Monday, November 2, 2009

School, Halloween, Volunteerism, and So On

A lot happened this past week. School is back in full swing, and I was generally happy to be busy – filling the time in between classes and lesson planning with grading. Saturday, I spent the day with two other Peace Corps volunteers, my housemate's co-worker and her family, and a British woman working with the organization Save The Children. We ate, carved a jack-o-lantern, and generally had one of the best Halloweens I think I've ever had. It was definitely one of the most unique – never before have I spent the holiday watching African music videos, cooking papaya pastries, or eating fish head/peanut soup. But those were some of the things we did.

So, generally, things are good.

I have been having one major frustration, and that is the recurring feeling that I'm not doing a particularly good job in my work. Students have made it clear that they don't really like me as a teacher – they can't understand my American accent and complain about it to fellow students, teachers, and anyone else who will listen. It's a difficult situation, because obviously I can't do all that much to change the way I speak, besides talk slower. And it brings up some of my most basic insecurities about being here. Not only am I trying to operate in a foreign culture, teaching students with a funny accent that they can't understand, but I have no formal teacher training. So how can I possibly expect to do an even halfway decent job teaching here?

The answer is, maybe I can't. But what I can do is try to learn from my mistakes and adapt, and try to be more patient and positive with the students than I have been.

I keep reminding myself as well that a large part of my reason for being here has nothing to do with the teaching. Selfish as it sounds, I wanted to come here to learn as much as I can to carry forth into my future career, and in that area, I think I am succeeding – I definitely feel as though I am learning a lot. And hopefully the knowledge that I am gaining will help me to help others in the future. So as long as I don't actually make the students stupider, I guess, overall, things come out ahead.

I think that this issue is one of the most significant that many volunteers face – feeling as though they are not actually doing anything. On the surface, volunteering seems so simple: my time + effort = benefit to others. But the reality is, if I am lacking in knowledge and cultural understanding, then my time and effort isn't really worth all that much. Furthermore, there is only so much that you can do to help others when the others don't have the ability or desire to help themselves. This is true in the US, in Kenya, in Liberia – anywhere, really.

Anyway. I guess I just need to try to do the best job that I can do while forgiving my own frequent (sometimes it feels like constant) failures. The extent to which I can actually do these things varies from day to day, as you can probably tell. But, like I said, things are generally good.


  1. Does the PC not provide you with any sort of pedagogical training before you head out? Granted it would have to be adjusted based on what country you're going to; but a little "this is how the education system in country X works; here are some examples of ways you can get the children engaged" would be helpful. I think people assume that teaching is something that anyone can do. Lecturing is something anyone can do, true; but effectively teaching even within the system in which you grew up is sometimes an incredibly difficult task.

    In a class of 20 or so students you can learn quickly who your Aural/Oral learners are, your visual learners, haptic learners and so on; but even then you as a teacher have to be taught how to best deal with those learning styles. With classes four or five times that size, there's essentially nothing you can do; so different techniques need to be employed. I don't see how you are expected to really make a difference when you're just thrown into the deep end like that.

  2. I guess I shouldn't say I had "no teacher training." That was part of our 3-month training in Kenya -- teacher training with a focus on the educational system there.

    The idea with Peace Corps Response is that we're doing a job we've already been trained to do the first time around, and to a certain extent it works. But, still, even with TAing at PSU, training from Peace Corps, and teaching in Kenya for a year, I don't feel like I've really been prepared to be a good teacher . . . especially in a West African country, where there are significant differences vs. the British East African system.