Friday, February 4, 2011

Groundhog Day

Wednesday was Groundhog Day in the US, the day when Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) is brought up from his comfy hole to see if he sees his shadow.  If he sees it, the country is in for six more weeks of winter.  (Given the recent winter storm, I’m sure my fellow Americans are unhappy that winter is supposed to continue.)  But this date reminded me of the Bill Murray movie of the same name, in which he must keep reliving the same day over and over until he gets it right.

Since I’m working with fifteen schools but the activities at each school are the same, there are many days here in Ghana that feel like Groundhog Day, especially now that I don’t have roommates to change up my quiet evening of writing, reading and work.  Let me describe to you a typical day in this series of mostly identical days.

I set my alarm for either 6 or 7, depending on whether I’m planning to go to the track that morning.  No matter when it’s set, when I wake up I hear the rooster outside, since he has no concept of time and starts crowing around 4:45 am.  Luckily the low hum of the air conditioner, which runs all night, covers up the crowing.  If it’s a morning to go jogging, I head to the track to get in my laps and then come back to the house.  I check my email to cover any crises that may have arisen overnight, either from the East Coast of the US (5 hours earlier than us) or locally (since there are many times when I’ve gotten emails originating from here before 7).  7:30 is when I head to the veranda to eat the yummy breakfast that Dinah (the house cook) has prepared: eggs, either fried or as an omelet; toast; and fresh fruit. 

Each night, I tell Akmed that I need driving at 8 am the next morning, but being the most punctual man in Ghana, he’s here by 7:45.  It doesn’t hurt that we have a water hose for him to wash his car, since car washing seems to be the main pastime of car and taxi drivers when they are not busy driving.  I gather up my things and climb into the car to a “Good morning.  How is it?” from Akmed.  After checking my calendar, I tell Akmed the first school we will visit that day.   Assuming that traffic isn’t that bad, we arrive at the first school around 8:30.

The computer lab is the realm of the ICT teacher, who graciously agrees to search for the science and math teachers (one of each).  We check their email, perhaps for the first time since the last time I was there.  In most inboxes, I see a ridiculous number of new messages, like 587, of which 584 are notifications from Facebook that they have new friends or new posts or anything else that people put on Facebook.  (Editor’s note: They haven’t yet learned how to turn notifications off and, since Facebook is not supposed to be used at the schools, I’m not exactly sure how to teach them how to turn off the messages.  We’ll see.)  We then see if they’ve been able to create an account on the Kumasi wikispaces page that Liz created as a place to post useful teaching links.  (Liz is the project manager, based in NYC, who taught the workshop during my first full week in Ghana.  I’m excited that she’ll be visiting here again in a few weeks to lead more training.)  We spend all morning looking through links, helping the teachers to understand that they should use these links as the door to a whole new world of lessons and activities they can use in their lesson planning.

Around 11:30, I say my goodbyes, pack up my things, and climb into Akmed’s car for the trip to the next school of the day—where I repeat everything in the previous paragraph over again.  After leaving the second school, I typically get Akmed to take me on my errands, like taking money out of the ATM to pay him for all the driving he does.

Multiply these activities by thirteen and you get the picture of 1.5 weeks of work here.  I say thirteen, because even though there are fifteen schools, there are two pairs of schools that share a computer lab.  In those cases, I try to gather the math and science teachers from both schools, along with the two ICT teachers, and work with all six of them at once. 

The part of every day that isn’t like Groundhog Day, that varies, is how I feel at the end of the day.  On a good day, when I head home around 3 or 4, I’m motivated by the progress I’ve seen and I arrive at the house to spend a few more hours on the project: typing up notes from the day, answering emails, working on the monitoring checklist needed for the project, etc..  On a bad day, I practically crawl out of the car at the house and collapse onto the veranda, wondering why it’s so hard for a teacher to remember something as simple as an email address and password when we’ve told them to write them down if it will be a problem.  I am very fortunate that the good days far outnumber the bad.

But part of being fortunate is learning how to set realistic goals.  While I might hope that all forty-five teachers in the program would already log into their email three times a week and understand how to use the teaching links in their lesson plans, a more realistic goal at this time is to ensure that at least one teacher at every school checks email once a week and wants to learn how to use Internet lessons in their lesson plans.  As a concrete example of modifying goals to fit the reality of the situation, let’s talk about the 30-day Internet plans that the schools need to buy.  We asked all the schools to buy these Internet credits by last Friday, but I knew that there would be schools who didn’t buy the credits until the day I showed up on their doorstep.  But I just wait for them to load the credits on the router and begin my lessons a few minutes late.

But I’m not feeling the level of frustration that one might expect from what seems like problems that could be easily fixed.  There are many reasons for this positive attitude, not the least of which is the gratitude that the teachers show.  Not a day goes by that I don’t get a “thank you” or “we appreciate your help” or “God bless you so much for being here”.  Something that I’ve (re-)learned from this experience is just how far a simple “thank you” can go towards gaining a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from my work. 

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