I began college as an education and dance major, but I graduated with a degree in political science thinking I had bid my final farewell to those past passions. Somehow in this cyclical thing we call life, I find myself now in Tanzania a teacher by day dance instructor by night.
My work at St. Mary Goretti Secondary School has taken wind in the last few weeks. I’m teaching General Studies to Form Five students. General Studies: a mandatory class covering topics such as Environmentalism, HIV/AIDS, International Politics, Philosophy, Morality, Development, etc. Form Five: the fifth of six years offered in secondary school which acts a bit like the first year of community college after high school. I’m lucky to be teaching a subject which somehow summarizes my college education to an age group in which we can share honest conversations. Unfortunately, the school year for Form Five runs from April to February, so I’m just coming in during the tail end of things here. For now, I’m assisting the other General Studies teacher by teaching certain subjects some weeks and being patient during the others. In early April, I’ll teach the new class of Form Fives and he’ll teach the Form Sixes. While this is written in English, I feel like discussing the school system here might sound like Swahili back home!
Last week I started teaching my first topic – the Environment! I was thrilled as one of my college classes I cherished most was Environmental Ethics and my brother is studying climate change. But how to begin? a) The syllabus is a mere skeleton in terms of creating a two hour lesson; b) I teach 125 students at one time; c) resources aren’t readily available like I’m accustomed to; and d) online resources scream at me: You’re An American! Until now, I never realized how utterly geared the Internet and academic sources are to the West. Each environmental movie I could find spoke in the We/Americans; each environmental justice article delineated us, the rich, and them, the poor. While in college I spoke freely and passionately about global issues, I’m realizing the difficult delicacy needed to speak about them outside of my narrow context. I stand before the students, the only Caucasian in a small classroom filled with forming minds, and tell them that industrialized nations are emitting gross amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and they will face the effects. How do I convey a necessary message without transforming generalizations into facts; how do I teach them about the world when I don’t yet know theirs; how do I hold their hands in asking questions when education is established for me to hand down answers? In two weeks I am responsible for covering the topic of HIV/AIDS – the issue I left college most passionate about, having the most experience with, and possessing the most knowledge of. Here, what does my knowledge of AIDS – that of books and limited moments – mean to young people entrenched in the reality? I feel so fortunate for this challenge, this invitation to rehash my college education in a far more raw and honest setting, learning beside Tanzanian teenagers.
While the seemingly simple task of teaching a two hour lesson increasingly challenges me and warrants days of preparation, I find calm in my other task of being a classroom teacher. The boarding school is divided in classes of about fifty students with a teacher assigned to give them announcements, share their comments with the headmistress, etc. Excited to build community with these girls, I’ve expanded these duties to include hang out time and valentine decorating! It has been such a joy simply being with them and watching their individual personalities come to life in front of me. I look forward to this being an important space during my years - a space where we can learn from each other and start to live with each other. Formal academics are heavily emphasized at the school, so I'm excited to bring light to their life outside the classroom in the many ways that can evolve. It looks/feels/sounds so much like my time last year with the young women of Dolores Mission, Los Angeles where my best friend and I entered with lofty goals and left with beautiful friendships.
About two weeks ago, I started after-school dance classes for the girls... what a riot! It astounded me how quickly I channelled my inner Ms. Bettie (my dance teacher for twelve years). I adored how attentive they were to each part of the class. When we stretched, they squealed when their muscles moved in new ways; when we danced to their beloved Rihanna, they turned on their sassiness; and when we breathed at the end, they stood before me with excitement twinkling out of their eyes. Somehow (a term used often here to express the many random moments that occur), I became in charge of the entertainment for the graduation occurring this week. So, this dance was elongated, a ballet one created, and they will both be performed on Wednesday!! I thought I had finished this childhood hobby, but apparently it's back in full force. I've been asked to tutor a hopeful male-female ballroom couple, teach salsa lessons, and show them my pop & lock skills. Little do they know I don't have any, but teaching what I do know is a real joy in the mean time.
Life is good. While my pent up energy is sometimes frustrated by my quiet schedule, I know this time to learn how to teach is invaluable. In April, I will start anew with the incoming Form Fives and veer away from the mistaken avenues I'm currently taking in the classroom. Right now I'm in dress rehearsal, and in April I'll be on stage. Teaching is such an intriguing art... I've never had a responsibility that felt so organic (I am sharing what I know with younger peers); I've never had a responsibility that felt so epic (I am taking part in the formation of minds and no matter how long I take to nurture that process, it inevitably has my imperfect mark on it). To anyone who has ever intentionally taught me, thank you.