Teaching Fish to Swim


“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

-Albert Einstein

While Rwanda is making great strides to improve their education system, one of my biggest frustrations is the fact that my classrooms are full of intelligent little fish who are being judged based on abilities that they do not possess. There is one way to learn in this system- you memorize the notes that the teacher writes on the board and then regurgitate the information on the test. Keep in mind that while the notes are in English, most of the teachers do not know enough English to explain anything beyond what is on the board, so there is no opportunity for the students to ask questions so that they really understand the material. In most schools there is no effort made to reach out to students with different learning styles and because of this many of my precious fish have been labeled as stupid because they never learned to climb a tree.


The saddest part of it all is that many of my students are wonderfully creative and intelligent but since someone once told them that they were stupid they stopped trying. In a society that places an enormous emphasis on obeying authority and doing as you are told it is no wonder that these students have simply accepted that they are not smart enough to succeed in school. I think Einstein’s quote is the perfect way of demonstrating how this country has restructured its education system. Rwanda is so focused on moving forward, and having all their fish perform extraordinary tasks beyond their capacity, that they forget to simply teach the young fish to swim. My students have 15 courses (math, physics, biology, chemistry, political science, ITC, English, French, Kinyarwanda, Swahili, religion, geography, history, economics, and music) and struggle to succeed with almost all of them. Instead of making sure they really understand the basics, the schools instead try to make the students master a myriad of difficult subjects all at once.


There are a number of high expectations placed on these students, a majority of which requires them to use skills that they have never had the opportunity to develop. But instead of working with students to develop these skills teachers and schools find ways to pass kids along even if they are not adequately prepared. For example, at my school, a child who gets a 40% or higher in their class will pass that subject. A student who knows 40% of the subject matter is allowed to move on in the system but this is just setting them up for failure when it comes time to take the national exams.


Students take national exams at the end of primary school (P6) and then again after their third year of secondary school (S3) and finally at the end of secondary school (S6). These exams can determine their futures. If they succeed, their education can be continued at a “school of excellence” which will prepare them for university. If they do not do well they might get a spot in a lower-level school (like mine) or failing a national exam might signify the end of their education. My school doesn’t have the greatest reputation for producing stellar students (last year we had only one S3 student score well enough to attend a school of excellence) and I truly believe that this reputation is limiting the growth of the students. Kids at my school know that they are not at a school of excellence so many of them don’t put in the effort to learn anymore.


Another source of frustration for me is the fact that there is far too little praise for the skills and knowledge that the students have learned. Instead it tends to be a system that isolates and emphasizes what students don’t know. This problem is exacerbated in the classroom because most schools in Rwanda support a culture of mocking students who make mistakes. If a student finally builds up the courage to answer a question and makes an error the entire classroom is filled with mocking laughter until the child finally sits down and the teacher regains control of the class. If a student is already struggling you can pretty much guarantee that their hand will not be in the air again for a long time. I have tried very hard to get rid of this horrible  mocking laughter in my classroom but the kids have all grown up immersed in this culture of laughing at each other so most of my attempts have been rather futile.  Based on my experiences and observations this system, that leaves little room for praise and no room for errors, will produce a generation of learners who are plagued by self-doubt and feelings of incompetence. Rwanda is doing a fantastic job of rebuilding their nation in the aftermath of a horrible tragedy, but with such lofty goals for the future I think they might be forgetting that the children living in the present are suffering.


It is my job to teach English grammar and pronunciation for the next two years, and while I  know that learning the English language will be very beneficial for my students, I have realized that there is an even bigger task ahead of me. I think  that the best thing that I could do for my school is to help build the confidence of all my little fish who believe that they are too stupid to accomplish great things. In just the first six weeks of teaching it has been amazing to see how a few simple compliments and words of encouragement can completely alter the attitude of a struggling student. Instead of trying to have my students conform to the standards that ask them to accomplish unrealistic goals, I have decided to help them learn how to focus on, and be proud of, what they do know .


My fish may never learn to climb trees, but by the end of two years I hope that they will be confident swimmers and realize that their fish bowl is much larger than they once thought.  Failing to climb a tree does not mean that you are incapable of achieving great things in your life for having fins enables you to go places animals with feet can only dream about.


“We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.”

– Stacia Tauscher


4 responses »

  1. Suzi- those little swimmers are so lucky to have you. Maybe you will be able to teach some English to their other teachers as well- so they can help and inspire the children even more!

  2. What a fantastic post Suzi! you are no doubt doing your part to inspire and educate the children of Rwanda! They are so blessed to have you! Keep up the great work!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s