One Hundred Students and a Piece of Chalk

One Hundred Students and a Piece of Chalk

By Mary Gormley, Kristina Troy, Aoife Marren and Emer O’Reilly (Student Teaching Volunteers June 2014)


Aoife Marren going back to basics with a piece of chalk and blackboard

Getting there

On June 5th five wide eyed 4th Year Science Education students and 25 other volunteers headed for the small town of Nansana in Uganda. For many of us this day was the result of months of fundraising but somehow, even at the airport the reality still had not hit us. It was not until heavily armed guards greeted us at the airport in Kampala that we realised where we were going. Outside the airport as we poured into small minivans it quickly became apparent that in Uganda seatbelts and indeed general road safety did not exist. As the rickety vans sped down dirt roads, constantly swerving to avoid other vehicles, animals and children, the sound of hysterical laughter could be heard from many of the volunteers as reality started to dawn on us all. After a short while we reached our home for the next three weeks. As I carefully tucked myself under my mosquito net on that first night I felt entirely overwhelmed but tremendously excited for everything the next three weeks would hold.

The following day the seven secondary school teachers among the volunteers were assigned a nearby high school called Victoria High. We had been invited to a staff meeting, which began three hours late due to unbelievable monsoon rains. The issues discussed by Ugandan teachers were poor pay, challenges faced by teachers and discipline issues. This could have been any staffroom in an Irish school. However, as the discussion continued, problems such as malnourished students, lack of food for teachers and corrupt school management painted a much bleaker picture. The majority of the staff were delighted to see our fresh Irish faces and seemed genuinely interested in how the education system was run in Ireland. The school community was phenomenally welcoming and on that first day they refused to let us leave without eating the ‘special’ food they had cooked for us, their visitors. That evening, each of the seven secondary teachers discovered why it might not be so wise to accept the culinary offerings in a Ugandan school: until our stomachs adapted we might need to think twice before accepting a ‘special lunch’ the next time!

My initial impressions of Uganda were incredibly positive. From the moment we stepped of the plane our senses were assaulted by things we had never experienced before. Vibrant colours and exotic smells were the daily norms. However, the everyday struggles of the Ugandan people were heart-breaking to see and taking in this poverty and extreme hardship did not get easier as the trip went on. But from day one, right until our final day, the people of Uganda welcomed us with open arms. Looking back, I realised that in those first few days I fell in love with Uganda and now as I sit in my Dublin flat I am confident that I will return in the not too distant future.

Mary Gormley and pupils of Victoria High
Teaching in Uganda

Teaching in Uganda brought many surprises that I did not expect. Before we left for the three week placement we were told about the approx. 80 students that we would have to teach per class; we were told about the lack of resources that the schools had and we learnt about the privilege it was to attend school as a lot of families could not afford it. It was the little things that seem to be not worth mentioning that surprised me most. First of all, the lack of resources was not an overstatement. Most classrooms had only a blackboard and one piece of chalk. Surprisingly, the school had a small science lab with limited equipment and chemicals, but it was clear when we did use them in one class that they were not used very often and none of the students ever got a chance to use them themselves.

The methods of teaching in Uganda were very different to our experiences of an Irish classroom. It was all about transmitting information to the students, which mainly meant copying from a book to the blackboard for students to take down. The students were used to learning definitions and memorizing information but when asked to expand or explain, they were unable to do so. On the surface they understand a topic, but once you dive beneath the surface it is clear that they never asked the common questions asked by Irish students such as “Why?” Using the many different methodologies we had learned in our Education lectures and in our Teaching Practice, we set about planning for and teaching in surroundings that were very far removed from what we had become accustomed to.

Another thing that surprised me was that even in Uganda it was so essential for us as Irish and Ugandan teachers to work together. Even though we were bringing with us our knowledge from teaching in a developed country, some of the topics that we were teaching the students were not on the Irish curriculum so we needed the Ugandan teachers to help us to teach them. It was this relationship that not only enabled us to bring a different way of thinking to the students, but through it we gained insights about teaching and shared a new way of thinking with the teachers. The relationship we built up with these teachers was similar to that of any staffroom with everyone picking up ideas from everyone else.

On our first day in Victoria High it was commented on that we were seven female Science and Maths teachers. This to the people of Uganda was seen to be very strange as females did not normally excel in Science and Maths there. Because of this we were asked by the Dean of Studies and the Principal of the school to talk to all of the girls about studying Science and Maths in university and to promote the subjects within the school. I found it to be a fantastic experience as the girls were very eager to hear all about our studies and what it is like to study Science and Maths in Ireland. Some of them were very high achieving students and wanted to be doctors and lawyers but did not seem to know what subjects they would need to be good at to excel in such professions. I feel that us talking to them was a very worthwhile experience for the students as young girls need role models in their lives and for the first time I felt like a positive role model to these young students.

My most vivid memory from our three weeks teaching was our last class. We were making posters with the equivalent of 3rd year Irish students on the water cycle. It was an amazing sight and being very aware of the fact that this could be my last time standing in front of a class of Ugandan students, it became clear that they had come a long way in the three weeks. From the shy students that would only ever answer a question with a definition, we were now looking at engaged and energetic students who were now asking “Why?”