Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What God Is Teaching Me: Giving Thanks On The Hard Days As Well As The Good Days

You may have noticed on our Facebook posts that we will often share what we are thankful for that day. We do this for good reason. Before we left for Tanzanian, my mom handed me (Linda) a book that she had been reading with her small group called A Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are written by Ann Voskamp. I read it over the course of my first month. While I don’t think the book fully addressed the problem of pain or the process of grief, it did provide some deep beautiful insights. The premise of the book is that a friend challenged the author, Ann Voskamp, to write down 1000 of the gifts in her life. As she began to take note of and thank God for the little things, she experienced a remarkable change in her perception of the world and her perception of God. She chronicled her journey and revelations about God in this book.

In the book, Ann encourages the readers to recognize the gifts that God has put in our lives as exactly that, gifts. She observes that in many of Jesus’ miracles, before the miracle occurred, Jesus gave thanks. She believes that the “Eucharisto” (thanksgiving) is directly linked to the miraculous ways God works in the world. Alternatively, she observes that “non-eucharisto, ingratitude, was the fall— humanity’s discontent with all that God freely gives.” (p. 35). We can find great joy if we take the time to notice and give thanks for all the little things in life:  the color of the bubble floating up from the dishes, the full round moon, the freckles on a child’s cheeks, jam on toast, mail in the mailbox…

She also discovered in her journey that when giving thanks becomes a daily practice, we are more prepared for the hard times— the times when we wonder if we have made a terrible mistake, the times when it is difficult to believe that God could possibly use this for good, the times when God seems silent, and the times when it’s hard to believe that God loves us. The lists of ways God has visibly made His presence known can remind us of His presence when ugliness and pain invade our lives. We can come to God, not as a being who is required to give us all that we want, but as the Giver of all good gifts. God knows the whole picture, and we know only a part. This is not to say that we should never feel hurt, sadness, or anger at injustice in this world. Ann Voskamp encourages that we come to God with our raw emotions, honest and vulnerable. She makes this helpful distinction: “Lament is a cry of belief in a good God, a God who has His ear to our hearts, a God who transfigures the ugly into beauty. Complaint is the bitter howl of unbelief in any benevolent God in this moment, a distrust in the love-beat of the Father's heart” (p. 175).

So how does all of this intersect with my life? Life has not been easy since we arrived in Tanzania. If you have not heard the term “culture shock” before, it is defined as “the psychological disorientation that most people experience when living in a culture markedly different from one’s own.”[1] Another definition of culture shock is “the anxiety that results from losing all the familiar signs and symbols that help us understand a situation.”[2]  Some of the potential symptoms of culture shock are homesickness, loneliness, depression, anxiety, irritability, excessive sleeping, lethargy, withdrawal, compulsive eating or loss of appetite, and stereotyping of or hostility towards host nationals. Symptoms typically peak around the third or fourth month of being in a new culture, though they can reappear at any time. Since our first three months in Tanzania were spent in language school surrounded mostly by expatriates, our timeline was slightly altered. Around the time we left language school, we were starting to feel the effects of culture shock, and it has been a gradual incline since then.

Thankfully, Eric and I have not experienced all of these symptoms as we step away from the familiar, and like children, learn how to speak, live, and interact with people. Yet, culture shock is a present reality. As my body adjusts to a new setting, sometimes I am sick of being sick, whether from mouth sores, malaria, intestinal parasites, chest cold, or some other unknown malady. Sometimes I’ve wondered what else could possibly go wrong with or further delay fixing our house and making it our home. Sometimes I get weary of not being able to understand what people are saying to or about me and weary of not being able to get across what I want to say. Sometimes I feel very lonely when a room full of people laughs, and I don’t understand the joke. Sometime my plans go out the window due to unforeseen complications, and I feel like I am simply treading water. Sometimes I crave the familiar foods of home and the ability to cook dinner in less than an hour. Sometimes I desperately miss family and friends back in the United States and grieve that I am not there to share in their big life moments.

To be perfectly honest, there are days when if I didn’t know that culture shock is completely normal…if I didn’t know that there are people both locally and internationally that love us, care about us, and are rooting for us…if I didn’t know that this is where God wants us right now… then I would toss in the towel and book a flight back to the US. BUT, I do know all these things, and as we look back on our day each evening, even on the toughest days, we can see how God has blessed us. We are grateful for the people He has placed in our lives, for the beauty around us in both the simple and grand, for progress in our journey, for the opportunities God gives us to minister to others. We have found that giving thanks to God— on the days when we feel like it and on the days when we don’t—is one of our best weapons against the advances of culture shock. I recommend the book A Thousand Gifts, but more than that I recommend the act of writing down thanksgivings. It can reframe a whole day—perhaps even a whole life. 

[2] Kalvero Oberg, “Culture Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments,” Practical Anthropology 7, no. 4  (1967): 177.

Monday, March 18, 2013

An American Educator in Tanzania

It’s about time that I (Eric) spend some time writing my own reflections of what has happened here in Tanzania. I’ve realized that I have not let myself think much about what has been happening, because I have been just focusing on moving forward. Life has been very busy here. It seems that every moment that we can, we catch our breath, only to dive back in. It has certainly been that way with my teaching so far. However, reflecting is something that all people should do on a regular basis, and I need to do it also.

The Students
Teaching here in Tanzania has many similarities to teaching in the United States. The students are the same age. They struggle with mathematics. There are strong students and weak students. Some students like to talk with me a lot, while others don’t say a word. Some students fall asleep in class. In other words, teenagers are teenagers no matter where you are on the globe.

One difference is that here the students don’t speak unless I prompt them for an answer. This has caused me to change my teaching style a little. I am used to having students state short answers or complete my sentences for me in class, and I balanced this with raising hands. However in Tanzania that generally does not happen. Typically, it is very clear who should be talking in class, because when they want to ask a question or state any answer any question that requires more than a single value, they are expected raise their hand, wait for the teacher to acknowledge them (similar to the US), and then stand up to ask or answer (which was the new for me). However, the students are started to adapt to my style and speak more in class, and I am adapting to theirs. Thus far, there has been almost no unruly behavior in class. :-)

I’ve noticed that the students in Tanzania also love being able to use technology. They will gladly forego their other school work to sit on the computer and learn how it works, play a game, click some buttons, etc. Some of my students are learning how computers function very quickly. Unfortunately, their curiosity has also led some of them to accidentally change key system files. This meant I had to spend a few hours re-installing the computer operating system and programs on a couple of the computers. However, I am thankful for their curiosity, because curiosity causes students to enjoy learning.

The Staff
I have found that the Tanzanian teachers are especially committed to educating their students.  Most are willing to come to school in the evenings or Saturdays to teach and tutor the students. At some schools Tanzanian teachers just use teaching as a stepping stone to get a government position. However, the teachers at our school see teaching as more than just a job. They know that educating children is extremely important to the improvement of this country, and they want their students to know this as well. Several of the teachers have also been extremely supportive of us personally, even spending their weekends helping us shop in Shinyanga. I am grateful that my work colleagues are also my friends.

I also have a lot of respect for Reverend Nzelu, my principal and next door neighbor. When a student is sick, he will take them to the hospital, night or day. He’s always on call and genuinely cares about his students. He recently withdrew his name from an election to be assistant bishop, because he felt that God has called him to this school. When a former student was struggling to find work to care for his ailing mother, Rev. Nzelu hired him to do work at their house. He is always willing to sit and talk with the teachers about what is going on and the problems they are facing. I have made the most of his wisdom on several occasions.

The Curriculum
Tanzania has its own national curriculum that I must follow when I teach. However, the Tanzanian curriculum is easy to understand and apply (from my perspective even easier than the U.S. curriculum). It follows a logical pattern stating exactly what the students should know, how the teachers can teach the material, and how much time for each topic to complete the curriculum in one year. I have truly liked the way the curriculum is organized and used.

Students take many different subjects every year – 11 different classes. This includes taking Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics each year while they are in Forms 1 and 2 (Freshmen and Sophomore years). These classes give the students a basic knowledge of all core subjects in the sciences, which I believe is extremely important. During their Form 3 and 4 years (Junior and Senior years) they are able to choose between the science classes and other classes such as Commercial Sciences. However, their choice depends on their grade from their national exams at the end of their Form 2 year. If they do not get high enough scores in mathematics and physics, they are not allowed to take physics as Form 3 students. I have only 24 students in Form 3 physics, compared to 80+ in Form 3 mathematics.

The Computers
The school computers are both a joy and a challenge. This school is one of the few in the country that has a computer lab. What a blessing it is for the students and faculty! However, the computers I am using are OLD. I have six computers from 1997 with 32 MB of RAM, 166 MHz Intel processors (the original Intel, and yes, that is megahertz, not gigahertz), 3 GB hard drives, and can only run Windows 98 operating system. I have five computers (I had dropped down to four since one computer’s power supply seemed to have failed two weeks ago, but now I’m back at 5 since that computer decided to start working again) that are from 2005 with 120 MB of RAM, Intel Celeron processors, 20 GB hard drives, and do manage to run Windows XP.

It took hours and hours of work to get them to function and to find programs that would work on those computers (and I am still trying!). We considered finding donors for new computers, but we wanted to see the level of interest in a computer class and make sure that it is sustainable beyond our time here. We would hate to buy new computers only to have them sit in a corner for 5+ years until someone with computer knowledge pulled them out again. This was the situation before we came.

In the meantime, the students and I have managed. Yet, even the kids who never had seen a computer before know that these computers are SLOW. I’ve decided that I don’t even want internet access at the school, until I can find an anti-virus program that will not slow the computers down even more. The students are learning how to type and use programs similar to Microsoft Office (we are using OpenOffice.org software, which is a free alternative to Microsoft Office, though not without its own problems). Linda reminds me constantly that even with the frustrations, my students are getting more computer time than almost all of the other students in Tanzania.

The grading scale is much different than what I am used to. Whereas students must get a 60% to pass in the U.S., here 21% is a passing grade. The Tanzanian grading scale (which I do not like, but I’m sure many of my former students would!) is 0-20% F, 21-40% D, 41-60% C, 61-80% B, and 81-100% A. As a result, students are not expected to know as much. Therefore, it’s difficult to encourage all of the students to learn more than 21% of the information.

Teaching Style
Mathematics is feared here among the students, and their national exams demonstrate this. The class that I am teaching had a class average of 16% on their national examination in mathematics last year. That’s right— 16%. So my challenge is that I am supposed to teach the national curriculum, but I also have to teach the foundational concepts that many students have not previously learned. It is quite a daunting task, but I keep reminding myself that any improvement is good. I cannot teach them everything, even if I want them to know it all. I can only pray that I reach more students than have been reached before.

Most teachers here use lecture and notes as the primary, if not only, teaching style. Most of them learned through lectures and notes during their education as well. Therefore, other methodologies, such as the use of group work, projects, hands-on laboratory activities, and research are unfamiliar concepts. Generally, the students are given the material and told to copy and memorize it. These notes are often extremely organized! But many are not learning the material, nor can they use it to problem-solve in math and science. I am beginning to use laboratory exercises in Physics, and have been giving group-work in mathematics. However, being able to understand a concept and apply it can only happen if you have a good foundation.

Language Barriers
Language barriers cause a problem here.  Secondary school teachers are required to teach in mostly English, which isn’t a problem for me, since my Kiswahili is quite limited. As expected, some students are better at English than others.  However, many students are not fluent enough in English, and I know at times some information is lost. If they are struggling with English, it makes it even harder for them to learn math and physics. Recently, I asked my students to write what they wanted me to do differently in my teaching. Several said, “Teach in Kiswahili.” Even if I could do this, I’m really not supposed to.  I do look up words in my Kiswahili dictionary occasionally and incorporate them into the lesson. The students get a big kick out of it when I try to speak in Kiswahili.

When the language barrier is combined with their fear of mathematics, it is easy for students to become overwhelmed and give up. I can understand this, because there are times when I really try to understand what people are saying in Kiswahili, and then there are times when my brain is tired, and I zone out. Because of the language struggles, many students do not do their homework or take notes consistently. Sometimes students cannot follow what I thought would be simple directions. Again, I can empathize, because sometimes I cannot follow what Tanzanians think are simple Kiswahili instructions. To make sure that the students are trying to keep up, I am now beginning a weekly check of their notes and homework every Friday morning.  

Class Size
So, one of the big questions I get often is, “How many students do you have in your class?” Well, the answer is… 80. Yes, my math class has 80 students. My computer classes also had about 80, but I had to split them into two classes. Thus, they only get half the time on the computers, but at least they can see a computer. Of course the numbers vary if students are sick, working with another teacher, skipping class, etc. The classes are so large that I have had an extremely difficult time learning their names, and still don’t know them as well as I would like to. I do not have the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with them, which is how I learned names in the US. Amazingly, even though the rooms are crowded, the students generally are very focused on what I am doing.

With such crowded rooms, cheating is especially problematic. I have made multiple versions of exams to avoid this, but it still happens. It is pretty easy to spot though. A couple of students have managed to have the right answers…for the wrong version. Of course, that means they generally don’t get many (if any) questions right, and we have a talk about it later. On their midterm tests, I made 5 different versions of the test to completely eliminate cheating. The ones I suspected of cheating previously did worse, but many of the students did better. Even though the class average remained the same, I consider this progress.

My biggest struggle at school is with the widespread use of corporal punishment. It has been discussed many times in staff meetings and in my own conversations with teachers. We have talked about the need to counsel the students and to find other means of discipline. However, as one teacher told me, it is just easier to use a stick to punish the students than to discipline them in other ways. Again, for most teachers, this is how they were taught, and they have had little to no experience with alternative forms of discipline.

One teacher even suggested that I would not be able to teach my students without using a stick in class. My response: “I take that as a challenge. If my students have learned by the end of the term, I win.”  I hope that the teachers will be able to see through my example that it is possible to teach students without using corporal punishment. One of the fall-outs of using corporal punishments, especially when it is for a genuine mistake, is that students are afraid to try. It also can damage the relationship between a student and teacher if it is overly used. If students are hit every time they make a mistake, you can imagine how many times they will be hit in a math class. Instead, I have modeled more positive discipline, such as encouragement through rewards, and have used other forms of punishment, such as standing up if they are sleeping in class, writing sentences when homework and notes are incomplete, and not being allowed to use the computers (which is a big one, since the students really love to use them).This is one of my biggest prayer requests – that God will use me as a light for change at the school.

Whew! This grew very long very fast. I suppose I have had a lot of things on my mind. I don’t know yet how the school year will continue and how it will change. Yet, I do know that God has put me here for a reason – to be humbled, to learn to be grateful and thankful in all circumstances, and to be His servant for His plan, not mine.