The views expressed herein are mine and not those of the Peace Corps.



Useful Acronyms

PC Peace Corps
ICT Information & Communications Technology
PCT Peace Corps Trainee (pre-swearing-in)
PCV Peace Corps Volunteer (post-swearing-in)
PST Pre-Service Training
CBT Community-Based Training


So some background on the Tanzanian educational system, for context’s sake.

To begin with, each year of students is split up into streams, sometimes by skill level but generally randomly (it’s random at my school). Each stream has its own classroom; the teachers enter, teach, and then leave. If there is no teacher teaching at a particular point then the students just sort of hang out in the classroom.

There are seven years of elementary education, taught in Swahili. These are called Standards 1-7. At the end of Standard 7 the students take a national NECTA exam that determines whether they will be allowed to advance to the next level, O-level. I am teaching at an O-level school, which is Forms I-IV. The students are generally between twelve and eighteen. At the end of Form IV the students take another NECTA exam that determines whether they will be able to advance to A-Level, Forms V and VI. At the end of A-level there’s another exam that determines their university prospects. There is also a NECTA exam after Form II, but this year it was decided by the government that the results of that exam will not matter in advancement. Which is to say, even if a student fails all subjects he or she takes a Form II NECTA exam for, he or she may still advance to Form III and, as long as he or she continues to pay school fees for two more years, can become a “Form IV Leaver” when he or she fails the Form IV exams.

So there are several problems facing the Tanzanian educational system. Perhaps the most dire is that the elementary level of education is taught in Swahili, while the upper levels are taught in English. Although English is taught as a subject at the elementary level the Form I students are not able to understand lessons taught in English. At many schools, including mine, at the beginning of the year the Form Is have a sort of crash course in English, but even then English comprehension is a huge issue. This is further complicated by the fact that the NECTA exams are in English for the upper level of education. The exam questions are submitted by teachers around the country, who often have poor English skills themselves, and the questions are frequently incoherent or have multiple correct answers. So even if a student’s English skills are good, the exam that he or she is taking is flawed.

Another major problem is a shortage of teachers. My school has between 650 and 700 students and 10 teachers, one of whom is the headmaster and teaches only a few periods. Another problem is that often teachers do not teach their periods. I have no observations to make about my school in particular. I can observe that teaching is not a good job: not well paid, and the ministry of education places teachers and can move them at any point. Most teachers do not have college educations (Form IV leavers are qualified to teach elementary level after one year at a teacher’s college, and Form VI leavers can teach O-level after a stint at a teacher’s college) and most teachers I talk to are teaching for only a short time while saving up the money to go to university. When I ask them if they plan to teach after they graduate, they look at me as though I might be crazy and say that they’re going to get a job that pays real money. Because the university schedule is not the same as the O-level schedule, there is a high turnover rate of teachers and they often come and go in the middle of a term. It’s all very confusing.

Lastly, the educational system here rewards ability to memorize over ability to comprehend. Particularly since classes are taught and notes given in an unfamiliar language (at least at my school, where they actually teach in English; at other schools they just teach in Swahili and screw the requirement for English competency) the students tend to write things down and memorize them without completely understanding them. This may allow them to pass the NECTA exams but leads to problems, particularly in science and math classes. It is a major source of frustration to PCVs.

So now my position specifically. I have a computer lab with eleven working computers that run Windows XP. Ten are for student use and one for teacher use. My classes range in size from thirty to ninety students, and periods are eighty minutes long. My primary problem thus far has been getting all the students in a stream into the lab for practical without having the lab turn into a madhouse with fifty students in it. The notes that I have presented so far have been very simple follow-the-checklist procedures but I have already discovered that the students are very good at writing without understanding. I’ve begun making them show me completed notes to be allowed into the lab for practice, but even with the notes in front of them when I say “now, turn off the computer” instead of following the checklist they’ve just written down, they reach out and turn off the monitor, and maybe turn off the wall socket. So I’ve started going around to each computer and walking through the checklist with them. I’m hoping that they’ll learn how to follow simple instructions from my class, if nothing else…

There are tons of differences between the Tanzanian and American educational systems. In Tanzanian schools, the students clean the grounds; corporal punishment is used liberally; classes do not start on time. But that’s all I’m going to write for now.

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