Alexandra Paer TABSA 2012 Reflection

Every time a friend, family member or colleague asks me about my summer, a wave of nostalgic memories overcomes me and my mind’s floodgates open as I passionately dive into a summary of my time with TABSA. The catch, of course, is that the experience is impossible to summarize.

For someone like me, with just one year’s worth of teaching under my belt, the amount of knowledge and exposure that I gained in just a few quick weeks is truly incomprehensible. I travelled quite literally halfway around the world to a foreign country on a continent that I had never before visited to join a team of teachers that I had never met (with the exception of Yunus) to work with teachers who couldn’t have had more different backgrounds than myself. Going into it, I had few expectations. From those that had gone before, I heard that it was a life-changing experience and that I would need to be flexible. Both were true.

Upon arriving at the school, we female teachers were abruptly whisked away. Maria and Elijah took us to another school is Sabie that was hosting a workshop for girls around age 14 who had natural aptitude for math and science and who may be interested in pursuing careers in these fields. Our mission, we were told in the three-minute car ride, was to encourage these girls and to show them that math- and science-oriented women could follow their dreams and be successful. I was nervous, unprepared and overflowing with excitement. My speech consisted primarily of the roads that I had taken to be where I was, standing before them as a science teacher. They were amazed to learn that I had decided to continue teaching instead of going to medical school, which had been my initial plan. They smiled and laughed and asked questions. After our talk was over, I think I received more hugs and took more pictures in a shorter amount of time than I probably ever have before or will again. While they ate dinner, we walked around and talked to the girls, who related to me their visions of being doctors and chemical engineers. After speaking with one group for a while, one girl spoke up and said, “Miss, could you show us how to use a fork and knife? None of us have ever used them before.” The contrast was striking. These girls had the same aspirations and ability as my own students, but demonstrated in this small and seemingly insignificant difference the greater idea of their limited access to resources. The trip would continue to be full of similar moments that caused me to reflect on the things in my life and education that I have taken for granted.

That night, our first night at the school, was an auspicious one and forecasted a great deal of personal and professional growth for the remainder of our time. By the end of the first workshop, I simultaneously felt as if I had been there for months and that I had just arrived. These conflicted feelings were due to the large quantity and range of experiences I had in such a short and enjoyable amount of time. Time flies when you’re having fun!

The days preceding the first workshop were spent preparing. We evaluated our supply inventory, planned out the lessons for the first day and even tested activities. Some supplies we had, while others we gathered, such as cardboard boxes, scavenged from grocery and hardware stores, and empty cans, scrounged from trashcans or emptied by happy Stoney soda drinkers. Some activities worked well, while others didn’t, like the earthworm gathering. We never could quite get those earthworms to squirm up from the hard, cracked depths of the ground, no matter how much mustard seed solution we added. Some lesson planned to be an hour ended up taking three. Early on, the lesson was flexibility. Through observing the wonderful team of teachers around me, I learned to adjust to new situations and to be resourceful. Once the workshops started, I was exposed to teaching styles that varied dramatically from one another as well as from the styles I had seen at my school. Since they could not escape me (we were living on the same dormitory floor), I had ample opportunities to pick their brains, asking them about their logic, reasoning and approach to the classroom. One such conversation that revolved around pedagogy, inquiry and Harkness took place on the sunny lanai of a Memezile classroom during a respite. Both inside and outside of the classroom, I was able to learn about teaching, which I have brought back into my own classroom and to my department, with whom I spent the end of the summer redesigning our curriculum for the year.  I am indebted to my team for the knowledge they have passed on to me.

At Punahou, we are blessed with what I now understand to be effectively unlimited resources. As the only environment in which I had ever taught, I had acknowledged the fortune I have of working classrooms with 20 students or less, all the materials I could hope for and an abundance of colleagues who are experts in their fields of study. My understanding of my situation was more of an assumption than a realization. Working with the teachers from Mpumalanga, I was able to gain a tangible perspective on my circumstances by soaking up the truths of their realities. I am not only humbled by this experience, but am also inspired. With the few opportunities and immense constraints they have been handed, they have the undying motivation to continue on, to spend their winter breaks at workshops, to be innovative in their situations, to persevere under difficult, even seemingly impossible, conditions and to ultimately encourage and care for each of their students without a moment’s hesitation. This is dedication. These educators understand that the students they teach now are the future of their country. Each teacher I spoke with believed that these children were to key to something greater, that they were there to assist them and that they willingly sacrificed their time and energy for the ultimate benefit of the community as a whole. This selflessness is one of the qualities I most respected in these teachers. I was awed not only by the depth of their devotion, but also by its innateness and universality across the teachers.

Before I left for the summer, people who asked me about my plans were often shocked, albeit curious. A frequent follow-up summary question was, “So, you’re going somewhere to help teach teachers about teaching?” Upon my return, I can see clearly why I had fumbled over my replies. This question is simply one-sided. Being in South Africa was not about communicating the material I had studied, but was about the exchange of ideas and the acquisition of perspective. Although it elated me to hear the teachers describe how much they had gotten out of the workshops, I couldn’t help but feel that I was indebted to them in ways that I could not describe. I feel thankful for the experiences they have shared and the change it inevitably had on me. Over the past few months, I have been slowly digesting all of the events that have taken place and all the ways in which I have grown, both professionally and personally, but I have a long road ahead of me before I will be fully unpacked from this trip.


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