As I set off on my journey to Ghana, I had an idea of what I thought I would be doing. I figured I would run an art class, which I am. I figured I would help tutor the kids, which I am. I figured I would help in a classroom. That one was a tad inaccurate.

As it happens, the first class – the kids with the lowest level of education – is packed. “Packed” of course is relative to the actual size of the shelter and the typical class size here. There are only about 25 kids in the class, but they are all at completely different levels. Eunice – the teacher – essentially had to teach three different courses at once.

So when Katie – the other intern – and I came along, it served as a perfect opportunity to split the class up. So, as it goes, Katie and I ended up with our own class. We were given seven students between the ages of five and probably twelve to teach a basic math and English class. There are three girls and four boys and all are from the lowest level of Eunice’s class.

Now even within that small class, there are widely different skills levels. While one older boy can do simple math easily and can write quite well, another boy cannot even recognize numbers, and there are very different levels in between those two extremes. Katie and I have handled this by even further splitting the class between ourselves, with Katie taking the two youngest kids, in the hopes that we will be able to be most effective.

Over the past week, I have been trying to find the best way to manage the class and teach them in the best possible way that I know how. However, there are several barriers I am experiencing here that I would have not experienced in any tutoring, coaching, or teaching situation in the States or Canada.

The Language Barrier:

This is arguably the biggest challenge, as it often means I misunderstand a situation or am misunderstood myself. I often find that I can tell something is happening in the class, but cannot pinpoint what because I do not know what the kids are saying.

Although I have gained some basic language skills, I have developed a hybrid of Fante and Twi, so I believe my attempts sometimes make me even more confusing. That being said, I use a lot of movement, repletion, and drawing to illustrate what I am trying to explain. While it has been difficult, and I can definitely say I would be more effective as a native speaker, the kids have improved over the last few weeks.

Physical Violence:

When I have taught or coached in the States or Canada, physical violence has been an issue, but not to the same extent as with the kids here, especially the boys. While it is not allowed at the shelter or Challenging Heights School, corporal punishment is normal in Ghana. This cultural norm plus the physical violence all these children experienced on the lake means that the kids often hit each other when they are mad or when they believe that child has done something wrong.

Recently, in one of the more extreme cases, one of the older boys kicked another much small boy very hard on the upper leg. Knowing that there was nothing I could do myself given that I do not speak the language really at all and have much less authority in the house still comparatively to the house mothers and teachers, I decided to drag the boy to one of the house mothers.

When I grabbed his arm and told him in Fante to come with me, the boy laughed, smiled, and shook his head. It was very clear that he thought it was funny that I was angry and still thought that kicking the other boy was completely normal. I should say, at this point, that this boy was also only rescued a month ago. When he laughed at getting in trouble over quite harshly kicking another child, it made me feel quite sad. I know that to them it is nothing compared to what they went through on the lake.

Regardless, I dragged him to one of the house mothers, who quickly reprimanded him and deducted points from his behavior score. Afterwards, the boy was quite mad at me, and I saw him glare at me from the upstairs balcony.

The kids are all very good kids, and the violence to many of them has just become normal and even something fun. It is a “regular” way to punish someone. I have even had kids hit each other for not listening to me. It is very hard to explain why they cannot do so.

Kids With Zero Experience in a Classroom:

While most of the kids in my class have been at the shelter for at least one month, that also generally means they have only had one month of being in school at all. For one small boy in my class, he has only been at the shelter since I arrived, which means he has no classroom experience. Often half the battle is just trying to get the children to sit still.

Another challenge with this is that I want the kids to have the most positive first experience with education as possible, so that they will be motivated to keep learning when they leave the shelter. The combination of the language barrier and violence in class often makes my interactions with then stern or short, which makes it hard to convey fun and amusement at times. I compensate by trying to smile a lot and make my explanations entertaining and active. I end up jumping around a lot and using a lot of different expressions.

Overall, I really enjoy teaching the class and it is a very different challenge from anything I have experienced so far. It also makes me feel better knowing that the shelter does not currently have the capacity to teach this specific group of kids. I am not taking a job away from someone else. Also, while the language barrier complicates things, I do have the background to teach a class of this size and level. I don’t feel like I am taking them away from a better education or simply being entertained as a foreign volunteer. Even if these kids only learn basic math with me, I know they would not be learning that in the class, which is currently doing division.

I really hope that by the end of my time here the kids can return to the regular class with a good foundation in basic math and reading. I know that it will be a meaningful experience for me no matter what, but at the end of the day that is at the bottom of the list of things that matter when it comes to teaching these kids.