“Teacher Teacher”

Siobhán O’Grady, a student at Dickinson College, studied in Rabat, Morocco for her Fall 2011 semester.  In this post she reflects upon her experiences teaching English 101 to Moroccan Students and integrating into the local society.

I stand at the front of the dirty classroom with a broken piece of chalk in my hand. “’My name is’ u ‘smiti,’ kif kif,” I articulate clearly as my nine students repeat “My name is” back to me and copy it down in their notebooks. I’m twenty years old, and I’m standing in the basement of a run-down community center, teaching English through broken Darija, the vernacular Arab dialect in Morocco, to a class of students who are all older than I am, some by as many as 30 years. “Teacher!” one of them calls out. I tell her again and again to call me by my first name, but she just doesn’t seem to get it. “Teacher!” she repeats, “My name is Fatima.” “Mziane!” I call back, “Very good!”

An hour and a half later, I walk out of the building into Rabat’s misty evening air. My hands are dry and cracking from the chalk. My students follow me, kissing me on each cheek, and thanking me for my time. One of them, Rhani, offers to walk with my American friends and me to the street market a few blocks away. The group of us walks and talks, using French, Darija, and English translations as we go. I have been in Morocco for three months, so I’m used to this type of conversation now: nothing is said exactly how it should be and it never actually seems to matter anyway.
Soon we’re at the market, and Rhani bargains on half a kilo of plums for my friends. Before they can even get out “Bishel?” (How much?), he’s paid for them too, refusing to take the dirham they offer up. We walk through the rest of the block, making plans to meet up for a soccer game sometime soon, before he hails me a cab and sends me back to my neighborhood a few arrondissements away.
With ten weeks of my own classes under my belt, I’m starting to feel more than comfortable with my life here. I have my routines: morning and evening taxi rides, mint tea at cafés near my school every afternoon, and dinner at the round table in my family’s living room late each night. But staying busy in Rabat is both hard and easy. The intensity of the academics in my program makes me feel that the “study” aspect of my time here is actually getting in the way of the “abroad” part. Every time I spend an afternoon studying, I miss out on an afternoon of “cultural immersion” in Rabat. Every time I decide to explore, I fall behind in my Arabic. With the fast-moving pace of my Arabic classes becoming more and more impossible to ignore, I’ve learned ways to address both my busyness and my restlessness. Teaching is one of them.

My Students

Trying to instruct English 101 to a class of Moroccans whose native language I can barely speak has reminded me a lot of the old party game of telephone, in which one person whispers a phrase to the person sitting next to them, that person whispers it to the next person, and so on until the last person in line repeats what she just heard. The result is usually totally different from the original phrase, which is what makes the game so fun. While teaching, I have had to improvise, often explaining something in French and then asking a French-speaker to translate it to Darija for the rest of the class, hoping the French speaker understood my explanation to begin with. This method also reminds me of my Arabic class, where my friends and I will sometimes ask each other what the professor just said, trusting that the other person understood correctly as we write down definitions in our notebooks.
The class I teach is ninety minutes long, and so far I haven’t gone in with much of a lesson plan. I ask my students what they’re interested in learning that day, making the course into more of a survival guide to English than anything else.  If my students weren’t so enthusiastic, the class would be a disaster. But somehow, they’re actually learning. At the end of each class I have them stand up and present themselves, using words they’ve written down that day. So far they can confidently tell me about themselves (birthday, job, neighborhood, hair and eye color) and about their families (brother, sister, spouse, parents), plus tell time, identify seasons, and more.
When I first signed up to teach, I thought it would be a fun way to let loose once a week. Now that I’ve started, I’ve realized that it’s opening more doors than just the one to stress relief. It has taught me a lot about Moroccans and also forced me to recognize a lot about myself. I dread my daily Arabic classes for which I’m receiving college credit, and my students are voluntarily taking English, not for credits or grades but just for the sake of learning it. And they’re so excited to be there. They help me learn Darija, they show me around their neighborhood, and they let me forget about my other commitments when I walk into their classroom. For that hour and a half once a week, I forget how frustrated I feel while trying to learn Arabic, I forget how I still haven’t figured out a way to tell my host family that I lost the key to their house, and I forget that the school week often leaves me feeling isolated in Rabat.
It would be easy enough to come to Morocco and spend all of my time between the neighborhood where my school is and the neighborhood where I live. I can easily get everything I need in both of those neighborhoods, and once you’re used to a place, it’s more comfortable to stay put. But there’s something nice about walking through a neighborhood that is not my own with Moroccans I would not have met if I hadn’t started teaching. And while traveling on the weekends is exciting, different, and fun, really knowing the city where I live the rest of the week is just as important to me. Each neighborhood has its own stories, its own markets, its own mosques. Teaching in modern Agdal is much different than teaching in traditional Kibbebat, just like bargaining for zucchini in the old Medina is a lot trickier than buying avocado at La Bel Vie in Bab al Had, and the call to prayer is louder in Dior Jama’a than it is in L’Océan.

Learning Moroccan dance with my students

Two months ago I wouldn’t have believed someone if they had told me how excited I would be to spend hours translating the English lyrics from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” to Moroccan Arabic, just because my students asked me to. And I wouldn’t have thought that I would grow to love the goofy women who bicker over translations throughout the entire class. But here I am, already sad that I have only a few weeks left to teach my students as much as I can.

More than anything else, teaching has showed me that there is a big difference between spending four months in a foreign place and really living in a foreign place for four months. Every day, I pass thousands of Moroccans on Rabat’s streets. I share taxis with them, cram into buses with them, and buy fruit from them in crowded marketplaces. And while I may always stand out here with my blonde hair and light skin, there are ways to make myself more at home than not. At the end of my last teaching lesson, I went over nationalities. After giving the example of “My name is Siobhán and I am American,” Fatima corrected me: “No Teacher!” she yelled. “Your name is Siobhán, and you are Moroccan.” And maybe a part of me is.

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Filed under Arab Friends, Arabic, Morocco

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