Secondary History – The reality of teaching in Mauritius

“I feel sorry for you.”

I remember that sentence all too well! Indeed, two and a half years later, these words still ring around in my head! What had I done? I’d left a good school in the UK where I’d felt quite at home and enjoyed six years of good results as Head of Department. Now I was here, in Mauritius, in the middle of the Indian Ocean at a young, but growing, International School, with the brief of setting up a history department from scratch.

The wise old sage who had uttered those words of warning was right. It was not going to be easy! Two years down the track however, I’ve managed to get somewhere. As I enter the last half-term of my contract and head back to a HoD position in London, I feel I’ve met my brief. But yes, it was not esay!

Despite Mauritius’ rich and varied history – think Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, dodos, slavery, sugar and indentured labourers – for reasons mostly political, this is not an island that likes to dwell on its past. In its desire to be the new Singapore, kids are encouraged to study Accounts and Business Studies, to repeat and not to question.

This is what I was up against – an island that doesn’t even offer History pre-Sixth Form in state schools and where parents of the students I was trying to win over remember dull lessons of endless dates. I remember the Biology teacher catching up with me in the Staff Room one day – I’d had to go to the capital, Port Louis, to sort out some red tape and he’d covered a lesson. “If I’d had history lessons like that, I would have become a history teacher and not a biology teacher.” I knew I was getting somewhere.

So, what is the moral of the tale? The message is there for us history teachers – loud and clear. Make it interesting, make it relevant and make sure your passion comes out in every lesson. I’d always believed this, but my Mauritian adventure taught me more than ever that we simply have to make our subject relevant – spell it out, we’re often so passionate about the subject as we teach it that we can’t see the wood for the trees. There is nothing more rewarding than parents coming up to you and saying they are sorry to hear you are leaving as their son/daughter loves your lessons.

A driving instructor would not get into a car with a novice driver and say “go on then, drive.” Sometimes we fall into this trap. We need to spell out to the students why this subject is important. For example, tell the students that they are not simply studying the Depression in the 1930s but they are seeing Economics in action – far preferable to the rather dull ‘theory’ they have to listen to in Economics lessons! By studying this period they can actually ‘see’ tariffs in action, protectionism, supply and demand, the social consequences of economic action etc. Tell them they are studying psychology, politics, sociology and philosophy too and they are hooked. They often don’t realise it. My IGCSE students are now convinced they are going to be the generation that solves all the problems caused by mistakes of the past – well, all except miserable Pravin of course. We all teach a miserable Pravin – through studying International Relations modules, he’s convinced wars and conflicts are inevitable and we can’t avoid them. Still got some work to do with him, but nonetheless his arguments are well supported so that’s something. His face was a delight when I told him “As long as you can support it, you’re entitled to any view you want!”

Good resources are important too – and in a remote Indian Ocean island getting hands on good textbooks cheaply and quickly was not easy. Most worksheets I produced myself. This had the beneficial result that I was more comfortable teaching the lesson and I could include things more relevant to Africa and the Indian Ocean. I’m afraid to say that ‘official’ histories of Mauritius are turgid to say the least and as they are written by the Hindu majority, they often, shall we say, overlook the Creole minority’s contribution to the island’s development. Someone needs to produce a truly international IGCSE textbook – they would make a killing! (Must get round to doing the IGCSE version of Ben Walsh’s ‘Bible’…)

Getting that scheme of work right is not easy either – I found a balance of the local and the international to work well. A mix of skills work and knowledge work is essential too. Schemes of work can also lead to a dilemma at times too – do I skip topics because they are ‘boring’? Interestingly Henry VIII seems to be a winner wherever you are in the world! To return to a theme – if you can deliver it in an interesting, relevant and fun way, you’ve cracked it.

All good practitioners will know the importance of getting to know the students and like all of us, I quickly identified the ‘rebellious’ students who actually enjoyed it when I told them I wanted them to argue back. “How many lessons a week do you have where the teachers wants you to argue with them?” I asked. Answer came there: none.

As I alluded to earlier, for too long my beloved subject has been taught as an absolutist subject. For me, we are far more relativist and that’s how it should be. Socrates and his students at the Lyceum asked questions, most of these questions had no answers, yet much more knowledge was gained in the asking of the question!

As The Beatles once sang, its been a ‘long and winding road’ but I’m happy with what has been achieved out here in the baking sun. It may seem obvious but we’re often too busy trying to meet targets or produce something for yet another meeting that we can overlook it. Remember the mantra – keep it interesting, show why it’s relevant, keep it fun!

Joe Wilkinson
Head of History
Northfields International High School, Mauritius

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