The students are already present when I enter the dark classroom at 8am Monday morning. School policy says the teacher must arrive 15 minutes prior to the scheduled exam, to check students for hidden notes, but seldom do things happen on time in Rwanda.
I am assigned to do invigilation (proctoring) in the Senior 1A classroom located at the very front of our campus. But the students inside are not our schools’ youngest – they are an even mix of Senior 4 and Senior 6. For exams, the rooms are always mixed; it prevents cheating as we require students to sit beside someone taking a different exam.
Today, I hold Chemistry and Geography tests. I tell the students to put away their notebooks and arrange their seating appropriately as I search under the desks for any small bit of duster I can use to clean the blackboard. Dusters have a habit of going missing.
When things are settled and students are no longer frantically cramming, I begin to pass out the exams; ensuring no two students from the same class are beside each other.
I have to ask every student what class – Senior 4 or Senior 6? I teach all the Senior 4 students at my school but am ashamed to say that since I see them two hours a week, if I am lucky, and there are more than 120 of them, I don’t know all their faces yet.
After the exams are distributed, I pick up one of the 200-page notebooks of graph paper that we use for just about everything in Rwandan schools. I pull out the two staples binding it all together and begin passing the khaki-colored paper down the rows. Each page is stamped with the school seal to ensure students don’t bring in paper of their own.
Exam sittings for non extra-curricular classes are scheduled for three hours (English is considered an extra-curricular class for Senior 4, 5 and 6 and only get 1-hour exams). Teachers aren’t allowed to bring books or papers to grade. I once was so bored during invigilation, I was practically falling asleep on my feet. I have learned to be well rested and to move around the room as much as possible.
Our classrooms are all brick and concrete with metal roofs. There are usually three big windows but it quickly becomes hot and stuffy. I have no idea how students survive 40+ hours a week in these rooms. The three hours straight I have to remain in one place are hard enough.
I stay focused by making rounds up and down the aisles. I check for wondering eyes and scraps of paper. I listen for soft whispering but usually it’s just a student asking to borrow a ruler or pen or to use one of the four calculators all the students have to share.
The students are very particular about having neat papers so if they make a mistake or need to do messy calculations, their hands quickly go up for another brillo (graph paper). I carry a stack of papers around with me because I get so many requests.
Ten minutes in, a Senior 6 student stands and comes to me saying he needs to go to the hospital. I can see that he does look a bit ill but when I ask what is wrong, he is silent. I watch him walk down to the Prefet’s office and know they will get him the help he needs. When I pick up the paper he left behind, he has written, “Pray for me to God,” across the page. I wonder if the prayer was needed for an illness or because he realized he wasn’t prepared for his test.
Soon, the Chemistry teacher arrives. There are two errors on the exam and he has come to clarify. We teachers handwrite our exams and the school secretaries type them up. We are required to do one check before the exams are photocopied but errors always slip through. Some so blatant they entirely confuse the meaning of a question; some just simple mistakes.
In every invigilation I have done, I have discovered a handful of students who are quite good at staring across the rows to get answers off other students’ papers. I’ve made plenty of students move to new seats as a result. But today the students are quiet and well behaved. It helps me feel less like police.
An hour in, the first student finishes. The Senior 4 Geography exam wasn’t very long. Within 40 minutes, only Senior 6 remains. By peeking at their progress, I can see that they will be using the full three hours.
As students finish, they can leave so more and more students begin wondering by outside. Some days I have to constantly tell students outside to keep their voices down but today, our classroom is at the outskirts of campus and not many students have found their way this far. It remains quiet, but the rustling of paper and an occasional sniffle.
More than two hours in, I notice some papers tucked into the cover of a calculator. One is written in French but seems to be physics related. The other is a Chemistry homework assignment. While the Chemistry paper possibly could have been used to cheat, the student seems unconcerned that I have found them and I’m not even entirely certain the calculator is his. I decide to take the papers away and let the boy finish. Perhaps I am too soft a touch but I generally like to believe the best of people.
Less than five minutes remain when the first Chemistry exam is handed in to me. Many of the students are on their fourth or fifth sheet of paper but none seem very rushed. I remind them of the time and expect a flurry of activity but none of the students react. It is a first for me that the time has run out with so many students as yet unfinished and I am unsure of the culture.
I let another five minutes go by after the bell has rung but then begin to get firm. I tell the students they must stop writing and hand in their papers. No one moves. I make a round around the room and catch each students attention to tell them personally to wrap it up. Again, no rush to finish. I wonder if other teachers let students continue past the end time or if these students are just taking advantage of my ignorance and naiveté.
I take a breath and tell the students that in 2 minutes I will be leaving the classroom with or without their papers. If they haven’t handed them in, they will get a zero on the exam. That gets two or three out of their seats. The rest take advantage of me being occupied to continue working.
I realize then that my threat is a tad idle. I don’t want the students to get a zero so I probably won’t walk out. I decide instead to go around the room and demand each student’s paper. I refrain from snatching the papers out of their hands, but not by much. When a few students beg for more time, I ask them if they would rather get no marks at all. I feel a bit cruel. I really am a soft touch.
Finally, I have every exam in my hand and every student signed in. I make a quick escape and retreat to the teachers’ room, relieved to discover my students don’t have a second exam today and I can turn in the papers and go home.
As I am walking home, I receive a text from another volunteer, Lauren. She says she has decided exams are worse for teachers. “Students work for 2 hours and are done. We write the exam, sit through it, and finally grade it.” With more invigilation to come this week and over 300 exams left to grade, I couldn’t agree more.