Ten years of teaching adolescents has made me confront a number of truths about human nature, but the most formative moments in my life as a teacher have come from working with students and educators in developing countries. These experiences have provided me with a unique brand of clarity. While standing in a maize field in Moshi, Tanzania, I came to the conclusion that the teachers at Tumona Secondary School struggled with the same set of problems that I was facing as a high school teacher in Harlem. My friend and fellow English teacher Linner was explaining the Tanzanian curriculum and the low performance on standardized exams. “You see, their English is just not strong enough to understand complicated concepts, and we teachers end up explaining in Kiswahili. The state gives us no choice, when they enter in the ninth grade they hardly speak English, and we have to make up for lost time.” Though I heard Linner speak these words, I was sure I had read them before in a New York Times editorial, or overheard them floating through the teacher's lounge. The context was different, but the discourse, whether dealing with language barriers or skill deficiencies, was exactly the same.
That moment shifted the way I thought about my own classes. Throughout my career, I always had a strong sense that the direct service providers have the greatest impact on students; teachers make the difference in the quality of education. Under pressure, teachers in Tanzania and New York alike make instructional decisions based on their own assessment of what students need, even if it means circumventing ever-shifting policy. The instructor is the true resource, and sharpening a teacher’s ability to assess while empowering them with the authority and autonomy to make instructional decisions is imperative. To hone the craft and claim authority and autonomy is the brave way to teach. My conversation with Linner in the field provided the space to confirm that.
Later that month, Linner asked me to teach her a poem and explain to her how to teach it to students. “I only had two years of university myself,” she said to qualify her request. I found a literature textbook donated from the “Books for Africa” program, porous with termite damage and untouched, along with many others, entirely inaccessible to the teachers who populated that makeshift staff room. I opened to “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth and read it to her. We talked about imagery and personification, and meter and rhyme. We spoke about the “inward eye” that keeps us company in solitude. She described the place where she grew up and I told her the story of how I met my husband, and then I walked her through some instructional strategies. I sat in on her poetry lesson the next day and watched her elicit important ideas from her students; it was clear that she reached them. At the time, I “little thought/ what wealth the show to me had brought” but even today I am altered because of the conversations we shared.
I know the advice I gave to my student Emilie is too simple; it doesn't really capture the transformation that occurs. In my own life, it's difficult to pinpoint the moments when self or society change, but as I curate my experiences and reflect on these singular interactions, I get what I need to reaffirm the commitment to public service and reanimate my passion.
- Greta Karris