Visiting schools in Rwanda

A painting on the wall of a school in Nyamata.

Three different schools in three days, in three different provinces of Rwanda. I observed nine or ten classes, with a small group of visitors. 

Lots of school uniforms, the boys in shorts, the girls in skirts. I suppose that’s because we were only in elementary classes, maybe older students dress differently. Sometimes the teachers were wearing white lab coats. More jeans than I expected, some nice looking shoes. 

There isn’t much to distinguish one classroom space from the next. They are rectangular, with open windows on the long sides, covered with bars. The doors are metal, equipped with a ring for a padlock when they need to be locked. Each room has a closet in one corner, open, without a door, often without anything in it. The desks are wooden benches with fixed tables on metal supports, and there must be tens of thousands of them across the country. Three or four students sit on a single bench, close together. The floors get swept often, I suspect, otherwise the red earth would be everywhere. 

I quit counting the number of students in a classroom sometime during the second visit. They numbered in the forties and sometimes more. Lots of beaming faces, curious about the visitors. We are a topic at home each night, I’m sure, me with my red skin and white beard. I make a lot of eye contact and I make a lot of silly faces, trying to connect with the students. I think I’m projecting that I’m friendly, there for fun. I might be projecting that I’m goofy and strange, I really do not know. Often on the blackboard is a grid showing attendance, written in white chalk. 24 of 26 boys, 26 of 27 girls. Besides the blackboard there is little on the walls. Sometimes hand drawn posters and now and then official posters from the national education agency. Body parts, some math problems, school stuff.

The visitors with me did some training in an engineering design process and are here to check in with the teachers they worked with in the past. There are lots of happy reunions, hugging, shaking hands. They are good trainers, and they are very good at establishing uplifting and genuine relationships. I envy them their experience here, their familiarity. It’s only because of them that I’m sitting here, making my faces, talking to kids, trying to pronounce their names, some of which are quite a challenge.

So that’s it, that’s the classes. If there are books it’s a few copies for the teacher. There are some materials – one of the teachers tells us he asked students to bring what they could so they could do the science lesson today. He has them completing simple circuits to light a bulb, which they do enthusiastically. Other classes have a ball of yarn, groups of 5 crochet one project, sitting together on the ubiquitous benches. One class worked with clay – my colleague Eric was soon up to his elbows in it himself, standing between two boys, smiling just as broadly as the students. In an English class the students all had notebooks and something to write with. They were drawing furniture in their notebooks. Chair, bed, table. 

In the evenings, after a meal out or in the posh hotel, I thought about the classroom blogs I’d been writing in international schools in Europe. A couple were about the need for individualized interior decorating determined by the teacher and subject. A boardroom table and couches in the business class, multiple white boards for the math class, teachers with iPads and iBooks and I don’t know what all else. I thought about our entrepreneur class that gave students real seed money for their nascent (and fleeting) businesses, and I thought about how far that money would go here.

And on the last day in one of our final meetings I hear of the incredible progress of the past ten years, the restructuring of teacher education, the work to address low salaries, the production of textbooks in-country to support a more regular curriculum. The work on inclusion and the push for laptops for teachers and the additional training in how to teach and, more daunting, how to teach in English to second language learners. This is hard work when resources are scant and there is a long way to go. 

Amazing people. Happy kids running their propellers, made out of empty bottles or a piece of paper, across the cement basketball court, testing their propeller designs. Touching the second wire to the battery terminal, completing a circuit, lighting a bulb, an idea, a future. Or so the teachers hope, so we all should hope.

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