First Weeks of School (part 1)

For the past three weeks, despite my continuing housing struggles, I have begun teaching 8th grade and 9th grade mathematics at the local public school here at my site:


It is a small school (only about 400 students), that runs from preschool to 9th grade. Since there are no high schools in the area, after students are promoted from 9th grade they must move to a larger city if they wish to continue their education. Unfortunately, this means the community loses much of their young talent to neighboring cities. And not all families can afford to send their children. This means there’s a quickly growing population of youth in the community who are lacking a high school education and do not have regular employment to keep them occupied… not a good combination.

For these reasons, everyone is very eager to extend the school into a high school. I was worried at first that people would see my arrival as an occasion to add on new grades before the school was ready. So, from the moment I arrived, I made it clear that extending a school’s capacity does not happen overnight; it requires careful planning and hard work. We need to first make sure that we function well in the grades we currently have before we try to add more. I continually used the analogy of building a house with a solid foundation, and the image seemed to be well received by the administration of the school and the community at large. (It helped that the community is strongly Christian, and the image has a biblical precedent).

So, our plan now is for me to teach the 8th and 9th graders this year, and then follow them into 9th and 10th grade next year. In the meantime, we can examine what needs to be done to get the school ready for a 10th grade class next year.

I have 28 students enrolled in my 8th grade class, and 19 in my 9th grade class. This is ridiculously small by Liberian standards. Even though the maximum class size set by the ministry of education is 35, at many schools you will find 60 or more crowded in a classroom designed for 30. This happens because public schools lack the resources for such a large population but are not allowed to turn down students. I have a lot of thoughts about this situation, but will save that for a future post. In the meantime, let it be known that I feel incredibly lucky to have the class sizes that I do.

Here’s my 8th grade class:


Out of the 22 students (9 male, 13 female) that were around when I gave my survey, their age distribution was as follows:

13 years: 1
15 years: 3
16 years: 3
17 years: 6
18 years: 5
20 years: 2
23 years: 1
24 years: 1

Unlike the relatively childless population at model school, 6 of these students (27%) already have one child.

As for their dream jobs:

– 8 wanted to be nurses (all female, and most of them spelled it “nice”)
– 3 wanted to be teachers
– 3 wanted to be lawyers (one, because she “believes in justice”)
– 2 wanted to be doctors
– 1 wanted to be the President
– 1 wanted to be a soccer player
– 1 wanted to be a psychologist
– 1 wanted to be an economist
– 1 wanted to be the defense minister (“to protect the country’s force”)

I was surprised to find no engineers or scientists… we’ll see if that changes after two years 🙂

Here’s my 9th grade class:


Of the 16 students (12 male, 4 female) present when I gave my survey, their age distribution was as follows:

14 years: 1
15 years: 1
17 years: 6
18 years: 7
19 years: 1

Interestingly, for how similar this age distribution is to my 8th grade class, the 8th graders seem significantly smaller in stature and less mature. And 9th grade is much more capable when it comes to understanding and following simple instructions. It makes me wonder if the differences I’m subjectively noticing are due to environmental differences (nutrition being first on my mind) in their early childhood.

On the other hand, to be fair, if you take out their older outliers, 8th grade’s average age is a year younger than 9th grade. I suppose the developmental differences between 16.5 and 17.5 years can be large. And the difference in class sizes and personalities could also be a major influence of my perception of their instruction-following capacity. But still, my gut is not satisfied by these explanations. Too bad I have no idea how to research this sort of thing further.

Only 2 surveyed in my 9th grade (13%) reported having a child as opposed to the 27% in 8th grade. This difference is probably due to the fact that 8th grade has a much higher female population than 9th grade.

When I asked for their dream jobs, I got a wonderful variety of responses. And unlike 8th grade, almost all had unique answers for the reason of their choice. (8th grade almost universally used my in-class example reason “because I want to make money”)

Here’s 9th grade’s responses:

– police officer (“because I want to protect people and my country”)
– doctor (“because I love to do doctor work”)
– doctor (“because I want to make money”)
– nurse (“because I love writing and etc”)
– soccer player (“because I love the game”)
– soccer player (“because I love to play soccer”)
– builder (“because I love building the house’s foundation”)
– pastor (“because I like the bible”)
– businessman (“because I like to make money”)
– president (“because I want to work in the government to help my people/country”)
– geologist (“because I want to make money”)
– scientist (“because I want to know more about science”)
– journalist (“because I want to travel from place to place”)
– journalist (“because I love radio and I love reading”)
– civil engineer (“because I want to be a math teacher”)
– mechanic (“because I love to fix cars and other materials”)

I’ve put the female responses in bold. What a diverse and thoughtful class!

At this point I should also probably note that I’ve heavily edited these responses for spelling and grammar. For example, the last entry actually read:

“Marcanest – because I love to fack car and other mertiral”

Clearly, literacy is a problem across the board.

Anyway, those are my two classes! I get them for 45 minutes each from Monday through Thursday, and then on Friday I get an extra session with 9th grade. In my next entry, I’ll describe what I’ve been doing with them for the past three weeks.

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8 Responses to First Weeks of School (part 1)

  1. Doug Hutchinson says:

    Wow! The age difference within each grade level must make for a strange visual when you start each lesson 🙂 I feel your thinking regarding the future high school is sound. Small steps…small steps. Keep complimenting them for getting as far as they have!! Huge obstacles have been overcome!
    Glad to hear you are having fun!!!

    • khusmann says:

      Thanks Doug! Surprisingly, in spite of the age spread, looks like everyone’s pretty much the same age… except for the one 14 year old in my 9th grade. That must have been what I looked like in your classes, huh? 😉

  2. Evie Jaskoski says:

    Wow, Kyle, it sounds like you have a dream teaching situation there! I honestly can’t imagine teaching 60 students in a room set up for half that. So glad that you have these relatively few students. I was astonished at their ages. There’s no minimum or maximum age limit for jr and sr high school there? The class room looks so bare. If I found some good math-related teaching posters, would they get to you if I mailed them?

    • khusmann says:

      Nope, no limits. I’ve heard stories of finding people in their 30’s still in high school. The war really disrupted a lot.

      And thanks for your generocity! Unfortunately, as these classrooms aren’t locked, the posters would be destroyed pretty quickly. Also, I don’t have a classroom of my own… in liberia, teachers move between the classrooms while the students remain in the room (which has some interesting impacts on the classroom environment that I’ll detail in a future post). Anyway, if you’d like, I’ll be thinking about ways you (and people like you) can participate in what I’m doing here. I’m open to other ideas too!

  3. Renee Dillard Vrable says:

    Kyle, I can’t get over how thoughtful your posts have been… such great detail and insight! I compare the experience you are getting over there with the experience I had going through a teacher prep program here. There is no comparison! The things you are learning and the experience you are getting are going to be beyond helpful in your life as a teacher. I wish every teacher here could go through the “education” that you are getting.

    Great job! Let me know when you start a contra dance group over there!


    • Yes, let me know when you start a contra dance group, too. I’ll send over music and CDs.
      –Lee Anne

      • khusmann says:

        Totally! But what I really need is someone to call the dances… I don’t have any experience in that… but if someone wants to visit me in the next two years, you can bet I could get a group together! Gosh that would be awesome (and we’d have to get someone to film it)

    • khusmann says:

      Thanks Renee! I’m so glad you’re enjoying my posts! Getting feedback like that really encourages me to write them! And you can bet I’ll be trying to teach some sort of dancing over the next two years… 😀

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