An Unexpected Lesson

By Barbara Allison

When 30 Semester at Sea students visited Semanhyiya American School for three days in March of 2016, one of their activities was to give an informal assessment to a group of Semanhyiya American School 1st grade students, and then to visit three Government, (Basic), schools in Senase and nearby villages and administer the same assessment to groups of 1st graders at these schools.

Not only were we interested in learning what effect our model of education was having on our students at SAS versus students who were attending other local schools, but we also wanted to expose the Semester at Sea students to the conditions in which these children are being educated. It is not only eye opening, but explains why there is so little hope for these young people to ever have the opportunities that every child deserves.

While some students brought Frisbees, Play-doh and bubbles to share with the kids at the schools we visited, others, with the teacher’s permission, took students one at a time to ask simple questions having to do with letter and number recognition and basic language skills.

Later that night we met as a group to discuss what the students had observed during the day and what they had learned through their experience. What made the biggest impact with our Semester at Sea students was not what we were expecting to hear.  Although not surprising to us, it was actually heartbreaking. We heard the same thing from all three groups that gave assessments at different schools: the children at the government schools seemed very scared, some were even shaking. Not only did they seem afraid they would get the answer wrong, but often they wouldn’t even try. Several Semester at Sea students noticed their teachers standing close behind them, and in some cases giving them the answers.

You might be tempted to think that maybe the kids were afraid because they didn’t know our SAS students, but if you could see the way we are all greeted throughout the village by these same children outside of the classroom, you would know that this was most certainly not the case.

What our Semester at Sea students didn’t know, but unfortunately is true, is that corporal punishment, or caning, is accepted and still used in a majority of schools in Ghana. As recently as 2014, UNICEF was joining the effort to eliminate violent discipline in schools in Ghana.

Children are often required to bring a long wooden stick to class, (which is sold at the market!), and is used to beat them if they don’t know an answer, give a wrong answer, or for any reason the teacher feels compelled to punish them. Often students are beaten just because it is the only way teachers know how to control their overcrowded classrooms, which often have 60-100 students.

This brought up the question, “How can kids learn when they are afraid?” We all know the answer. They can’t. This is one of many reasons we made the decision to open a private school, rather than just build another school building. We knew we had to have control over the environment our students were learning in, and that meant no corporal punishment would be allowed.

I have to tell you that it wasn’t easy to convince our young teachers at the beginning of the year, that there was another way to discipline. Corporal punishment was all they knew – all they had grown up with. It took a couple of months to find exactly the right methods that would work best with our students, as we learned that stickers are just not as exciting as they are for students in the U.S.!

When you visit Semanhyiya American School, you will see nothing but positive discipline methods used campus wide. You will see pocket charts with red, yellow and green cards, and hopefully you will mostly see green cards! You will see children raising their hands in class eager to give the answer, and knowing that it’s okay if it’s wrong. What is most important in our classrooms is to try!!

Over the past year our teachers have learned that students will thrive on encouragement, acceptance, respect and compassion. What they need is a cheerleader, someone who is on their side, encouraging them to always do their best. Now they have the permission to be wrong, to make a mistake, and to learn from it. How awesome is that!

Semester at Sea students interview kids at Semanhyiya American School

Semester at Sea students interview kids at government school

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