Coming to Ghana to teach in a primary school was like being thrown in at the deep end – in two different respects. First, I had never taught school kids before. Second, it was my first visit to Ghana (not to say to an African country altogether), so I also had to cope with a country and a culture that is, to say the least, very different from any country in Europe. Thus I didn’t have the slightest idea what to expect and no clue whatsoever how to deal with Ghanaian primary school kids.
Understandably, this is exactly what many skeptical minds criticize about volunteering and foreign aid: Why should a foreigner lacking local knowledge and experience in teaching be helpful in a Ghanaian primary school?
While this objection is surely justified and becomes all the more important when certain qualifications, skills or physical conditions are absolutely required to do the job, there are cases in which an open mind, the willingness to learn and enthusiasm for the cause are more essential.
This is, in my opinion, true for teaching as it is a profession of which the success depends first and foremost on the social and emotional connection one is able to make with the students and only secondly on theoretical knowledge and teaching methods.
However, there are a few things that are definitely useful to know when one is about to teach Ghanaian primary school kids – as this is, I can assure you, no walk in the park.
1. Avoid boredom
Kids in primary school aren’t used to listening to abstract lessons for long hours, but have a strong urge to play and to move around – and this is all the more true when it come to Ghanaian kids.
To spare yourself time and energy, you better avoid boredom before it comes up: Integrate fun and movement into your lessons and try to change your teaching method frequently – at best every ten minutes. Variations could be reading out loud, making the kids repeat as a choir, playing games, singing songs or drawing.
2. Establish rituals to regain attention
When you’ve missed the moment and the kids start rioting, stay calm and avoid shouting or getting angry. Just wait a bit until the source of distraction has disappeared (in our case this is usually a herd of cows walking across the school compound, an aggressive goat running after the children or another class that is currently doing something that looks like more fun than we do).
A very effective strategy to regain the kids’ attention afterwards is to establish certain rituals such as clapping your hands rhythmically until all the kids join in or singing a song.
3. Include as many games as possible
However boring the kids might find English grammar – as soon as you call it a game and bring in a playful element, they will be thrilled. There are various games that can make a lesson more fun and enhance learning at the same time.
A great motivation to study, as we discovered, are quizzes: We hold a quiz competition in which all classes participate every two weeks and the kids love it – in fact, they study harder for the quiz than for the actual exams.
4. Allow them to sing and dance
Children in Ghana learn dancing basically before they can walk and love to show off their dancing and singing skills. Encourage their talent and energy by including regular singing and dancing in your lessons. Learning new songs or improvising dancing steps are not only great breaks from the routine (see point 1), but also a good way to get rid of overflowing energy.
5. Encourage creativity
Creativity and independent thinking are not exactly considered the most important skills in Ghanaian schools. Instead, the focus lies more on rote learning, repeating after the teachers and knowing the right answer.
Therefore, when you ask your students to be creative, they might find it hard at first. One of my colleagues asked his class to draw their favorite toy and later collected ten pieces of paper with exactly the same odd-looking teddy coloured in pink.
This is not a reason to give up on creativity though! Rather it is important to slowly introduce the kids to more creative, independent and free thinking. Art lessons afford lots of opportunities to do so, it might be a good idea to bring art supplies such as coloured paper, scissors, glue and paint from home though as the access to such materials can be limited.
6. Take into account their background
The kids in our school all come from difficult social backgrounds where parents are absent, money is scarce and the kids have to work after school to generate additional income. Most of them started schooling late, have a poor command of English and find it hard to follow strict school routines.
Try to find out how your students live at home as knowing more about the kids’ background helps to better understand why the kids act like they do and how you can help them best.
7. Reward them
Caning is an accepted and widely used means to discipline students in Ghanaian schools and although our school usually doesn’t make use of it, other methods of physical punishment such as kneeling on the floor are common.
Much more effective than any kind of punishment, in my experience, is encouragement of positive behavior: Reward students who did a good job, show them you’re proud of them when they have improved or hand out sweets for good behavior.
8. Let them be themselves
After a few weeks of teaching I came to realize that my students will never follow the kind of school routines I am used to from German schools. They can’t sit still and listen attentively for a longer period of time, but will get up from their seats, move around, sing while they are copying notes from the whiteboard, dance after finishing their classwork and make fun of each other.
Well, actually, why not? It costs much less time and energy to just let them do what they want – within certain limits – than to make fruitless attempts to “discipline” the kids. And their jokes can actually be quite funny.
9. Make time for individual teaching
Kids often find it boring to listen to a teacher standing in front and preaching about grammar. But as soon as you sit down next to them and make the effort to explain things individually, they are very attentive and eager to learn.
Reserve some time during the lesson for such individual tutoring or consider helping the kids after school.
10. Build up a relationship of trust
More important than any kind of teaching method is a good, stable relationship of trust with the kids: Show the children that you love and appreciate them and try to win their trust by being fair and attentive to their needs. This will also help their performance at school as an important motivation factor for students is their teacher: If they like and respect you, they’ll do their best.