Walking home from class with the equatorial sun beating down on me and sweat dripping off of every surface of my body, my blood was boiling…and it wasn’t the heat. It was the fact that over 50% of my students had just cheated on their assignments…again…. and when I confronted them about it, how disappointed I was in them, and tried to remind them of how disrespectful it was…they laughed. They laughed!! I was incredulous…how could this be? How was anything about this funny? Did it mean nothing to them that they would get a zero and possibly fail a class? Were they not upset about being caught?? Where was their conscience? How could so many students be so disrespectful? So unconcerned with cheating themselves out of a good education? I wanted to blame their actions entirely on them and what I had thought was their complete lack of character….because that’s the only way my mind could process what was happening. I wanted to harbor bitterness, disgust, and hurt for the way that they had betrayed me, their teacher who works so hard to help them. How could they treat me like this? Lie to me like this? Hurt my feelings and still laugh? My initial outlook was unfortunately so selfish and I took it all way too personally at first. After a few days of thinking about it more rationally and combining it with everything else I know about the Liberian education system, I realized I really shouldn’t have been so shocked or disgusted or hurt. Slightly discouraged, yes. But, not shocked, not disgusted.
I know that teachers accepting bribes in the form of money, gifts, and sex in exchange for grades is nothing unusual. The “proctors” who are assigned to monitor the tests and help reduce cheating fall asleep in the rooms, allow students to take the tests as groups and blatantly cheat, don’t even show up, or accept bribes themselves. Tests that should take the students 1.5 hours to complete, take 20 minutes because students are simply circling answers from memory because they “bought” the answer key just days previously. How can anyone be motivated to actually try hard, apply themselves, and learn when the attitude toward cheating and corruption is so prevalent? What’s the point if the person next to you is going to do none of the work and get the same grade?
The students also have no textbooks, which means everything they are expected to know must come out of the teacher’s mouth and get written onto the board and then copied into their notebooks. Thus, it takes 3x as long as it should to cover a certain amount of information than it should. Classes reguarly get cancelled for holidays, sports, cleaning days, etc—taking away even more of the precious time we have with these students. The students were trained “to learn” by memorizing facts, words, and numbers rather than using critical thinking skills to synthesize information together. This means that every time I try and teach using all the wonderful and somewhat idealistic “western teaching methods” in this culture, there is great confusion on the part of the students and great frustration on the part of myself. And because the war interrupted so many peoples’ education, there is a wide array in age of students in my sophomore class, ranging from 15 years old to 25 years old which means the maturity level and comprehension level in the group is extremely off balance. In some schools (luckily not mine), there is one teacher for 150 students so they either try to teach in one large group or break them up into smaller groups…either way this results in less learning time for the students. Is this an environment that fosters and values learning?
Some students don’t have basic math and writing skills making activities like reading and interpreting graphs a monumental challenge rather than just a fun new way of learning. Some students came from middle schools where asking questions was highly discouraged and disrespectful and so they just stare blankly at me if they don’t understand the topic rather than asking for clarification.. Some students don’t see the harm in acting up in class because their punishment is simply being made to do manual labor on the farm or school grounds during the next day, meaning they get to miss class all day. And for students who do act up, there isn’t any other adult to hold them accountable. Since this is a boarding school, many of their families live hours away so it is unlikely that if you called the parents they could do anything about it. Also, calling the parents is just about nearly impossible sometimes too because over 50% of the parents and family members live in areas of Liberia with little electricity or cell service. Again, what is the motivation to behave or to learn?
On top of all the struggles in the classroom is the fact that hazing and bullying is a really serious thing (much more so after the war I’m told) and so freshman students who come here to learn end up spending their nights on edge for fear of what the upperclassman might make them do. There are also other students who don’t have the money to pay for boarding or food and so they work from the minute they leave campus until the sun goes down…when can they do their homework? How can they attend after school or weekend review sessions? Some students don’t even have money to buy uniforms, school supplies, and even lunch some days…how can they be expected to prioritize learning when cheating is the far easier route? Death and illness are far too common here and many students are dealing with illnesses they don’t have money to treat or grieving the loss of someone close to them. And as is the case in many developing countries, the female student’s education is not nearly as highly valued as the male’s and so female students might not receive as much emotional or financial support from their families if they choose to stay in school past elementary age.
And then there is the teachers…the teachers who sometimes go months without pay because the government is broke. The teachers (like those at BWI) who are expected to teach at a high level because this is one of the most renowned public schools in the country, and yet classrooms are 100+ degree, small rooms packed full of 60+ students with the acoustics of concrete walls that make you feel like you are teaching in a loud sporting arena. All of the printers on campus are out of ink, teachers must buy their own paper, markers, supplies, and copies (unless they feel like waiting weeks to go through the proper process to obtain supplies), and very little curriculum is given ahead of time to help teachers plan. Money allocated or promised to help with one thing doesn’t always end up where it is supposed to be and so ideas to help improve things often don’t come to fruition for a very long time. Why wouldn’t the teachers accept bribes? What is the motivation not to?
Some days I am just so mad thinking about how messed up everything is, mad because it is making my job 10,000 times harder. But then I realize I am only mad because I am thinking only about myself and how this system affects me and my work. Other days I just laugh when I think about how disorganized everything is….what am I doing trying to teach in an environment like this? I laugh because some days it is the easiest way of dealing with the disappointments that keep piling on and the weight that just keep pushing me down. Nothing about it is funny though. On other days, I cry…my heart literally feels like it’s breaking into pieces as I think about how unfair and unjust it is that these young people are not being given the opportunity to develop their potential; that they are stuck in a system where people don’t believe in them and thus don’t try to invest time/effort into making things better for them; that they are seen as liars, cheats, lazy before they can prove otherwise and seen as the problem rather than the solution.
But some days, I smile big. Like last Sunday, when I offered to have a review session before the test and 7 out of my 45 students showed up (despite the fact that the heavens had opened in a downpour at about the same time they had to walk over to the building). Ohhh how I loved getting to interact with them in a smaller group setting. Getting to see them ask super inquisitive questions, talk about their dreams after high school; hearing them sincerely thank me for taking extra time to work with them and for making learning “fun and easier” by incorporating games into the classroom. My heart welled with pride and hope as I thought about the change that these 7 students could make if given the chance.
So, my students cheated. Honestly though…what did I expect? No, I’m not trying to be depressing and I’m not trying to say that my students are inherently lazy or cheaters…..just the opposite, I know that they aren’t (even if my initial reaction told otherwise). I have seen them work hard, I have seen them be inquisitive, I have seen them care about other people’s feelings, and they have amazed me with their resilience and their drive…but what can I expect from them being born into this education system? Being born into a society that doesn’t actively teach them that cheating is wrong, not even their teachers? Being born into a society where the values of trust and integrity have been so watered down, twisted, and spoiled? Being born into this society that doesn’t value them as youth? Being born into a society where the realities of poverty hold them back and puts chains on them making their fight to climb the ladder and succeed so much more insanely difficult? Being born into a society where so many factors are out of their control? Where so many factors are working against them? Who would I be and what would I do in this situation? Did my morals come from within or from society? Would I also cheat if I had been born a Liberian youth? The truth is…I probably would….
So what can I do now? Do I just accept this? That cheating is the norm? Give up on addressing it because the problem is so much bigger than myself or these kids? Do I allow them to let all the factors piling up against them be used to excuse poor quality work or poor behavior? No, I absolutely cannot do that. I can however move forward with a better understanding of the chains that hold them back, a better understanding that allows me to be more compassionate, empathetic, and realistic toward them and their struggle making sure not to blame only the individual for their cheating, but also their society and frankly, this world that has been overwhelmed with so much sin and brokenness. Making sure to remember, that someone who cheats is not necessarily a cheater. Making sure to remember that just because someone sins, they do not have to be defined as a sinner. Good people sometimes do bad things, and that does not make them bad hopeless cruel people….it makes them human. Just like me. Which means that instead of letting my emotions of hurt and disappointment drive my actions, that I ought to focus on setting that aside so that I can give these students the same grace, forgiveness, commitment, unconditional love, understanding, sacrifice, optimism, and hope that my Savior gives me (undeservedly) each and every single day.