Awhile back I started tutoring two Form 4 students. At first, I was reluctant to work with them.
I felt protective of my time. I have also felt that everyone wants something from me: money, food, and/or to teach them English. I thought to myself, “Mrisho and Ally are not Project Wezesha students. So, why should I work with them?”
Ultimately I agreed to work with them once a week, if for no other reason than they were so damn persistent. I thought if I offered once a week they would accept the offer and fail to follow through thus saving my time.
Low and behold, they show up at my house every Tuesday at exactly 5 pm ready to work.
(Mrisho, left Ally, right)
I quickly went from dreading this extra “work” to looking forward to it. These two young men are full of ambition, hope, and grit.
My time tutoring them is spent on reading and writing English. They have been most interested in reading my guide book about Tanzania. (Place-based education would thrive here.)
In particular, they love reading about the nearest town and neighboring villages.
For writing, they have started a pen pal exchange with a former student of mine who is in high school at Journeys School.
To develop their interpersonal language skills, we spend time in conversation. I sometimes use story cubes to encourage their creativity, a trait that is undervalued in the Tanzanian education system.
Our dialogues help their pronunciation and provide them with an authentic way to use English. Past tense is still a challenge for them, but otherwise our conversation flow rather smoothly.
It is during these conversations that they tutor me. They have been my window into the life of students at Amahoro. They have shared with me the hardships students face.
I have seen corporal punishment. I have talked talked to headmasters who believe in it. I have intervened with teachers who are using it. I have researched it and read a variety of resources about it. Until talking with these two, the student perspective was absent in my growing knowledge of corporal punishment in Tanzania.
These two students have trusted me with their stories of being on the receiving end of corporal punishment. I am honored that they see me as a safe adult with whom they can talk.
In addition to expressing my sympathy to them, I have shared my beliefs with them. Corporal punishment is wrong. It is a violation of human rights. All students have the right to feel and be safe at school.
I’ve asked them what they do when they or a classmate is punished. They have responded that they don’t do anything because then they would just be punished more.
I’ve asked them what changes they want to see at school. I’ve talked to them about what activists are and the role of advocates. I’ve expressed that I want headmasters/teachers/school/culture to change so that adults are held accountable for protecting children and never beat a child.
They agree with me, but they feel stuck in a system they can’t change.
Mrisho and Ally are part of the student government. There are part of the 9 students who run the school. (7 boys, 2 girls). Like clockwork, the student leaders run everything regardless as to if teachers are present or not. They facilitate morning cleanliness, (hands to work) assembly, morning student speeches, announcements and attendance.
Mrisho and Ally told me that a teacher recently beat a Form 4 student in class to punish him for not completing his work. They told me the name of the teacher and I asked who was punished. They looked at each other and their friends. They confessed several member of student government, including them, had been punished (beaten) for not completing an assignment.
Upon being beaten, the head boy (that’s his actual title) who is the leader of student government wrote a letter on behalf of the other leaders and addressed it to the headmaster. It stated that as a result of being punished (beaten) that they are all resigning from their leadership positions.
My heart burst with pride as they told me this! Student activists! A revolutionary start to change!
Then they told me they were in trouble for writing the headmaster. Their consequence for expressing their plan to resign was to slash the grass in the far field. (By slashing grass, I mean using a machete type tool to cut the grass by manually.)
It was at this point that I met with all of the student leadership members. I had something important to teach them. A new word: bullshit.
Once again, I intervened. I went against the headmaster, second master, and disciplinary committee.
I told the students how proud I am of them. That I support them and oppose the teachers and headmasters. I told them not to slash the field. If the field needs to be slashed, I will do it. They will not do it as a punishment for speaking up and taking a stand for what they believe is right: human rights.
The student government expressed their gratitude and their fear. They appreciated my intervention but fear the retaliation of the headmaster and teachers. I can’t argue against that. I expressed that it is my responsibility as an adult to protect them, and that I will do everything in my power to do so.
Directly after talking to the students, I went to the headmaster’s office where I met with the headmaster, second master, and discipline committee chair.
Their truth was different than what the students reported to me. The headmaster claimed he didn’t know how the students were punished by the teacher. I charged him to take responsibility. He is the headmaster. Teachers report to him. He is responsible for holding teachers accountable for what they do or don’t do. I was met with the answer, “the punishment happened behind closed doors, I don’t know what happened.”
Yesterday I was the only teacher present at morning assembly. I had a Project Wezesha student translate for me as I told the entire student body an important message.
I shared with the students the tragedy that has recently occurred in the United States: another school shooting and 17 lives lost. I explained that the US government failed those students, adults failed those who lost their lives, and now students are mobilizing. Their voices are loud and clear, their message powerful and true. The youth are resisting. They are speaking up and demanding to be safe.
I told these Tanzanian students that it is always right to stand up for human rights. That I encourage them to do so. That I understand that there are reasons not to stand up as possible, if not, probably backlash may occur in this setting. I told them that it is up to them to decide for themselves if it is worth the risk to stand up for human rights but as for me, I will always stand up for their rights.
I’m not sure how many students understood my message, but I had to say it.
As for the student leaders, they are still in their positions and will hold them until elections are held. They did not slash the grass (nor did I) and they received no additional consequences.
To ensure students’ (temporary) safety, I took all of the sticks used for hitting children and threw them into the hill side. (I have done this many times before, unfortunately it is very easy to replace sticks.). I threw them out in sight of the majority of the 500 students at Amahoro. I want them to know that I am never going to hurt them. They are safe with me. I want them to know that I am trying to make their school safer for them.
I believe they got the message. They cheered when they saw my silent, but powerful action.
I also now have evidence that they know I am their advocate.
Yesterday in class a student interrupted me. “Madame, Stick.” And they all pointed to the room next door. My class of 60+ students became silent so that I could hear the undeniable sound of angry contact against fabric covering human flesh.
I left my class and entered the room next door. The image was disturbing. The room was silent, except for the teacher’s foot steps. All of the students had their heads down. The teacher was going down the row hitting each student, not with a stick, but with his hand. Of course I intervened.
His explanation was enlightening to me. He said knew I didn’t want him to use a stick to hit students but that he still needed to punish the students for their bad behavior so he was hitting them instead.
Perhaps this is progress. I admit, from the one hit I saw it was less physically forceful than the hits I have seen with a stick.
It also made me realize that although the students have received my message, the teachers have not understood it. My desire to have teachers stop using corporal punishment is not about my personal preference. It is about human rights. He didn’t use a stick because he knew I didn’t like it, not because he understood the negative impacts on the student. I have my work cut out for me to address his misconceptions.
In my presence, he lectured the students about their behavior. In closing he addressed me and said he has understood.
I returned to my class, and without missing a beat, picked up exactly where I left off. My students’ behavior was exceptional for the remainder of the class. Thus providing further evidence that building rapport with students by earning their trust improves classroom management.
I will continue to tutor Mrisho and Ally. I will continue to advocate for students’ safety.
I will continue to throw sticks down the hillside.
I will continue to intervene during corporal punishment incidents.
I will continue to work with the teachers to challenge their ideas of punishments.
I will continue to model and recommend alternatives to corporal punishment.
I will continue to fight for human rights.
I expect you to do the same.