Education Frustrations

Disclaimer: This post contains accounts of educational realities in my village which some readers may find distressing.

I’m a non-formal education volunteer and I work mainly with the primary schools. I mostly interact with CM2 students, (the equivalent of 6th grade here in BF). In order to go on to middle school (college) the students have to pass the CEP exam (Certificat d’études Primaire).

I have supervised and recorded grades for two practice exams (examen blanches). The exam is out of 160 points and covers History, Science, Math, Story Problems, Reading, Dictation, French Grammar, and PE. In order to pass the exam the student must have a minimum score of 80/160

On the first practice exam we only had 6/64 students pass
On the second practice exam we had 17/64 students pass

When I first saw the numbers I was extraordinairly disappointed. But the reality is that the students don’t really care. There is no strong extrinsic or intrinsic motivation to succeed in my school. I tried to explain to my villagers that flunking out in the US is extremely looked down upon and it is very difficult to get a decent job without a High School Diploma. Also, if you don’t have a job, it is hard to find a significant other and support a family.
In BF there is no fear in regards to dropping out of school. If a kid flunks out of school, they can work in the fields and support their family and grow/ sel their own food. If they’re female, they will get married and start a family. Most of these kids know they are not going to pass the CEP and unfortunately they don’t really care.

Also there is a general lack of involvement from the parents, as many of them do not speak French or care about their students progress. Helicopter Parents do not really exist here in BF, and that extrinsic motivation doesn’t exist. It also doesn’t help that parents are not proficient in reading or writing in local language. There is a significant number of villageouis who are literate, but literacy in local language does not equate to parental involvement.

The educator inside of me really truly wants to see these students excel and flourish academically, and that’s why most Saturdays I co-teach with the CM2 teacher and give the students problems off of old CEP exams. She is so dynamic and inspiring and manages to control her class of 64 students with 3 or 4 sitting at each desk, no electricity, and maybe one book for every 4 students. Unfortunately she has been out sick for months and has not been able to prepare the students as well as she would like.

One Saturday, I volunteered to over her class, and none of the students showed up. Apparently they told their parents that they didn’t have class, even though they were told several times that they were expected to attend.

So last Monday she was still out, and I biked by the school. The director who normally covers her was not in, so I asked the other teachers if I could help. They said that it would be great if I could supervise the students while they worked on some exercises.

Ok, no problem, i’ve handled 100 piece orchestras and 200 piece marching bands. Oh Sara, how naive you were to think that…
The students had no interest in completing their exercises, and proceeded to hit each other and could not keep quiet when asked. I tried to keep them on track, raised my voice, to discipline them, I made the belligerent students write apologies to their victims, took away their recess and threatened them with a dictation assignment.
This is where it gets really ugly
I ended up screaming at the students to get them to listen to me when two of the male teachers came in and asked me what was wrong. I told them that the class was being impossible, and that they refused to do their work. The male teachers looked at each other and said they would take care of things. One male teacher produced a piece of rubber and proceeded to whip each student in the class 3 times. I was so shocked and appalled that I told the teachers that I could not stand for this, and left.

FYI corporal punishment is illegal in BF, however many teachers see it as the only effective means of discipline in their classrooms. The teachers also told me that the parents tell them that they can’t control their kids, so they put that responsiblility on the teachers to punish them. I even talked with both my cultural and professional counterparts and they simply said, sometimes you just have to hit the kids.

As distressing as this is, I’m glad that I made a point that I do not condone violence in schools as an appropriate means of punishment. I have made that quite clear several times to appropriate school  authorities and even loaned the USAID’s Doorways program manuals for safe school to my director and inspector.

Acknowledging the problem is the first step to behavior change, and perhaps next year we can start by establishing routines and try to implement effective, non-violent classroom management on the first day of school from all three perspectives, the students, the teachers, and the community. My students deserve safe schools, and I will fight for that until the last day of my service.


3 responses to “Education Frustrations

  1. Mike Kohfeld

    Sara – try a system of positive reinforcement based on incentive. Allow kids to earn tickets or something for compliance and good behavior which they can then trade in later for goodies or extra privileges. You can even turn the ticket system into a lesson about currency. That works really well in classrooms here, and I think the BF kids fundamentally are no different!

  2. Hi Sara,
    I agree with Mike, above. Kids and puppies — they do learn how to work for positive reinforcement (stars, dog cookies, recognition, special privileges, etc) — and like anything, the new system will be one that takes some getting used to. Hopefully you can get buy-in from other teachers and other adults. How cool if parents could buy in as well!

    By the way, got a new comment on your article that we’d LOVE you to respond to on We’re so excited to see that your article is still getting attention, and we’ll let the PC know when you respond.

    Keep up the amazing work!

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