Are we together?

Elspeth Dugdale | March 30, 2019

Are we together?
Mediocre or Inspiring?

'Are we together?' is the favourite teacher throwaway phrase, to check if the class is following. Inevitably the students are likely to chorus 'yeeessss', as it is far less trouble than actually asking questions.  But these days. a class can no longer get away with the collective reply ......


Partly in response to the recent inspectors' report, and partly at the instigation of Headteacher Benard, regular observations of lessons are now an everyday part of the school timetable. For example, the new intake of science teachers is starting to indicate that there is a welcome change in teaching style. At last, there is a move from the favoured, traditional 'chalk and talk' style, to involve students more in the lesson and to use resources more effectively.  And, from my vantage point at the back of the class, there have been some real 'golden' moments: 

  • Biology teachers regularly using digital media to reinforce theory and practical lessons. Watching the heart beating and pumping blood - not just reading about it.
  • A creative History teacher using students as moving illustrations of the 7 key East African coastal towns during the slave trade.
  • An extra, 'optional' 2 hour Maths lesson during evening 'prep', given by an assistant teacher, where the whole group of 130 students attended. He 'only' expected half the class.
  • An S2 English lesson introducing the famous Ugandan author, Okot p'Bitek, where each group was tasked with demonstrating a traditional song to each other - before studying the epic text. Great harmonies and much laughter ensued.
  • A' level Physics: the teacher brought all the learning aids into the class, encouraging the elite class of 4 to be more 'hands on'. Having talked through the process, he tasked the students with doing more research in the library; this was music to my ears. Most astonishing of all, he taught so clearly that even I could, mostly, understand the whole lesson!  
  • S5 & S6 Literature class watching and loving the film Great Expectations together to discuss the themes that link the Dickensian world to life in Uganda. There are many parallels.
  • Swahili is a new subject on the timetable. Within 3 weeks, the teacher led the whole class in singing the East African national anthem in perfect harmony. This has now become part of the whole school assembly - apparently it's also compulsory.
  • Being able to add some cool scientific phrases to my own limited vocabulary - 'no parallax', 'homeostasis', 'tropism' and 'radioactive half life' to name but a few!
  •  Interestingly, instead of disciplining students more severely for inattention, the whole class or the sleepy student may get asked to run outside for 5 minutes ( a quick jog in 32 degrees!), or to go and wash their faces, or do 10 stretches at the back of the class. Times are changing. I made sure not to nod off at any time.


However, on a tragic note, in eastern Uganda this week, an 18 year old student in S3 was beaten to death by a teacher, for failing to complete an assignment. Although it has been illegal in Uganda for some years, some teachers still struggle to accept this as a legal reality; some changes take longer to really take effect. WTA has never permitted the practice of corporal punishment. With the steady improvement of academic results here, teachers are seeing and appreciating the evidence of not needing to beat children to force good results. Caning and slapping didn't work anyway - but it has been traditionally acceptable and still is, to a certain extent.

From my point of view, as the fly on the wall, it's been a real revelation. I have attended and understood many more Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Biology lessons than in my entire school career. Teachers cope remarkably well with large groups, huge amounts of marking and an endless cycle of exams. There is still a long way to go, change still happens slowly.. but the steps of improvement are impressive. Next week, I will add Agriculture, Divinity (RE at A' level!), Geography, General Paper and IT to attend. At this rate, I'll be able to take a few more O' and A' levels.....!