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 grade.

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 department.

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 Caro for:
  • 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

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