things I did

Tonight I would like to write about something of which I am deeply shameful. Please bear with me as I describe my experiences.

From the beginning of 2003 to the end of 2004 I had the privilege of teaching 8th and 9th grade kids in Namibia, a southern African country grappling with the aftermath of apartheid. Unfortunately for my students, I failed.

As a worker within the educational system, I just did my job, namely: convey the curriculum conferred upon me to convey. I damaged kids in the process. Let me count the ways, from nonmonotonically least to worst:

  • I made kids take tests.

    Typically these would be tests coming from the district, containing problems from previous examinations.

    These examinations favored students that understand the intentions of those "setting" the test over those students that had a love for questions and not for answers.

  • I acquiesced with the idea of giving kids multiple-choice tests, and with the idea of giving them tests in general.

    These tests always check answers rather than feeling. A student who has a feeling for reality must be able to formalize and reduce her ideas; a holist whose ideas are nuanced is necessarily required to reduce her ideas to symbology.

  • I forced kids away from their loves by engaging them in an alienated environment.

    The pressing question was not, "What do you think is the best way forward for your country with regards to energy?". Rather it was, "Compute the energy difference between position A and position B." The important questions have already been asked; the job of the successful technologist is merely to fill in the details.

  • I forced kids to ask for permision.

    • They asked for permission to go to the bathroom.

      A request to go to the bathroom (in reality, a row of latrines) was understood as a request either to suit bodily needs (plausible) or to escape from supervision. On the probability of the latter, I often refused requests, in order preserve my dominance.

    • Kids had to ask permission to engage in anything that left my authoritative purveyal.

      I always refused these requests to go home (to tend the goats that wanted to munch their neighbors' fields), to study in the library (an assured invitation to lasciviousness), etc. These were "obvious attempts to take advantage of our generosity".

      Note that here, "our" is not racial: it was classist. The prerogative was with the controllng class, in this case the teachers.

  • I humilliated kids via alienation.

    Those kids that really loved their subjects were forced to endure grueling tests to prove that they were worthy, whereas kids that just viewed subjects as hurdles were comfortably given exams on subjects not central to their fundamental ideology.

    To put it another way: those that did not love, were passed according to their dedication; those that did love their subjects were passed according to their ability to sublimate their love into obedience to the assigned canon.

  • I humiliated kids by domination.

    This point is very difficult for me to describe.

    For my Western readers, imagine this: you are out in the middle of what you perceive to be "nowhere". You are far from Bachelors' degrees, far from Madison Avenue, and you have been asked to take care of a group of 25 kids.

    At the beginning they are curious; also they are afraid. What's up with this white guy (in my case) teaching my class?

    In my case, well, I stuck to the subject as prescribed both by the curriculum and by the final examinations for my grade. After all, I wasn't going to leave my kids unprepared for my grade's exams.

    But all was not right. I went too slow for many. Also, some kids didn't quite get the things that I taught; I was going too fast. There were many valid reasons for this not-getting, not least the fact that South African Apartheid had formally ended only in 1990.

    Aside from that, though, there was a range of abilities in my classes. Should I have taught to the most advanced? To the most needy? Who were the most needy?

    Personally, I decided just to do my job as a teacher. I neglected Severus Hilma and Namwiha Sakaria (both beautiful, intelligent people) to teach to the rest. I don't really know why I did this -- some sense of the "broader good".

maintaining discipline

I think that I was wrong.

I should have taught only those who wanted to learn what I had to teach.

Those that I taught were already immensely intelligent -- many of them had been caring for their families and providing their own food for many years before they entered my classroom.

These peoples' knowledge was cheapened and degraded by being put through the industrial wringer of monetary effect. Schools produce the employable; these men and mostly women that had sustained their families with their sweat are worth *nothing* to the institutions seeking to pay back IMF-refinanced loans.

So they didn't need me and my coercion. All they needed was either a space in wish to consolidate their gains, or a helper along the path to academic credentials.

As I say, I failed in both. I neglected the first in an atmosphere of utmost discipline, and I neglected the last in a pedantic effort to make sure that all were at the same place in the great Textbook In The Sky.


When you as an enlightened elite are being ignored, well, that cannot stand.

I made kids kneel inside the classroom facing the wall. They were thus pained personally, and shamed by their peers.

I made kids lie down in the hot sand. This was painful and degrading.

I hit kids on the heads with dusty erasers. Their hair would be all white -- the intention was to amplify the strike with the disapproval of the kid's peers.

I hit kids on the heads with my knuckles. I recall one time in my second year teaching, one beautiful student named Daniel Ricard said after I had hit a companion of his, "Mr. Wingo never used to hit students."

I made kids go to the principal's office. This was a somewhat idle threat, to the extent that perhaps in the shuffle, the kid would get let off the hook. But this was not in my interest so I would follow through.

Once in the principal's office, the kid would get a talking to, with fear: the fear of damage. Almost always the damage would manifest itself: a whipping with a stick, or with a rubber pipe, or with a piece of a fan belt.

I recall a story that a fellow teacher told me of his principal, who had beat a student badly with the only thing at hand, the flat of a machete blade. The student got cut up a bit, and the family complained. The school ended up paying 500 Namibian dollars (about 80 euros) from the school fund -- the fund that the students paid to begin with.


I tell you this tonight because the writing of it relieves my conscience in some sense; it tells my story, though not absolutely. Again in some sense I hope for that Christian construction of "redemption", in which the confessor somehow is understood.

I do not hope for forgiveness, for that is not of the readers of this weblog to give, I do not think. But understanding I do ask. Thank you.

16 responses

  1. Philippe says:

    I find your post most interesting, evenmore, most important.
    starting from the end about redemption. i have a slightly different view of christian redemption, more in a buddhist perspective. I see your post as a warning to everyone, not to make the same mistake. being something you learned and understood from experience and not from any abstract theory, it is most meaningful.
    and therefore your "redemption" by sharing your experience will certainly find echo to many. That includes me,
    having thought a few course, despite in very different conditions you did, i still often ask myself the same questions. teaching is an art, which necessitates understanding of the students individually. Teaching in the "classic western way" is questionable, who are we as humans to teach something which we have understanding in particular conditions to teach it to someone else that we actually have a hard time understanding. in fact many students in our own western class are dismissed because they don't fit in the preformated shape of the teaching industry we have. not because they are not good students. and that happens up to universities.

    but then you failed, and certainly so did i. I understood that teaching was more about continuing to learn from the students than making them learn preformated understandings of any subjects. I think you did too. and so i hope you don't stop teaching, because a teacher who understood this point is even more valuable. Yes we need to learn from these kids and students, but that doesn't mean they don't have something to learn from us.
    this exchange is what makes teaching an art and a gift.

    thank you for sharing this with us. posts like these are rare. they are however full of teaching.


  2. wingo says:

    Thank you Philippe for your kind and insightful remarks. I am still left wondering however as to how I (and I realize this is a very subjective proposition, and that there are many excellent teachers doing excellent work) may help others to progress in any field.

    My stopgap solution is not to teach, but to work and write publicly, that others may take what they wish.

    But that fails to encompass all of the instruction which I have received and which has enriched me as a person. So I personally don't understand how people teach -- and at this point I recognize that it's beyond me, that because I am too selfish in a desire to create rather than a desire to convey that I'm not among the better teachers.

  3. Aria Stewart says:

    Thank you for saying these things.

    In places where the balances of power are so severe, where the recognition of people's worth is often so very limited, these things are worst. But they are universal, too, in my experience.

    Institutional education can be soulless. The power balances of teacher and student can suppress so many individual traits and skills.

    I was fortunate enough to grow up unschooled; self-taught, with plenty of resources available, teachers included if I sought them out.

    I wish more people had those opportunities, and I wish more teachers had the opportunity to experience it from both sides of the fence, too. It creates the opposite dynamic from the one you found it so easy to step into.

    Thank you for caring.

  4. Philippe says:

    "My stopgap solution is not to teach, but to work and write publicly, that others may take what they wish."

    somewhat far away from my scientific and university background (i'm actually recently Ph.D. in engineering), i actually understood best what teaching is while being a snowboarding and canoing counselor at my outdoors club. a teacher is best when it makes itself forget while still being present only to create the opportunity for the student to grasp his/her own understanding of the subject. so yes, share publicly, let people take what they wish. and believe me, i took a lot from your post. I might have understood a few tricks about teaching, but it's a different thing to put it in practice, and a little reminder is positive.

    teaching is like searching for an object, the more we look for it the more time we loose. then we find it when we stop looking for it. the more we try to teach (in that sense of making these student "eat" knowledge) the less efficient. but making knowledge available so the students can make their own links of understanding and there it is. then with experience, and only experience (it can not be taught nor learned in books) can a teacher grasp intuition of where/when a particular student needs which particular element of information to continue developing his/her understanding. well it's better to try and fail, then to do nothing... but yeah i think i can understand how you feel when you realize that a certain attitude might have been inefficient for teaching. for instance once, I felt something like that after having wrongly corrected a student's exam copy with lots of red ink, only to realize his approach was different than mine but valid. i felt i still had much to let me surprise with, and i felt very stupid having to explain the student why his copy was ok but covered with red..
    all i can say (or can i? i'm not a priest ;) ) is "there, you are redeemed now" continue walking your path.

    there seems to be lots of things to talk about in your last paragraph on the instruction you received and your desire to create. then, i don't want either you to feel i'm giving you lessons ;), i'm just very interested in this philosophic discussion . thought i'm confident if you have a desire to create you know where you want to go (at least in which direction) so go ahead, and i'm curious of what you will be publicly sharing with us next !


  5. Hans says:

    I dont think redemption is the right term, because it is a suppressive concept used by authoritarian religions. What you did is about enlightenment.

  6. Luke Kenneth Casson Leighton says:

    "I should have taught only those who wanted to learn what I had to teach."

    yes - you should have. that is the ayurvedic approach to teaching. more specifically, the teacher who follows the ayurvedic approach _only_ answers questions.

    in this way, the most important thing that happens is that a pupil - no matter how young or old - demonstrates a curiosity and a desire to actually _hear_ the answer.

    unlike a lot of people, you managed to work these things out. by being in such an absolutely stark contrasting environment from the one in which you BELIEVED that the approach you were trained to take was valid, you could clearly see that your training was utterly inadequate.

    now i challenge you to work out whether the approach to teaching that you were trained in is suitable _at all_ - in the western world as much as anywhere else.

  7. A says:

    The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article related to teaching:

    See also the forums for the discussion on the topic:

  8. Michael says:

    Thank you for this. I got out of classroom teaching for reasons similar to the issues you listed here. Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student, but I have no desire to work as part of the institution of school.

    Check out John Holt and John Taylor Gatto - their writings will speak to you, I think. Gatto is slightly more contemporary.

  9. Adrian says:

    Please! There are many more practical things to feel sorry about. Although I'm white, I had a very similar experience at school....

    I would like to draw your attention to Zimbabwe and SADEC (Southern African Development Community). They are trying their best to apply their own "unique" brand of wisdom. You know, screw the West, and all that. In my entire life, I have not seen so much oppression!

    Do come back to this region and talk to "real" people. Normal citizens, and see for yourself how this so-called "ancient wisdom" is failing.

    Just my Zimbabwe $200,000,000,000 worth.

  10. wingo says:

    @Adrian: My criticism is of having served authority; I don't think it is specific to Namibia.

    Zimbabwe is authoritarianism run amok. It's terrible. Namibia has some of those aspects (the cult of the leader, etc). But Zimbabwe was also deeply damaged in the colonial period -- so blame-wise "the West" is definitely on the hook.

    But then you end with a comment about "real" people, which has morally repugnant implications. I am afraid that there we disagree.

  11. Steven says:

    I don't know anything about teaching, but I couldn't stop reading. I found this both extremely valuable and sincere. Shame is rarely shared, which is unfortunate since it can produce very effective advice. And it's not easy to do, I'm sure! I wish you the best, and thank you for sharing.

  12. Daeng Bo says:

    I'm glad you shared this. It was insightful and a little sad. I don't think you need to be particularly ashamed that you followed the rules of the institution you were in: students who must take standardized tests which determine their future should be prepared for those tests. If you had the power to eliminate those tests, you could be responsible for not doing so, but to hamstring a child's future would be wrong.

    Discipline is a difficult concept. As classes get larger, there needs to be more control enforced. Certainly, hitting or humiliating children isn't the way to go, but some children have learned to expect a certain type of behavior with regard to discipline and don't concern themselves with other kinds. In the same vein, the teacher may need to follow a certain dress code in order to be seen as worthy of respect. We may argue that these shouldn't matter, but your six months or a year there were not enough to change their many years of indoctrination into certain beliefs. I'm sorry to say that I have a few demons from times I've crossed the line, too.

    I've been teaching in non-Western countries for about a decade, and it has truly changed me. When I have long-term relationships with students, I try to help them find their true selves as much as possible, but never forget that they must still live in their own culture when I move somewhere else.

    I continue to try to treat all my students as individual personalities and to give them what they individually need to progress toward their goals, but I sometimes fail. Like you, I feel awful about those times when I don't "make the grade."

  13. Adrian says:

    @wingo: Yes, sorry, I should not have said "real" people. I suppose it is all this brainwashing that some people belong here while others don't. (Too much rap on the airwaves?) It is a bit hard to swallow when your ancestry goes back over 400 years.

    In general, I agree with you about the education system, but I feel that it is a global problem. Maybe I'm reading too much into what you are saying - dealing with my own issues.

    The "ancient wisdom" comment I made, probably also sounded a bit arrogant/ignorant. Perhaps it is because so many people start their sentences with "In African culture, we....", as if African culture is one, single concept. There also seems to be this impression that, in the past, everyone lived in perfect harmony and that Africa needs to return to that way of living. Nothing could be further from the truth. There was never such a time.

    The world has become a global village - like it or not. Who knows, perhaps this current economic crisis will become so bad, that the whole system collapses. Then we can all return to some imaginary ideology of the past.

  14. Adrian says:

    Apologies for double posting.

    Just to put things in perspective - I was fortunate to attend a multi-racial school at the height of the Apartheid era in the 80s. I also hated the Apartheid government and, as a student, managed to get into trouble because of my views. It is just that the "left" now seems to have become the "right". Very similar ideologies and absolute racism is beginning to rear its ugly head again. This time, it is just the other way around.

  15. Pete says:

    This is a nice break from the humorous stories of Namibia. It is shite to realize one day that you have adopted a system of oppression that once was not you. Reading your post made me instinctively reach for Friere "liberation: not a gift, not a self-achievement, but a mutual process." So maybe you are still in the tail end of that process. Nursing has way to much of this crap in it. People are made to feel small and cry sometimes. It is gross, and I hope I never do it. Thanks for publishing this, it gives others of us courage to face and admit ways in which we have failed.

  16. Raula says:

    The trouble with our broken society is that all the little broken pieces are interconnected. I've continued teaching, now in a very effective small urban school in San Francisco, since Wingo and I left Namibia, and so my evolving ideas about the purpose of education, and math education in particular, are constantly crashing against the realities of my students' lives. See, Wingo, if I only taught those kids who wanted to learn what I have to teach, well, actually, it's even more complicated than that. My high school students come to me with an amazing amount of educational baggage. If I just stopped trying to make Luis G learn Algebra, then what that would mean is that I'd also be stopping trying to give him access to a life other than jail. Because that's where he is now, for violating probation. But when he comes out, I'm going to try again. And it's not just that he doesn't want to learn Algebra, it's that he doesn't want to invest himself in a system that has been telling him his whole life that he is less than. Not that he, a 14 year old, could articulate that. But his rejection of the school system is at least partly a response to its rejection of him and what's important to him, like you talked about. And it'd be wonderful if I could work to act as some agent of personal empowerment just for him to help him gain a sense of agency in his life and actually make choices for himself. But he's still a Latino male with a criminal record in America. And if he can't get a diploma, he can't get a job that will pay him anywhere near what he's making through dealing right now. And I don't think our society is in a place to change that anytime soon.

    So I disagree that us stepping into the System in order to give more Namibian kids more choices was wrong. Because they need that access too, even thought it'd be better if we could actually change the system that forces them to make those choices. Just like my students now. We can't fix the system, but we can give them what they need to gain access to the tools of power, and the consciousness to begin to make change. And that's the way I feel like I can begin to change the structures of society.

    So I guess the task of the mindful educator, the tricky part, is to find out how to do this work without completely adopting the system of oppression that it is attached to. And maybe that wasn't possible for us in Namibia, because we were learning about the system at the same time we were adopting it. And it's a challenge even now. But if no one is trying, then nothing can ever change.

    Kala po nawa :)

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