Volunteer Review: Alex M., Teach English and Other Subjects in Senegal
Alex M., from Kent in England, was a teaching volunteer in St Louis for two months. During that time he experienced English teaching work in several different situations. Here he gives an overview of his time in Senegal:
"I left for Senegal on the 3rd January, still slightly hung-over from New Year and feeling completely under prepared for my two month stay - (except, I'll admit, for the comfort of travel socks and the Rough Guide to West Africa). I jumped on the plane at Heathrow and turned my attention to teaching. I had spent a month in Paris over the autumn as an Assistant Anglais but I couldn't imagine that my time in Senegal would be anything like this. True enough, the two were extremely different experiences.
My first school was the Collège Amadou Bamba. This private school is situated fifteen seconds' walk from the Pont Faidherbe bridge and spitting distance from the all important Pâtisserie. My classes were of sixième and cinquième students; lots of them. Each class had about fifty or sixty pupils crammed, three each onto desk-benches. I was given a page from the trusty Go for English textbook from which to teach and, more often than not, left to my own devices. Occasionally the teacher would sit in and advise me that my teaching style - possibly even old-fashioned in the UK - was too personal and informal. I'd never have expected that reading a text paragraph by paragraph through the class would be considered maverick but apparently chanting it was more appropriate. This took some getting used to.
When left to get on with it by myself, however, I found that the children were receptive to having their lesson my way. Behaviour, after the initial hysteria of seeing an eighteen year old white boy at the front of the class, was impeccable. I'm unsure as to whether they were just keen to learn or whether the backstage enforcement of discipline is stronger out there, but they were a completely different brand of student to the sort I'd seen in the UK and in Paris. I concluded that it must be a mix of willingness and fear.
The Lycée Faidherbe, my second school, is a much larger school, state-run and not as smooth round the edges as my first. However the teachers, administrative staff and pupils alike were much more helpful and my integration here felt a lot less like bombing into the deep end. The classes I had were séconde, première and terminale and so the lessons were nothing like anything I had done in Paris or even down the road in the collège. After shadowing my teacher for a couple of days I started to take my own two-hour grammar lessons where, I confess, I learnt as much in the preparation as they did in front of the blackboard. The teacher, far from discouraging modern pedagogical approaches, suggested I attempt the oh-so-unheard-of idea of Group Work. Gasp! It went really well, really too well for all the concern. He explained to me that whereas business, music and other western pursuits are taking root and growing at a fast rate in Senegal, education is, at the moment, rather stuck in its tracks. In what became a rather oratorical and long-winded monologue - the sort in which I've heard more than one Saint Louisian indulge - he persuaded me that schooling, or lack thereof, is what holds Senegal back in terms of development. Glad to be of service, I suppose?
Above and beyond the call of duty at the Lycée Faidherbe, we started a Club d'Anglais on the mainland with an equally appreciative and passionate teacher, Mr Sy. This, again, was completely different. The manifesto of the club was to encourage students to sing English songs and eventually perform in English plays so that they would see English not just as the dry chanting that I had seen at the Collège or the exam-focused grammar blitzing to which I was party at the Lycée. We rather underestimated how many people would be interested!
On our first meeting, Rosie and I stood up in front of around 250 beginners and sang "If you're happy and you know it..." This was a huge success apparently but fearing for our energy levels, vocal chords and, to be frank, sanity, we asked for immediate Projects Abroad volunteer backup. The team really pulled together and at very short notice we had six volunteers to help teach songs in our next meeting. There is now many a Senegalese child who knows the words to "Baa baa black sheep", "London's Burning", "Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes", "The Grand Old Duke of York" and thanks to Whitney from Sydney, "Aussie Aussie Aussie!".
Yet, nursery rhymes and motivational sports chants aside, my favourite teaching experience during my all too- short stay was definitely the evening classes. Adverts and application sheets had been circulated for free adult evening classes to be held in the Lycée Technique on Tuesday and Thursday nights. These were free and were taught by the Projects Abroad volunteers. I took classes with Danni for intermediate students and I enjoyed them considerably.
We had two hours and no rules. After suggesting that we just use the time to practise conversation and confidence, and having asked them what they'd like to do, we were surprised at how grammar-hungry they seemed to be. As a result we combined about an hour of grammar and exercises with an hour of topical discussion and word-games. This worked really well and we had quite a few heated debates about the role of women, the importance of religion, even the failures of the Senegalese national football team!
Although each of my four Senegalese teaching experiences was radically different, there were a few things I noticed across the board. The most noticeable and, to start with, most irritating difference was the clicking. I'm used to people putting their hands up to answer a question, but everyone I taught, from the eleven year olds at Amadou Bamba to the sixty year olds at the evening classes bayed for attention by clicking. For the first couple of weeks it drove me mad.
Another thing to mention is that spoken confidence is very low. Perhaps this is because people like my first teacher don't encourage individual speaking practice. Perhaps it is because they can't. Certainly with classes as big as they are, it requires a lot of energy to keep the class attentive while one member speaks and is corrected. Confidence on the written side is, by contrast, very high. Lots of mistakes were being made even in my sixth form classes but they were not afraid of trying a complicated turn of phrase in an essay or fitting in a colloquialism where they thought appropriate. Lessons on the whole catered for the strongest and left the weaker students to daydream or chat quietly at the back. My second teacher thought it revolutionary and fascinating that I would ignore the usual few hands in the air just to wait for the less participatory characters to wake up.
I enjoyed my time in Senegal immensely. I feel I learnt as much from the students as they did from me. I even got used to the finger-clicking-attention-seeking but let's hope I haven't acclimatised to the point of doing the same at university next year, eh?
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.