Strong relationships benefit future teachers on life-changing trip
Teachers have challenges in explaining complex tasks and
ideas regardless of who their students are. Even simple problems can be
difficult to introduce when teaching young students who are learning certain
concepts for the first time.
Now imagine teaching these concepts to students in another
country when many are orphans and impoverished, and all are visually challenged
or blind. How do you tell these students about concepts they can’t necessarily
see on a blackboard, computer screen or sheet of paper?
That’s what 15 University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
students encountered with a three-and-a-half-week trip to Namibia, a country on
Africa’s southwest coast, from June 7-July 4. They visited the School for
Visually Impaired Children at Namibia’s National Institute of Special Education,
where they helped teach students from pre-kindergarten through 10th
Many of the young learners, as students are called in
Namibia, live in dark, cement hostels with strict schedules and uniform codes. Many
don’t have families to go home to on long breaks, and some aren’t wanted at
home because they aren’t able to help with farming tasks.
But all of them welcomed the UW-Stevens Point group with
open arms. Many even sang songs and asked about life in the United States as
they greeted their visitors.
“Imagine going into an area where you can give someone a
pencil and have them look at it like it’s the best gift they’ve ever gotten,”
said Katie Gee (pictured), a senior who majors in secondary education and minors in
cognitive disabilities. “I’ve always thought it was corny to hear expressions
like, ‘We didn’t teach them, they taught us.’ But it’s the truth.”
“After this trip, I’m definitely sure that I want to be a
teacher,” said Jessica Chavarin, a natural life sciences major with teaching
intent. “It’s not all about tests and grades. It’s about being a role model for
these kids. You don’t even necessarily need something like technology. You just
need a student.”
“It was interesting to compare our education systems,” said
Brittany Busscher, a junior elementary education major. “Seeing what little
they had, but how they make-do, it really opens your eyes. To see how frowned
upon a disability is – it’s a culture there.”
The UW-Stevens Point group arrived in Windhoek, the capital
of Namibia, after a two-day trip that included flights from Chicago, London and
Johannesburg. This was the third year UW-Stevens Point students had an
opportunity to visit Namibia through the university’s International Programs
Professor Patty Caro, Ph.D., associate dean in the College of Professional Studies and department head of the School of Education, set the groundwork for such trips when she presented at an international conference for special education in 2011. She cultivated a business relationship with Marillize Fransman, the principal at the School for Visually Impaired Children. As a result, 18 UW-Stevens Point students took the trip in 2012, followed by 13 in 2013 and 15 this year.
“They all run to our bus when we arrive,” Caro said of the learners.
“They hugged us and we all hugged them. It’s their winter over there so they
all have colds and we all got colds. (The trip) changes our students’ lives. It
gives a whole new world view and students learn what’s important in life, (which
is) the quality of your relationships. If you have a strong relationship,
you’re a strong educator.”
Students who expressed interest in the trip had to meet with
- A session with a representative
from the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired;
- A session regarding Namibia’s
cultural values and history; and
- A session that discusses family
systems and units.
Trip preparations included creating lesson plans,
researching the country, and packing suitcases full of humanitarian aid such as
school and hygiene supplies. Often, though, lesson plans that took as many as five hours
to prepare were altered to accommodate the learners or the school’s regular
teachers who might or might not show up on any given day. A liberal sick-day
policy allows teachers there to take as many as 180 days off over three years. That
often led to the UW-Stevens Point students teaching on their own on Namibia’s
common school subjects such as agriculture and entrepreneurship.
“We became very dependent on each other,” Busscher said. “We
were 15 strangers before the trip. At the end, I couldn’t really have imagined
going with anybody else.”
The trip, though, featured some fun as well. Despite the
desert-like climate where temperatures ranged from the 30s at night to the 70s
during the day, the students had weekend adventures such as a safari,
skydiving, climbing and quad biking on the world’s second-highest sand dune,
and exotic meals.
“I now know what African sand tastes like,” Gee said in
describing how she tumbled off of her quad bike. “Every weekday with the kids
was enjoyable and every weekend was like a new adventure.”
“It was meat and meat with a side of meat,” Gee said in
describing their diet while on the trip. “I loved the zebra. I did not like
ostrich. Crocodile wasn’t bad. It’s kind of like a fishy chicken.”
The hardest part of the trip was saying goodbye.
“We held it together until we were on the bus,” Busscher
said. “We wanted (saying goodbye) to be all about the learners when we left and
not take away from it by crying. Two second-graders were wrapped around my legs
before we got on the bus and my pants were wet from their tears. They said, ‘Do
you really have to leave?’ It was hard, but I have a lot of memories.”
One of Chavarin’s students had showed her a book about
Mexico one day after Chavarin explained that her dad was from Mexico. When
Chavarin said goodbye, the student handed over a package with instructions not
to open it until she was on her plane. When she opened it, she discovered it
was the book about Mexico.
“I’m friends with a couple of the ninth-graders on
Facebook,” Chavarin said. “They say, ‘Please come back and teach us! Bring
American candy!’ I didn’t want to get on the bus. Driving away was hard.”
“If anyone can do it, I say do it,” Gee said of studying
abroad. “If I could have taken my friends and family with me, I would have
stayed. I miss the kiddos. I’d tell anyone that they’ve got to go if they can
get to Namibia.”
Learn more about the students' trip to Namibia through their blog entries at bit.ly/WJ7cDO.