International teacher colleagues prove inspirational
With 20 years of teaching, a master’s degree in curriculum studies and 12 intern teachers under my belt, I confidently called myself a teacher.
In 2014, I went out on a limb and applied for Project Overseas, a program sponsored by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation and our own Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation. I was thrilled when I was selected to travel to Uganda with a team of three other teachers to provide a summer institute to teachers abroad.
In 2018, I was given the enormous honour of being chosen again. This time I would travel to the country of Grenada in the Caribbean.
Being an experienced, well-educated teacher with a good knowledge of teaching pedagogy, I was excited and couldn’t wait to pass on what I knew about teaching and learning to my overseas colleagues. However, this is not what happened during these two amazing summers. Yes, I taught some curriculum and had some fun trying to engage and share teaching strategies with my overseas colleagues, but the experience and my students taught me what it really meant to be a teacher.
Both experiences started out with three amazing days in Ottawa. During those days, I met my fellow teammates and received invaluable coaching on working with my overseas partners. We had the opportunity to hone our conflict resolution skills and also had the opportunity to dialogue about issues involving tolerance and cooperation. It was an amazing three days of realizing the skills of my teammates and figuring out how my skills fit to make a strong team.
One of the amazing things about this week was the time to network with teachers from other provinces. Sometimes as teachers we feel isolated in our struggles with lack of resources, both human and material, in our classrooms. It was comforting to realize that teachers across our nation face the same struggles. It was so empowering to listen to stories about overcoming those struggles time after time. It was also neat to see how different provinces structure their education system, and how different unions support their teachers. Most of all, it was wonderful to make lifelong friends from across Canada. The week in Ottawa was similarly wonderful for both of my Project Overseas experiences. It set a solid foundation for me to learn and grow as a teacher in ways I didn’t expect.
Reflecting back on my initial experience, we arrived in Uganda late at night and were greeted by members from our host union. We were taken to our hotel. The smell of diesel permeated the air and small fires used for light lined the streets. There were more people than I had ever seen, even in the dark.
The next morning we went directly to the teacher house to begin planning the two-week in-service we would be delivering to 80 teachers. Our colleagues were eager to work with us and very receptive to the knowledge we brought. Little did we know that the struggles faced by Ugandan teachers would make much of our planned activities impossible.
Our team of four headed to the village of Hoima after a week of co-planning our in-service. The three-hour drive there stunned me to silence as I witnessed more poverty than I had ever seen in my life. The scenes which I had only seen before on TV were now reality.
People lived in houses made of homemade bricks, tin roof shanties and some shelters made entirely of cloth. Our participants arrived in Hoima, well-dressed and eager to learn. We later learned that many had travelled for days to get to our in-service. We also learned that for many, the outfit they wore was the only one they owned, and they wore it the entire time they were there. Many arrived with their children because they had nowhere to leave them. My description of our participants may leave some filled with pity, as I was that first day. By day two, I realized I would learn more than I ever taught in Uganda.
The teachers came to us with class sizes in the hundreds. They spoke of each of their children by name, as we do when we have 20.
The lessons we planned required chalk, paper and pencils. For many, those were not items they had. Instead of saying they couldn’t teach the lesson, they collaborated with each other. In every instance they found a way to make it happen, even when we thought it was likely undoable. Each day began with a prayer of gratitude and asking God to bestow the blessings they had on others. I later found out that many of the teachers did not yet belong to a union who would care for them, and some had not been paid for six months. Still, they showed up every day.
In Grenada, more recently, the experience was both the same and different. Stepping off the plane in this beautiful Caribbean country we were immediately wafted with warm, salty Caribbean air. We were greeted again by our hosts, this time from the Grenada Union of Teachers. We were taken to our rooms where we found a supper waiting for us with more food than we could ever eat.
We spent our first few days planning with our co-tutors (teachers from Grenada who would teach alongside us). Our co-tutors were very knowledgeable and well-prepared, and in many cases I felt like I was preparing to teach a university course with the benefit of collaboration.
Again, our participants arrived from far away, but in this instance they did not spend the night at the school. They came and left each day with many travelling to the other side of the island, as far as three hours one way.
At first I was confused by the level of knowledge the Grenadian teachers seemed to possess. It seemed they were as experienced or more than I was. I can say that teaching was a truly collaborative experience and we often shared ideas back and forth. We were a week into our in-service and I was beginning to wonder why they needed the assistance of Canadian teachers when they were so knowledgeable themselves.
It was then I learned that none of them had ever had professional teacher training. Many had graduated Grade 12, and a handful had spent two years at a community college. The skills they had were from trial and error and their own professional learning.
Again, I watched them pair up and collaborate to make an adequate idea great. They took lessons which I had done for years and thought were good and made them great. In many instances the classrooms they taught in were split by a divider on wheels, and there were four grades going on at once in one room. They had more supplies than my Ugandan colleagues, but all had a limited amount of paper and pencils given to them at the beginning of the year. When it was gone, that was it–unless of course they bought their own. Who am I kidding? They are teachers, of course they bought their own!
Class sizes in Grenada were smaller but ranged from 30 to 60 students. There were no educational assistants and the country was just beginning to integrate students with special needs into regular classes. The teachers had professional learning opportunities in the summer which were compulsory. They came eagerly using money out of their own pocket to get there.
In both countries the Canadian teachers were shown hospitality like we had never known. People with so little offered up all they had to make us feel welcome. Our safety was foremost in the minds of our host teachers’ union, and we always felt very comfortable. We made so many friends and colleagues, which I am still in touch with today.
When I left Canada the first time, I confidently called myself a teacher. After two life-changing experiences with Project Overseas, I now call myself a student. I learned more than I
ever taught. I learned
how collaboration with another teacher can make any lesson possible, even without resources. I
learned about gratitude and about loving and caring for each of your students individually, even when there is so many it seems impossible. I learned that when it seems you have a lack of resources, rethink the situation; you are the most important resource to your students. I learned that the best teachers will do anything and travel any distance to learn themselves. I learned what dedication to your profession means.
Although we sometimes complain about insufficient pay, we would never have to go six months with no paycheque. Lastly, I learned that I am a very small, but important part of a global teaching family. I have some knowledge to offer others, but I have yet so much to learn.
My goal is to arrive at school every day showing the dedication, ingenuity, care and collaboration that I learned in the two most amazing summers of my life.