Learning by Teaching

Throughout my last three years of studying to become a teacher, I have often been told that no matter how much training you receive, nothing can fully prepare you for the first time you are given the responsibility of teaching your own class. Over the last week, I learned the reality of this statement as I began teaching my first ever course – a course on writing at the Charles Lwanga College of Education in Chikuni, Zambia. I began teaching this course to four classes, which each consist of 25-26 students. These classes were not only the first that I have ever taught without a supervising teacher; they were also made up of students from a culture that is much different from my own. Though it was the most difficult teaching experience I have ever had, it also taught me unique lessons about culture, education, and my own teaching style.

As I taught, I inevitably noticed many differences between education in America and education in Zambia. Some of these differences are as simple as how classes are organized. While Seattle University students often have different classrooms and different classmates for each course, Charles Lwanga students are grouped so that they have every course in the same classroom and with the same classmates. In addition, Charles Lwanga students attend all subjects – about 25 classes – for one hour each week, unlike SU students who attend 3-4 classes for about five hours each week. But beyond these differences in course structure, I noticed deep ideological differences, such as how religion is approached in the classroom. I was taken aback when one of my students stated that the purpose of writing is to express the word of God, until I recognized that my surprise came from the fact that America so firmly separates church from state. Noticing these differences helped me realize that there are many approaches to education beyond what I have been accustomed to in America.

An equally important realization for me was that there are actually many similarities between education in Zambia and education in America. The most prominent similarity that I noticed is that many students in both places hold similar misconceptions about writing, like that the most important part of writing is its technical correctness. In the same way that some students at SU think that the Writing Center is an editing service, some students at Charles Lwanga initially thought that my class was only about editing. To overcome this misconception, I spent the first week of classes introducing writing as a five-phase process that most importantly allows us to develop our thinking. I found it difficult to introduce these concepts in Zambia because students have never been taught writing as a process, and students must hand-write their papers so they are inevitably concerned with more technical issues like handwriting and spelling. These differences helped me realize that I am privileged to have received an education that taught writing as a process from a young age and offered resources like computers that allowed me to focus more on revising my ideas than correcting my spelling and handwriting. Since the students in my classes have not had these experiences, I have spent the week trying to reconcile how I work with writing in America with how my Zambian students can most realistically work with writing based on their experience and the resources available to them.

Adjusting my teaching to fit the needs of students from another culture forced me to practice many important presentation skills. For example, the language barrier between me and my students caused me to slow down my speech, rephrase important concepts in different ways, speak with terms that I knew the students were familiar with, accompany my speech with gestures, and use examples that were relevant to the students. Though these practices are especially helpful – even necessary – when teaching students from another culture, they are helpful regardless of the culture of students. I found that teaching in another culture led to many realizations about teaching that are applicable in all cultures. For example, I found that each class has unique dynamics, even though I am teaching the same content to all four classes. I also found that teaching the same course four times in one week allows me the opportunity to improve, but this improvement is not always linear; I may improve my explanation of one concept in my second class only to find that I did not explain other concepts as clearly. To determine how to improve my teaching each class, I have found it helpful to reflect on the questions that students ask. These insights will help me improve my teaching not only as I continue to teach my students in Chikuni, but also when I return to the United States and begin to teach my own class there.

Mary Lapinski

My students at Charles Lwanga have warmly welcomed me both in and out of the classroom, even inviting me to participate in extracurricular activities such as the cultural dance club. Last weekend, they invited me to come to Choma to support the volleyball team in a tournament. Here is a photo of some of my students (and others) celebrating their victory: