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Education ministry must avoid mistakes of the past with new French teachers

Last week a group of twenty-five volunteer teachers arrived in the country to help teach French in our schools, or as it was reported, to revitalise the teaching of the language. Others are expected to join them soon, eventually raising the number to one hundred. They will serve for one year but that can be extended to two.

Their coming is a good thing. Language education in this country, not just French, needs a boost, probably an overhaul. If this volunteer programme works as intended, it will certainly improve the teaching and learning of French, but hopefully have some impact on language education in general.

 

Already, there is great expectation on the new teachers. Those who love the French language for whatever reason have been lamenting its supposed decline and loss of pre-eminence. And so, for them, this is a good opportunity for its revival.

 

But prestige or influence of a language should not be the issue. It only distracts from the real purpose of learning a language, which is to acquire a tool for communication, expressing thought and understanding and appreciating the thought of others.

 

And so from a language teacher’s point of view, the expectation on the volunteer teachers is that they will teach a language that people can use in their ordinary dealings and lay the foundation for more advanced use. They should not teach only linguistics, which is for those who wish to be experts in the language. Sadly, this is what happens with the teaching of language in our schools.

They are not expected to spend time on the geography of France – its mountains and valleys and rivers; its vineyards and wine traditions, the making of cheese or the beauty of the Riviera.

Perhaps, there is no reason to be concerned about this since the teachers come from different countries, most of them African. Still, a note of caution is in order.

The important thing is that we should get value out of the Francophonie teacher volunteer programme, which is another reason for caution. We cannot repeat the experience of the past.

This is not the first programme involving foreign teachers brought in to boost the teaching of different subjects. In the last twenty-six years alone, they have been not less than six.

In 2001 we had volunteer teachers from Nigeria, some in secondary schools, others in tertiary institutions. Few remember they were here, especially those who had been posted to secondary schools. They had little impact. Perhaps that was because school heads did not know exactly how to get the best out of them.

Shortly after, science and math teachers were brought in from Kenya to serve as models for science teaching, especially the practical aspect. Rwandan teachers were expected to learn from them. But they were deployed as classroom teachers only and left no skills or methodology with their colleagues when the programme ended and they returned home.

By far the biggest group and one that flopped the most was the English language mentors. These were teachers recruited from mostly Kenya and Uganda to train fellow teachers in English. But they hardly did any of that or indeed any teaching. They were on an extended, all expenses paid vacation.

The programme was badly managed and was discontinued but at a huge cost to government in lawsuits.

As they say, once bitten twice shy. In our case that would be several times shy. We should have learnt some lessons from our experience. For instance, in those past programmes, no one seemed to own them and so none took responsibility.

The first lesson, therefore, is that responsibility does not end at the signing of an agreement or the arrival of teachers in the country or their placement in schools. Nor should there be confusion about who is in charge of the programme at every stage. The role of the ministry of education, the Rwanda Education Board (REB), school heads and the teachers must be clearly spelt out.

It is a good thing that one of these has been addressed. The French teachers will be posted to teacher training colleges (TTCs). It is proper that teacher trainees acquire the appropriate and up to date language education methodology. However, it will be sustainable if language tutors in TTCs are included in the programme.

In schools, too, the new teachers should not only be classroom teachers, but trainers of their colleagues as well. The assumption here, of course, is that the volunteers are among the most competent in language teaching.

In the end, like all learning, the teaching of French should not be tedious but interesting, not an unpleasant task to be avoided but an exciting activity to look forward to, not a catalogue of rules but a language spoken by people who may not know or care about the rules as long as they can use it appropriately.

The views expressed in this article are of the writer.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com

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