My official job description is “Primary English Teacher,” so it’s about time I wrote about teaching English!
When I was applying to jobs and fellowships in Africa, I knew that I would likely be teaching English because of my experience at the UCLA Writing Center. I felt weird about this. On the one hand, it was a job I felt like I had the skills and experience to do well. On the other hand, teaching English abroad can have some uncomfortable implications. It’s a colonial language, for one thing, and you could argue that teaching English is a neo-colonial project. There’s also a voluntourism trend of unqualified Americans who aren’t sensitive to issues of development getting English teaching jobs.
In Lesotho specifically, I do think English teachers have the opportunity to do a lot of good. Schools here are “English medium” beginning in Grade 4, meaning that all subjects are supposed to be taught in English. So a student with weak English skills probably also struggles in their other classes due to the language barrier. In addition, students sit national exams at the end of primary school that determine whether they’ll be accepted to high schools, and without strong English, they cannot possibly perform well on these exams and lose the chance to continue their education. Because of Lesotho’s position inside South Africa, most well paying jobs (both in Lesotho and South Africa) require strong English.
So, although it may be problematic that the system in Lesotho puts so much emphasis on English over the local language, the reality is that students who aren’t proficient in English lose opportunities for education and employment. And honestly, many Basotho teachers don’t have the English proficiency themselves to teach it well. That means that good English teachers are extremely valuable here.
So, how do I try to be a good English teacher?
I have to make my plans based on the Lesotho Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) syllabus and teachers’ guides. I teach grades 6 and 7, and in total, I teach 17 English classes a week.
These resources are okay, but they’re also relatively sparse. I use other English-teacher books to remind myself of grammar concepts I’m not sure about. My main goal in lesson-planning is to think of ways to make lessons fun, student-centered, and useful for learners with different learning styles. I do this with a lot of games, teaching aids, art projects, and stickers (Basotho kids love stickers). We have a WhatsApp group for English teachers where volunteers ask questions and share ideas, which is helpful.
It’s important to note that I’m not just a teacher – I’m a co-teacher! I don’t just swap places with the Basotho classroom teachers when the time for English class rolls around. Instead, I teach alongside them. Co-teaching is sustainable because it’s an organic way to integrate training of teachers into our work; it allows Basotho and volunteers to share teaching methods and styles. I have a different rhythm with each of the two teachers I work with, but generally I act as the main teacher and they help with Sesotho translation when needed or work one-on-one with students who need extra help.
There are definitely challenges associated with teaching here. My school has very few resources, so I often make teaching aids out of scraps of paper. Also, many of my students have had interrupted schooling or are generally behind the syllabus. This means that I have to backtrack before teaching a given topic to ensure they understand it; for example, before teaching a specific verb tense, I might have to spend several classes reviewing parts of speech in general. Even the students with decent English struggle to understand my American accent, but this has improved significantly over time (and I make sure to speak very slowly). Of course, I’m also not a certified teacher. There’s so much I don’t know about teaching, but I’m learning on the job and asking lots of questions as I go.