. Joe’s is no exception. Teachers receive monetary awards if students perform well on the exam, so everyone wants to teach at St. Joe’s but it’s also a lot of pressure. I saw some different teaching methodologies while I was there but for the large part it was still lecture-based. As I may have mentioned previously, I think a lot of this is due to lack of resources. That being said, I witnessed a debate regarding colonialism that was one of the best things I’ve seen in a classroom yet. Students were so passionate about the two different sides that people outside of the group assigned to debate joined in. It was awesome!
-When discussing the United States, students often asked about and engaged in conversations about the following: 1) Trump. There is no escaping him—As one teacher expressed to me, “The United States is the most powerful nation in the world. What they do effects everyone else. What Donald Trump does effects us all.” 2) Student and school life. Students are always so jealous when I tell them my kids don’t have to wear uniforms or take standardized exams in each of their subjects. 3) Basic human rights/government differences. 4) Homosexuality. As a very Christian country, homosexuality is still a relatively taboo subject in Botswana. Many students were interested/shocked at some of the different laws protecting the rights of homosexuals in the US.
-During my last lesson at St. Joe’s, I witnessed the process of handing back the monthly exams. This was a history exam from February and as students were preparing to write for the March exam, they needed to review it. The teacher warned me that he would have beaten students with a stick if they didn’t improve their exam from Jan-Feb but another teacher had taken his stick so they were going to have to deal with it another day. As I sat in the room, I watched the facial expressions of students as the teacher discussed he would be returning the exams. Some were scared, excited but almost everyone was nervous. Then, the teacher proceeded to one by one hand back the exams saying what each student scored on the exam and how that was either an improvement or not from the previous exam. It was so intense and again, another thing not allowed in the states. Data privacy restricts teachers from discussing individual grades. This history teacher laughed when I told him that. He put every student on blast (although only two didn’t improve from the month before). Every student improved and as a class they celebrated. I couldn’t imagine the reaction if I repeated this in my classroom. Students would freak out. This again demonstrates the expectations at St. Joe’s. It’s number one for a reason, and you better get on board or you will pay for it.
-As elsewhere, teachers at St. Joe’s were very nice and accommodating. I appreciate the opportunity to have the time to observe other teachers doing their thing, even if it’s different than my thing.

St. Joe’s was the last senior secondary school I will visit as this week I head to my first junior school. I’m excited to see the differences between the two levels of school and learn more about how the history of Botswana is taught in schools (social studies is required in junior schools and the history of Botswana is definitely on the syllabus). As I near the end of my school visits (next week is my last–eeeeek!) I continue to be thankful for the opportunity to learn from others. As learning is a two-way street, I’m also excited to share what I know during a two-day workshop at the end of April on active learning and different methodologies used in teaching history.  While I am definitely not an expert, I’m hoping to provide teachers with ideas on how to engage students and create movement within the classroom. History is up on the chopping block in Botswana and while change is hard, it’s necessary to keep kids interested in the subject.

*P.S. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures during my time at St. Joe’s. Instead, I leave you with the crest of the school that is on each and every uniform.

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