Despite the fact that I thought I’d make a good teacher, I never seriously considered studying education in college, because I thought it sounded boring. I started out with International Politics because, while I wasn’t sure that I wanted to work in politics for the rest of (or honestly any part of) my life, the subject FASCINATED me.

Fast forward to a 400-level class titled “The Advanced International Relations of Africa” (African history pre-slavery to modern days, plus current political relationships) – this was when I really realized that I had no interest in a career in academic or applied political science. The subject was still fascinating, but the disconnect between research and application is a vast and depressing canyon. [PoliSci research will clearly state that A+B=C. Politicans will say that they want outcome C; and then do A+D…or D+E….basically anything other than A+B. It’s unbelievable.]

(A scene from my current school – a question and answer game between sections.)

A few years after graduating, and for a few years before Peace Corps, I started teaching ESL at a Waldorf High School (no relation to the salad). Then last year, I started subbing at a Quaker elementary school. I fell in love. I still have no desire to study educational theory, but I love teaching.

There is no good reason to like it. Many of the people you are trying to help don’t care, don’t know why you’re wasting their time, and are at such a chaotic time in their lives they can’t even figure out which way is up let alone why that essay needs another round of revisions. (At least I remember High School as an incredibly chaotic time with a handful of peaceful moments scattered throughout).

Teaching in Ethiopia has its own layer of challenges that make it difficult for me to feel like I’m doing a good job. Education isn’t valued very highly in farming communities like the one I’m currently in, because many people are illiterate. If your parents have lived happy, successful lives without an education, why would you need one? Teachers are highly respected, (I still get really happy anytime someone calls me “Astamarii” or “Barsistuu” – “Teacher” in Amharic and Afan Oromo, respectively) but there are only a few students in each of my classes, who genuinely want to learn. I suppose that’s a problem in most classrooms (below 12th grade) around the world, but on bad days it’s incredibly disheartening.

(My school without the students.)

Additionally, a good handful of students have made it into my classroom (9th grade) without learning how to read or write. (Incentive based performance does not work in education, people!) Teachers pass students to have high passing rates so they can get a raise/keep their jobs. Also, since Teachers don’t crack down on cheating, (it’s a culture that values helping each other…cheating isn’t seen as bad like it is in the States) there are students who’ve cheated their entire academic career. Another difference from the States – if everyone in the class fails one question, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the question was bad or that the information needs to be re-taught.

There was a military government here in the 90’s (the derg) that killed the educated elite, and de-valued critical thinking. Ethiopia is still rebuilding from that. I obviously don’t know what the Ethiopian education system was like before that, but I’ve been told by a few people that some of the current challenges have their roots there.

Another challenge that isn’t unique to the education system is the “lack of hustle” found in most industries in Ethiopia. Being from the NE, I get that I’m much more “let’s get sh*t done” than most places in the US, however, Ethiopia is more laid back than even Southern California. (To my So Cal friends – I love you a lot).

Using our calendar, school is supposed to start mid September. The school I’m teaching at didn’t actually start until mid October. Once it “started”, there were rounds of meetings with just teachers, county-wide meetings, ones with parents…students and teachers…so many meetings. And I didn’t understand a word of any of them. It was, to my American sensibilities and Philly attitude, bizarre. But that’s just how things are done here. People are valued over things, and time doesn’t mean much, if anything. If it doesn’t happen today, it’ll happen tomorrow. If not tomorrow…. maybe next week?

(Me looking particularly teacher-ish. Photo credit – Jesse from g17. Taken during PST).

That all said, I still love teaching. I love that look when students are thinking about something new, or in a way they never have before – and then they get it. That is seriously the best feeling.

The 9th graders I teach don’t have a national exam to take this year, so they’re a bit more laid back than the 10th graders. The standard Ethiopian style of teaching is writing notes on the board, sometimes lecturing, and occasionally asking questions. Since I come in with a communicative approach to teaching, many of my students were super confused in the beginning. They’ve now (mostly) gotten used to my accent, my habit of asking them to think, ask questions if they have them, and read from the board as much as possible.

Today* I had some 10th graders in my classroom (because, being the day after a holiday, only a few people came to school); and I was able to see how far the 9th graders have come. They spoke up and read from the board so much easier than the 10th graders. That was encouraging to see.

On the other hand from the students who don’t seem to care, there are those who have walked an hour to get to school. Or who live so far from a high school that they rent housing in this village for the week, just so they can go to school.

The school I teach at has no library, no science lab and no computer lab (but they do have “information technology” classes once a week??). It’s a 9th and 10th grade school that has opened those grades up to many students who wouldn’t be able to take those classes otherwise. It’s currently sharing a building with the 1-8th grades (they get it in the morning, we get it in the afternoon), but there’s a proposal to build 9th and 10th grade their own building. I don’t think I’ll see it’s completion, but it’s an exciting thought.

And hopefully while I’m here I’ll be able to add female-friendly “bathrooms” to the building plans. Maybe a library too? We’ll see.

(Sunrise over my village. Taken as I walked to the bus yesterday morning.)

*Since the internet is out, this is “today” as of me writing this, not posting it. Sunday Jan 7th was Ethiopian Christmas which is why on the 8th, very few students showed up, and on the 9th, only about 2/3rds of the students were there. I’m expecting I won’t be able to post this until Sunday Jan 21st at the earliest.


6 thoughts on “Teaching in Ethiopia is Unique

  1. You are such a gift! And I suspect, the students are a gift to you as well.😊
    So interesting reading about school in a different culture and the different priorities. Thank you for what you are doing and for sharing! Sending lots of love 💜

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mari, I enjoyed your assessment of the people and their culture. I am happy that you really like teaching. Your students will benefit greatly. The pictures you send are all very colorful.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mari, While in college you may have thought that teaching would be boring, it certainly IS NOT in Ethiopia. Glad you you’re liking it! I’m also glad to hear that, where you are, people are valued over things. xo, Mary

    Liked by 1 person

  4. what a great message just watching you grow is wonderful so thoughtful makes be bust wit h pride that you are my niece. You are not only learning so much but what you are giving is great. You can’t reach everyone but you touch only a few is is something to be proud of. Keep it up
    Uncle Dick

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Beinging deeply emmersed in Educational theroy and practice for Higher Education righ now, it is fascinating to read your thoughts on it for such a different culture. As one ready to slow down a bit, putting people before time and things sound appealing. However, i suspect the reality of it might reveal that i am far more driven that i may like to admit. I so love you and daily support your work and life there though my thougths and Spiritual Mind Treatments. Take a deep breath and infuse the love coming you way.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a lovely description of your thoughts, ideas and inspirations on education. You are a true teacher and I would have liked to have had such a teacher when I was in school. Our own education system here in the U.S. needs a complete overhaul in my opinion, but hey, that is why I helped start an alternative school!! Keep up the excellent work and your students will be happy and thankful. Much love to you. Sara

    Liked by 1 person

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