After missing the first 2 days of the new school year due to illness (it was only a middle ear infection this time-very painful, but a piece of cake compared to my first bout with being sick in Mali), I arrived at the school reliving the same excitement and nervousness that would enveloppe me as a student each new school year. Yes, I was one of those who loved going to school and would never miss a class.
That day, I held a meeting with the teachers and the CGS, the Malian equivalent of the PTA. With the help of my homologue, we had a very indepth conversation about the difficulties and challenges with education that the school and village faces. We even briefly breached how they would like me to help them-which projects they would like to start. However, as none of that work can commence until December after my In-Service Training, I spent the rest of the week observing each class. It became apparent quite quickly how disfunctional the education system within my village is, and these challenges are something I would come to understand first-hand as by the end of the week, I had become the First Grade teacher.
To have one teacher instructing two grades is overwhelming, especially if it is the first and second grade filled with 5-8 year olds who can't sit still. Madame was so clearly exhausted by midday that I offered my assistance in any way that I could and thus became Madame Sira, Maitresse of the premiere annee. In this new role, I have come to clearly understand and appreciate how hard the teachers work and what they are up against. In the first grade class, I have children crammed in their seats- 4 to a table-bench that is supposed to seat 2. Some benches don't have backs to the seats and one bench doesn't even have the table. As I attempt to instruct the children (in French/Bambara) in the ABC's and introduce the basics to writing, half the class sits idle as they don't have a chalkboard or chalk. While the lack of learning materials poses quite the challenge, the students make up for it in their eagerness and motivation to learn. I always have a sea of hands to choose from when asking for a volunteer and usually have to shout over the cries of "Madame, Madame!".
As each teacher is overwhelmed with the 2 classes, I have noticed that some students fall behind never to catch up because there is no time for individual attention. These students are simply passed on to the next grade where they continue to get overlooked and eventually do not return. It is a vicious cycle. On the weekends, I have begun to give extra lessons to the children in my host family because as 4th and 5th grade students, they struggle to add, subtract, and even write ledgibly.
As this experience progresses, I have come to truly appreciate my own education and the opportunities it has afforded me. It has reinforced my belief in the importance of basic education as a tool for development. If you really want to enact change within a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and healthcare, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is education.