WorldTeach volunteer Emily Auer describes a typical school day in Tanzania.

A school day starts with a call from my headmaster saying “Twende!” or “Let’s go!” between 7:10 and 7:30 am. We then drive the 15 minutes to school where he drops me in front of the administration block. After shaking the 5 to 10 hands between me and the staff room, I sign into the teachers book.

Meanwhile, the students have been on campus “cleaning the environment” since  7 or 7:15. This entails sweeping all of the pathways, sweeping and mopping the administration block, arranging the desks and chairs in the staff room, watering the plants, and generally making the school grounds look as immaculate as possible. Now you may say to yourself, “Water the plants? I thought you lived in a super dry area, that seems odd.” But the students are required to bring jugs of water from home each day on a rotating basis as part of their contributions/school fees. It seems wasteful, but having trees and bushes makes the grounds look so much nicer.

Between 7:30 and 7:45 the students have parade, aka morning assembly. This consists of announcements, some beatings, and on Mondays and Thursdays, the singing of the national anthem, another patriotic song, and the school song. While parade is happening I make small talk with the other teachers. Mostly, this entails them praising my mastery of Swahili greeting (this is where the mastery stops) and laughing at my attempts at speaking Sukuma (the local language).

Around 8:00 students are released to their classrooms. There is one classroom per stream, and teachers rotate in throughout the day. The classrooms are big and breezy, yet overcrowded and at times chaotic. Depending on who shows up, there are either just enough desks or not nearly enough desks. The kids are accustomed to sharing and don’t seem bothered by this, but after having to sit through a 2-hour-long school meeting while sharing a hard, wooden chair with another teacher, I have a whole new appreciation for how hard it must be to learn like this. The crowding makes things like group work, my circulation around the classroom, and any activity that involves moving at all very challenging. The chalkboards are huge, but grayed out and badly pockmarked, making them difficult to read. There is no electricity, no overhead projectors, just me, some chalk, and whatever teaching aids I can whip up. Chalk is provided, but it’s pretty poor quality.

Classes are organized into 40 minute periods that are often grouped into “doubles” of 80 minutes. With the exception of one 30 minute break, students remain in their desks from 8 am to 2:30 pm (except on Wednesdays and Fridays, when they are released a little bit early). Form 3 students study between 7 and 9 subjects depending on their stream. Keep in mind that there is no PE, art, music, etc.

Every day I teach two doubles. This means that each of my 3 streams gets 3 doubles of Math during a good week and my “struggle stream” gets an extra single on Monday.

Speaking of my “struggle stream,” although I have heard that technically the school is not allowed to track kids based on performance, in practice this seems to be the case. Stream B is the science stream. These students take the standard English, Kiswahili, History, Civics, Geography, Math, and Biology plus the additional subjects of Chemistry and Physics, and tend to be the highest achievers. A stream is the arts stream. They take only the 7 core subjects. Last year there was such massive failure in the Form 2 national exam (nationwide, not just at my school) that many students who failed were permitted to move up anyway because there was just no logistical way to keep them all back. Stream A is where you find these students. Then we have stream C, which is supposed to be the commerce stream that takes the 7 core subjects plus the additional subjects of commerce (economics) and bookkeeping. However, on Monday I learned that only around 14 of them are actually taking the additional subjects and the rest are students that would be in stream A if space provided. This explains the surprisingly large disparity in test scores.

Tea is served around 10:40 and for a couple hundred shillings you can get snacks from the “mamas” that come to the edge of campus. A hearty lunch is provided at the end of the day for teachers that pay a monthly fee. None of these things are provided for students, although if there are lunch leftovers a few kids get them. Some kids bring money from home for snacks at tea break or just bring snacks from home, but students who can’t afford to do this (which is most of them) go from the time they leave home to the time they arrive home without food or water.

After the regular school day ends the students have a break and then (if they can afford the extra fee) they have “remedial” classes from 4 to 5:30 Monday through Thursday. If they live too far away to go home in this time they stay at school. That means over 10 hours a day at school for some kids.

Very few teachers give homework assignments. Unfortunately, the logistics here make it tricky. The notebooks that students use don’t have removable pages, and it’s not like they have large amounts of loose leaf paper lying around. Any paper to be handed in has to be provided by the teachers. There is also the issue of time. When are kids going to do this homework? What other responsibilities do they have (hint, a lot)? Do they have homework in their other classes? Do they have any form of light at home after dark? Less so in math but in other subjects, there is also the textbook issue. While there are some textbooks available for some subjects, they belong to the school and can only be used during class time.

My classes are around 45 students on any given day but 60 or so in each stream turned up for the midterm last week. So on a regular day, I am missing a quarter of enrolled students for any number of reasons. There were kids in my midterm that I had never seen before.

One of the fairly common reasons that kids miss class is unpaid school fees. Although government (public) primary schools are essentially free, government public schools are not. I have heard a few different numbers thrown around, but school fees are around 40,000 TSh (around $24 USD) per academic year. This is in addition to other expenses like uniforms, school supplies, water for the bushes, contributions for projects like building labs and putting in electricity, and exam fees. If students are up to date with their payments, they are issued a coupon. This coupon is like their golden ticket. Get caught without one and you will be beat, sent home, pulled out of your midterm, made to do frog hops around the quad, or a combination of the above. Unlike with “A Level” (Form 5 and 6), to my knowledge the government does not fund or provide financial assistance or loans to “O Level” (Form 1-4) students. Although they are allowed to be on a payment plan, this is a serious financial burden for many families.

In general, the education system seems to encourage rote memorization above all else (although, according to the student teachers, this is starting to change). While a few exceptional students are able to succeed, the vast majority fall through the cracks, and not for lack of motivation. I see this especially in my Stream A kids. Many of them pay attention, work hard, and seem to understand the new material despite their comparatively low levels of English proficiency. The real trouble comes when they have to do calculations or are supposed to draw on any sort of previous knowledge. It’s just not there. Things like multiplying and dividing with fractions and order of operations correctly throw them for a loop.

Your Swahili word of the day is “wanafunzi” which means students.