Things I’ve Learned So Far

So far, I have learned far more than I could ever express in a handful of paragraphs. If I’m being honest, I admit I’m having a little of trouble thinking of where to start. I suppose I’ll start when I started learning new things: The first week of school.

One of the first things that I learned was that the teachers and students are all very Tanzanian. This should come as a shock to no one, but what I mean is that their culture is very laid-back. One Swahili phrase I keep hearing – on the streets, at the hotel, at school – is pole, pole, which means “slowly, slowly.” It pretty much sums up their entire frame of mind. And this is not some little thing. It permeates every little crevice of society. From tourism – plans change as quickly as the guides change their minds – to the market scene – shopkeepers are in no rush to sell, but they do want you to eventually buy something, and they aren’t worried if, per se, you have a dinner party you need to get to – to the schools – where classes are scheduled to start at times like 8:00, 9:20, 10:40, and so on, but the teachers in the classroom take their time wrapping up lessons and the teachers moving from classroom to classroom don’t interrupt that.

It’s not that I mind; it’s actually quite nice. But the thing about it that bugged me at first was that I felt like nothing would ever get done. This fear has since been alleviated, but for the first week of school it was a very real doubt. I have since learned (in the past week or so) to really appreciate the nonchalance of this culture, and to enjoy the inherent relaxation and stress-freeness that seems to accompany it. For instance, the teachers at every school here have a built-in time for the staff to have tea. And while we have tea, we only have tea. Seriously. I tried to do some prep for my next class one time, and my Second Master, Mr. Mevashi, leaned over to me to tell me, in his almost Entish meter, “Mr. Andrew, now is the time for tea. Do not worry about teaching. Do not work. Pole pole.” And he laughed with me. Apparently, tea is such a tradition you can’t even do your job during it. Not that I minded – I am typically a minimalist when it comes to planning: a basic outline is always enough for me. So I guess over the past two weeks, the true meaning of pole pole is something I’ve learned.

Another thing that I’ve learned over this time is something I think is very important for teachers to know and understand. Not just tuck it away into their heads for when they need it, but to genuinely think on it for a while and let its meaning sink in. That thing is this: you will be asked to teach things you’re bad at, and things you don’t want to teach. And that’s not something you can back out of, especially if it’s what you went to school for. I mean, shoot, you spent four or five years at a high-cost university to do this one thing, and you chose the areas of emphases, and you are one of something like twenty people who will be in charge of some kid’s entire education until he or she gets to college, if he or she even does. I think that takes away your right not to teach something well because you didn’t like it or weren’t good at it. That’s a privilege you just don’t get anymore. Because you’re the source and the sounding board for each kid’s learning, and as such it is your responsibility to be an expert. I’m not saying that you need to know everything about everything, but you need to know something about everything. And you need to know something well enough – at an expert level – in order to teach it. Because knowing “how you learned it” isn’t enough. Because your kids aren’t you. And they won’t learn like you did. And those last three sentences are fragments, because they contain conjunctions that do not internally reference an object, and are hence incomplete thoughts. And that’s not something any of us math teachers will ever have to teach, but it’s something we should know nonetheless. That is the second thing I learned. I learned it because I was asked to teach an area of physics that I didn’t love and that I wasn’t great at – optics. But that wasn’t an excuse for me not to teach it, or not to teach it well. I studied up and I got back on top of my optics game, and I actually really enjoyed it, because I got to learn something again, and it was almost like it was the first time I was learning it, and I got to liking it again.

Then there was the safari. This was four days in which I learned more about Africa than I think I ever anticipated. The first thing I noticed was that we were all betting on which animal we think we’d see first, and half of us said zebra. The other half said gazelle. A small amount of people had the bravery to guess that we would see a big cat first, like a cheetah or a leopard – this was most unwise. I thought this was a funny way to think about Safari, but it was okay, because I turned out to be right, and we saw a ton of zebras fairly immediately in the Serengeti. They looked remarkably like horses, which didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was that my driver told me that nobody has tried to train a zebra like we train horses in the U.S. This did catch me a bit by surprise, because I would think that the Maasai, being herdsmen mainly, could stand to gain from training zebra like horses, and using them to drive their cattle. I suppose they use donkeys for this, though.

A few hours into safari, we saw our first big cat. They were adolescent lions with their mother. I was told they were learning how to hunt, and this made sense to me, because there was one lioness who didn’t seem to care about the safari jeeps in the road, or the fact that she was walking straight across the road. The young boys – and I could tell they were boys because they had short manes – just followed her. I learned when I saw them that they were much smaller than I had expected. I expected each lion just to be this mass of muscle and giant and imposing, but they weren’t. The lions themselves would probably have come up to my hip, at the biggest, mid-stomach, and they seemed very chill and non-lethal, at least to people. I know this was probably misguided, because if I had tried to touch a lion, I’m sure I’d lose that hand. I was just surprised at how small they were.

Another thing that surprised me was how big some of the other safari animals were. For instance, the giraffes were said to be something like five or six meters tall – for those unfamiliar with metric, that’s nearly twenty feet! Oh, and they fought. They would swing their necks – it looked like slow-motion – and smacked them together. Our driver said this had the potential to kill one or both of them. Speaking of things that have the potential to kill giraffes, apparently laying down has that potential (blood-flow problems to the brain) or leaning downward for too long (same problems). The elephants were also enormous, weighing in at more than two safari jeeps’ worth, and they tore down entire trees to eat. This was awesome to behold. I don’t say awesome in its pop-culture sense, here. I am referencing its old meaning, of “inspiring great awe.” It was quite an experience.

There are other things I have learned so far, but I will leave that to other bloggers. Especially since in Lutheran Tetra, our teachers instruct in very similar ways to the manner in which we teach, and they are very supportive of us, which is a great thing.


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