Tuesday is for Teachers
When I walked into the classroom, every 8th grader rose to their feet and said in unison, “Good Morning, Miss.” The room was packed with students, probably 40 or more, all dressed in brown and tan uniforms. Their desks were benches for sitting and another bench in front for writing. At each student’s place lay a small composition book with a wrinkled piece of brown paper under the left hand. This sheet covered their work from neighboring eyes since they were all crowded together on the bench.
The blackboard in the front of the room was covered with words, tightly written, using every inch of space. Sentences in French covered part of the board. A teacher sat at a desk in the front corner with a large stick propped in the corner. The principal walked me down a concrete sidewalk and we stopped in each classroom. In the middle of the courtyard under a tree students sat reading books. Stacks of books were scattered about – it was the library.
First impressions — no windows needed for the classrooms, well-mannered students sitting quietly. The sights, sounds, smells overwhelmed all my senses..Classrooms were empty of maps, globes, textbooks, brightly colored pictures or teaching charts.. I was touring a private Christian school in Kumasi, Ghana, West Africa.
In the middle of January, during a fierce ice storm in Middle Tennessee, my mother and I flew to Atlanta and met my youngest brother, Paul. Thus began a journey of a lifetime, a visit to the places where Mama served as a nurse at the African Christian Hospital sponsored clinic in Kumasi.
The first grade classrooms were probably the most fun– bright eyes, wiggling bodies, singing a funny song about a dirty old man in that lilting African/British accent. The primary teaching strategy I observed was rote, answering in unison to the teacher’s prompt or question.
I’ve learned in the years since that trip that experiencing education in one developing nation looks very similar in another. Jamaica, Haiti, and Madagascar repeat this environment, this same teaching strategy, and this same drive good people possess to improve the lives of the next generation. Parents struggling to buy uniforms and tuition, children eager to learn and please, teachers and administrators working with limited resources as well as limited training.
It’s been almost twenty years since that trip but reading a Peace Corps worker’s blog about his work in Ghana revealed some of the same struggles still exist. He described his struggles convincing students that wrong answers are okay. Searching and struggling for answers require a different level of thinking, and he had to continually encourage students to stretch their minds. They were accustomed to teachers who wanted or demanded only the right answer.
I recently visited the offices of Healing Hands International here in Nashville. When I heard that Dr. Bobbie Solley was making regular trips to Haiti to train teachers, I wanted to hear more. Read about her recent visits on the Education Blog page and click here for an overview of the work in education. As she shared what she has learned through her visits I mentally compared them to my experiences in Ghana and Jamaica. The more we talked, the more I realized that giving meaningful assistance to schools in developing countries is both essential and over-whelming. As Americans we assume so much at first, and then we learn bit by bit that just providing the materials and books for the teachers along with the supplies for the students is just the obvious layer in a complex system. It’s like peeling the layers of an onion, thin layers of understanding on our part as we seek to give away some of the tools of learning. And when you think you finally understand how things work, you discover another layer. Check out the video of the school Healing Hands is assisting.
I plan to share more of the work of Healing Hands in this blog, but it’s important to know that this organization provides some of the most diverse services, supplies, and equipment of any non-profit I know about. The work of missions in Haiti has been a part of my family since 1988. Mama began her work nursing in a 6 month mission in Cap Haitien, on the northern coast of Haiti. Maybe I need to share some of her journals of that experience. Brother Steve is an elder in a church that supports a children’s home in Port a Prince. He and his wife have made several trips to Haiti, before and after the earthquake.
I said all of that to say this: I have some idea of the complex issues in play in the country of Haiti. But perhaps the most startling insight I gained from my conversation with Dr. Solley is that the simple literacy skills students need to learn in elementary school are essential in building critical thinking skills. A country’s leaders need critical thinking skills to predict outcomes of policies, to make connections in experiences or consequences, to create, imagine, or innovate, be a problem solver, to communicate clearly, to listen with understanding. For some reason I had never made the connection from the critical thinking skills I taught my 8th graders to how essential those same skills are for the future leaders of developing countries.
And so the take away from this blog to American teachers? As complicated as our issues in education are and as disheartening as teaching can be on many days, the problems of another culture are not any easier. We can’t just give away “stuff”, throw money and materials at a problem, and think we can solve their problems.
So, the joys to count here? What can you name?
When I came home from Ghana, this is what I counted as joy:
- books for every student
- a library full of books
- the newest technology for teaching
- public education that is supported in every city and village in America
- learning strategies that develop thinking skills
- classrooms and services for those with disabilities and different learning styles