They jetted in by plane from Beijing or via bullet train from Shanghai, suitcases in tow. They walked miles barefoot along the dusty, broken African roads without any water.
A maximum of 12 learnt from the comforts of an air conditioned classroom, fitted with internet and projector. A minimum of 40 crammed onto wooden benches in front of the blackboard, sheltering under a tin roof and two damp walls.
Their fascination with Westerners was depicted through pleas for our autographs, or for selfies on their new iphones. Their enthralled awe at pale skin led to us being chased down the streets to endearing cries of ‘Oburoni, oburoni!’ (white person).
At the end of the teaching week we were showered with gifts – cards, bracelets, even traditional delicacies like tea. At the end of the teaching week I was asked by one child if she could have my shoes for her bare feet.
Such stark contrasts were ones that I faced when teaching in China and Ghana over the past couple of summers.
The former was a fee paying Summer Camp, reputed for its promise that the children would be taught English by University students from the Western world. The latter was a rural and completely volunteer run summer school which provided an education for children who otherwise would not go to school.
In 2007 a Ghanaian Education Plan, inspired by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, set out to implement universal free primary education by 2015 (Royal Geographical Society). Although the number of free schools is growing, parents are still struggling to educate their children due to the expense of uniform and equipment. My experience of teaching in Ghana certainly reflected such struggles.
On the flip side, like much else in China, education is rapidly developing and improving. The Chinese government passed a law in 1986 which made nine years of education mandatory for all Chinese children. It is now estimated by the Ministry of Education that 99.7% of the population attains this. (http://www.chinaeducenter.com/en/cedu.php)
This statistical contrast in education between the two countries was, to me, clearly evident in the children themselves. Whilst teaching the Ghanaian children how to add and subtract I decided to try and be more interactive by using a few colouring pencils as a prop, showing that 5 pencils minus 3 pencils would leave 2 pencils. However, it took me only seconds to realise that this method was going to be a complete failure. The attraction of colouring pencils to these children was unbelievable and I was astounded to realise that they had never set eyes on such materials before. The same problem occurred when I produced rulers to teach them how to measure. No way were they going to bother focussing on learning how to count or measure when these prized treasures were placed in front of them. As I collected in the pencils at the end of the lesson I realised that I had considerably fewer than at the start; it soon became apparent that many were hiding under the kids’ t-shirts or had tucked themselves down the sides of their shorts.
Unsurprisingly the Chinese children were not so spellbound by stationery, most turning up to class kitted out with their own pencil cases. Instead, they came to life when interrogating me all about English education. How many hours did I go to school? How much homework did I get? How long was my lunch break? My answers were followed by gasps and oohs of astonishment, the children seeming surprised at how easy-going my education appeared in comparison to their rigorous routine.
I soon realised that many of the lessons I had planned to teach had to be scrapped, or at least adapted to suit these differing environments. Accustomed to rote learning, the Chinese children were very good at reading and writing in English and could understand me well, but they were lacking in confidence when speaking in conversation. My lessons therefore focussed on encouraging spoken English and presenting in front of the class. In Ghana however, I felt that the most valuable lessons the children could learn were basic life skills such as manners. Having virtually no belongings of their own, they were used to snatching and stealing, and barely knew the meaning of please or thank you.
I often think about which experience was more worthwhile – from both the children’s perspective and my own. Sure the Chinese children probably achieved more academically, but some of the skills that the Ghanaian kids hopefully acquired are integral to growing up and to their everyday lives. The satisfaction by the end of the week when many of them were rushing up to me to voluntarily hand back the colouring pencils was next to none.
It is important to note that my different experiences were the result of working in extreme contexts. The children probably came from opposite ends of the economic scale. And, indeed, these comparisons should not slot the two countries into defined wealth categories. Despite all its developments, many parts of China are still poverty stricken. Equally a successful formal education is in place in lots of Ghana’s less rural areas.
What I find most inspiring to remember is that, in both cases, parents were ensuring that their children got the best education that was available to them – whether that meant paying to send them to extra classes to improve their English, or making sure they attended the free volunteer school so that they at least got some basic education. Overall both experiences taught me that education, in whatever form it takes, is imperative and must become accessible to all.