Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I was teaching my favorite class. Because the Mozambican class system is based on grade level and profession (remember I teach at a professional school), not ability level. There are no advanced classes, a student takes all of their classes with the same class, even in the same classroom. This means that each class has just a few advanced students, far ahead of their classmates.

My favorite class is second year accounting because they just so happen to have just a few more of those super smart kids and it sets the tone for the class. I dote on them a little, and probably give them a little too much slack. They usually don’t take advantage of this (they can tell I like them), but the other day they would NOT stop complaining. Every new word on the board drew a collective groan. I told them to stop whining and they stepped it up. It became theatrical, their moans of faux agony, until I shouted over the din, “I don’t want to hear your complaining! I am NOT YOUR FATHER!!”

Typical teach rhetoric, right? The response I got blindsided me. There was an uproar of disbelief, reproach, and hurt. Some of my best students looked like I had slapped them. Dumbstruck, I said, “What? I’m not.” Class was stopped, and I was admonished for having said such a mean and thoughtless thing. They were sympathetic though, getting that I didn’t understand what I said, that it doesn’t translate in Mozambique. They explained.

I am supposed to be their father. The role of teacher is that of father and mother, it connotes their trust in me and my caring for them. Familial roles are distributed to people however they fit. People refer to their elders by familial titles, like papa, tio, or “mano” for older brother. One does not use “senhor” outside of a very professional setting. Even with people you don’t know, it’s mama, or pae, or vovo (grandma) and so on.

There is a strong respect for elders, much stronger than anything I was used to in the states. I like it. Questioning authority is important—essential—but the middle finger approach to anyone that represents it is juvenile. There are reasons why we respect our elders, and it’s not just to make them feel better, or because we owe them for taking care of us. They have more experience and often have better control over their emotions and insight into themselves and others etc. Respect for elders here is expected and normal. And maybe it’s easier to be nice to the lady when you call her grandma, and easier for her to be nice to you back.

In Moz there is no taboo about teachers touching their students. There isn’t a constant fear of predation. When I want my lazy student loitering by the door, and he ignores me, I shoo him out with an encouraging push. When a student sleeps I sneak over to their desk and scream as I shake them awake (hilarious). That isn’t to say that the system is utopian, one does here rumors of decidedly inappropriate relations between students and teachers (though I have never seen it), but it does feel more natural.

I remember in elementary school when a classmate brainfarted and accidentally called our teacher “mom”. When it happened I’ll never forget looking to the teacher to see if she was scandalized, to see how big the student’s mistake was. But she just waved it off, it happened all the time.

But calling me father is still absolutely forbidden, because it freaks me out. One of my students said, in English, “Teecha Colin is my uncle,” and I got watery eyed.

Congrats on the barmitzmah, Jonathan. I hear you did well.

Next stop: Kilimanjaro