2014 reflections: Claire Mitchell

It is difficult to capture, in words, an experience as affecting as a summer volunteering with Teachers Across Borders: South Africa.  Before I left I had many reservations about my ability to offer much of value to colleagues from an entirely foreign culture who faced challenges I couldn’t even fathom in my worst imaginings and had been in the profession, in many cases, much, much longer than I had.  And then I met the rest of the TABSA team.


Now, my prior reservations were compounded by the realization that there was no way I would be able to match the level of brilliance possessed by every member of the team that Yunus had assembled.  Apparently I had missed the footnote on the application that mentioned that membership in Mensa was not required but highly desired. But with the dawn of our first day of work, all reservations melted away as the team began to work together with an astounding singularity. As we pored over lesson plans and dug through materials it already seemed as if we had been working together for months, rather than minutes. In fact, during one of the first two weeks, a South African teacher asked how long our team had been working together and was surprised to find that most of us had met for the first time in the airport in Durban.


I have never worked with such an incredible team, from the math and science teachers, to the logistical wizards of the Peer family. There was nothing mediocre about a single member. Here was a group of 15 strangers, thousands upon thousands of miles away from home and families, bouncing from hotel to hotel, town to town, in a Barney-purple caravan, juggling ever changing schedules, and dealing daily with situations and challenges that were a testament to Yunus’ promises about the need to stay flexible, all the while having an important job to do: teach. And yet, there was nothing but genuine support, admiration, and love shared among us. I still marvel at how we came through those four and a half weeks as a team without a single stress fracture. Even sitting outside of a Matubatuba police station for the better part of four hours we lifted each other up and found reasons to smile and laugh, all while becoming better versed in the real-life applications of CSI.


As if this wasn’t enough, you should have seen them teach! It is always an honor to witness masters at their craft. The lessons I had prepared were good, but my science colleagues made them great. As a team, we collaborated, shared resources, offered suggestions, and learned from each other, all for the common goal of creating the best experience we could for our colleagues. A friend of mine recently asked me why I would attend teaching workshops in South Africa. I corrected her misunderstanding, stating that I did not attend the workshops but helped to lead them. As I think about it now, however, I realize she was correct all along. I attended those workshops, and walked away with just as much as the South African and Swazi teachers, if not more, as I had the privilege of spending the entirety of my days with this remarkable group of people. The TABSA team defined my time in South Africa and made it the incredible experience that it was.


If the TABSA team was the heart of my time in South Africa and Swaziland, then the African people we worked with were the soul. During the first week there was a moment that brought our purpose into sharp focus. I was in the middle of my lesson on the phases of the moon and discussing the moon’s rotation on its axis when one of the older teachers raised her hand. When I acknowledged her she simply said, “The moon doesn’t spin on its axis.” I assured her that it did, to which she replied, “No, it doesn’t.” When I asked why she didn’t think so she answered, “Ignorance, probably.” Her response broke my heart. She wanted to believe what I was telling her, trusting me as a well-educated, American teacher, but it was something she had never heard before, and, while she doubted her knowledge she wasn’t going to simply take me at my word. So, there I stood with a Styrofoam ball on a skewer, a light bulb suspended from a ladder and an inflatable globe as my only tools with which to explain celestial mechanics*. Just call me the MacGyver of astronomy. It was a challenge unlike any I had ever faced and it was at that moment that I truly understood why it was we were there.


The obstacles that nearly every teacher I met faced would be ones that I would consider insurmountable. Yet, not only did these teachers go to work day in and day out, to teach up to 400 students in deplorable conditions, they were giving up their precious vacation time to develop themselves so that they could give back to their learners. As teachers in the U.S. we often have the luxury of losing sight of our purpose as teachers and focus, instead, on the latest pedagogical fads, complacent in the knowledge that our students, with access to nearly limitless resources, will be ok. For the African learners, their education may be the only thing they do have.  It is the only thing that they cannot lose or have taken from them and it is their best hope at a better life. It is this knowledge that was the driving force within most of the African teachers who attended our workshops. They were there, not for themselves, but for their learners. In the case of the Professor and other older teachers, they were there to give their learners the opportunities they themselves never had. At the end of each week, without fail, they requested more programs like ours. Their thirst to learn and improve the education of their learners was unquenchable. And they do it all with an infectious joy! When I think back to my time in South Africa I instantly hear laughter and envision broad, beaming smiles. To remain so passionate, joyful, and grateful in the face of such adversity was one of the most inspiring takeaways of the entire trip.


Without realizing it at the time, I was attending their workshops on what it truly means to be a teacher. Once you strip away the resources, even the most basic ones like electricity in some cases, that we in the U.S. take for granted every day, how do you still reach and inspire your students? How do you prepare them for the future? How do you make sure students are not slipping through the cracks? How do you do your job? These are the questions that the African teachers have to answer every day. The lessons my colleagues in South Africa and Swaziland taught me are ones that I will never forget; and didn’t require a single Styrofoam ball.


The TABSA experience is one that affects you in a subtle, yet profound way. It is not until I came home and stopped “doing” the work of TABSA and actually reflected on my trip that I began to realize that my time in Africa had embedded itself into my persona. What I have seen, where I have been, and what I have experienced have all reshaped and broadened my perspective. It was an incredible blessing to experience a country through the spirit of its people and to be able to contribute, in some small way, to their quest for a brighter future.


*For those of you who are curious, by using their legend of the woman and the moon and some dancing around the inflatable globe on my part, the woman left the session convinced that the moon, did in fact, rotate on its axis.