Catching up, making up, wrapping up—these are some of the words I think of as I think over the past semester for me here at HAU. This is my fifth year of teaching English here and my fifth time to teach the English I course to the new, incoming university students. It should be getting easier, right? While some parts are easier (thankfully), there are always the unknown variables that make each semester challenging and unique in their own way. This semester there were two situations in particular that were new challenges.
The first was a very interrupted semester due to my leaving for a month in the middle of it. This meant having to do lots of make-up classes before and after the month I was absent. Generally a class is formed with students from one department. They take all their courses together which is supposed to make scheduling easier. I taught three groups this semester: one for Department of Medicine, one for Department of Engineering and a third one a combination of two departments– Ophthalmology and Public Health. Trying to schedule make-up classes is difficult enough but when one group is made up of two different departments with different schedules it’s nearly impossible. Somehow we got most of the make-up classes in which meant some weeks I had six classes to teach instead of three. It made for a very fluid and irregular semester and not the most optimal for learning a foreign language.
The second situation was the size of one of the groups. Most HAU class sizes are 40-50 students. If there are only 20 students they will combine two departments to get around 40 students for the general courses. This is an economic reality in regards to paying professors, which I understand but since I don’t get a salary or any monetary reward for my teaching I try to draw the line and request groups not more than 40. To my delight I was asked to teach the new medical students, a group of only about 25. But then I was also asked to take two other groups—the combined departments of 40+ students and a third of the engineering students. Little did I know that the engineering department had admitted over 250 students so my “group C” was about 85 students!
This is where the motto of the university, “facing African realities” takes on a whole new meaning. It becomes a day-to-day choice to do the best you can with what you’re given and what you’ve got at your disposal. Something most Burundians accept with grace and little complaint. But for me it’s been some thing of a trial and error process to figure out how to teach and connect with more students than there was space or chairs for. I’m not sure I ever found it but we made some kind of rapport with each other. I did hear students speaking more English in class, engaging in the exercises given and telling their classmates to be quiet while I was talking (often one student was translating for others so there was often lots of talk going on). I felt like a celebrity at the end as they all wanted to take a picture with me (wondering where all those pictures will end up).
While I’m glad for the opportunity to teach, I have to admit I’m glad to see the end of this semester with it’s irregular challenges, which I hope not to repeat. I again applaud the students for making the best of their situations. I realize that what was a frustrating semester for me has been a way of life for them, which they accept with humility and handle with grace. Again, I find I am still a student of life and my students have much to teach me.