2014 reflections: Michael Mclaughlin

Hard work, stress, and tested patience seemed to fill my days alongside the TABSA team.  To suggest otherwise would prove a disingenuous account.  And yet, the time was well spent and well worth the hardship—a credit to what was gained.

I recall the routine of searching small town shops for inexpensive supplies that the local teachers could use in developing chemistry labs and demonstrations.  A package of blue stone (copper sulfate) here or a zinc coated nail there might provide just enough material to bring a workshop to life. I would end up thinking critically about reusing chemical waste and repurposing ordinary rubbish to build out lab supplies.  It was an intellectually stimulating exercise and one that will inevitably leave a lasting impact on my teaching and approach to running a lab.

Of course, all the ideas and innovations were not the products of my lone efforts but that of an incredible team.  It is rare that I find myself impressed by another teacher and rarer still that this holds true for a large group.  The TABSA team was unique.  I developed a great respect for each and every member of the team.  A trip, wherein I was to be training South African colleagues, suddenly developed into one of the most important and extreme periods of professional development in my own career.  I was learning a new trick or wrapping my head around new content or thinking differently about math and science every day.  As we bounced around on a 4 hour road trip in the back of our rental van, Jim (a math team member) would throw problems at me to change the way I approach math.  Between workshops, Andy (our resident physicist) would have me spinning meter sticks using a comb and induction.  Suffice it to say that I learned a great deal from the group—both content and pedagogy.

Learning undergirded the entire experience.  Learning not only from our team, but also from our South African colleagues.  To be certain, the majority of our South African colleagues were in need of content refreshers and were eager to brush up their understanding of the material.  This reality—the reality that in many ways explained our presence in South Africa—should not imply a one-way transmission of ideas.  The workshops were ultimately an exchange of ideas.  Our South African colleagues shared a number of useful techniques in teaching the sciences and often asked the type of questions that forced me to think differently about the content.

In my particular case, I would also add that our South African colleagues left me thinking differently about life and purpose.  The challenges of teaching chemistry to 80 or 100 students in a single room, without electricity, and a yearly supply budget of less than 20 USD, remain unfathomable to me.  However, the people who take on that challenge are no longer an abstraction.  I met them.   And I learned from them.  There were those that were late (South Africans often take a different approach to time) and there were those who were distracted (cell phones might drive us all into madness one day), but the few could not change the impact of the many.  The many have helped me once again internalize an idea our TABSA leader, Yunus, passes on with a simple quote, “You can complain of the darkness or you can light a candle.”  I actually think one can do both (I certainly do), but the latter remains the important piece of the puzzle, and it is a lesson my South African colleagues passed back to me.  Indeed, I learned from them.  And, I am thankful to them.