Today was hard. By mid-day I was overwhelmed by just how challenging it will be to reach HOPE for Ariang’s goal: to transform Ariang students through quality education.
From the beginning, I knew that achieving this goal would not be easy. One “quick fix” will not magically change Ariang School into a center of learning where students receive quality education. But as James Baldwin writes,
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
So with the goal in mind, we set our first priority and established a clear plan this year: Empowering Educators Initiative. As a teacher myself, I am convinced that a central way to transform Ariang students is through effective school leaders who will develop a positive school culture, engage students in stimulating lessons, and guide students towards mastery. We called in “teacher development experts” in East Africa, Dignitas Project to offer what we believe will be the BEST training the teachers can receive.
But today I was reminded of the divide between the goal and reality. Ariang Primary’s reality is that our teachers are undereducated, untrained, and face many of the same injustices that Ariang students do. They are from the same community that has suffered from decades of war and where signs of development are nearly non-existent. This is evident as you drive through the nearest town to see an abandoned teaching hospital, an unfinished school, and a dirt road that is inaccessible during rainy season. Seeing change is not easy in Ariang.
Today marked the third day of our first Teacher Training Institute. Throughout these two weeks in Nairobi, the six selected Ariang fellows are in training sessions from 8:00 – 4:30 pm daily, with additional work to complete in the evening. They are saturated and immersed in all things pedagogy. But by mid-day today, I was overwhelmed with what seems to be the long road we have to eventually realize our goal.
A Wave Of Reality
The waves of reality hit me during a session on positive framing, which is essentially how teachers guide students to do better by inspiring them with positive tone and feedback. As I sat with a small group of three as they tried to dissect a text on positive framing techniques and strategies, I observed that the teacher fellows struggled with the texts’ language. They had such limited background knowledge on the topic, making it difficult for them to grasp and understand the subject. They. just. weren’t. getting. It. At all! I felt like a failure. What do I think I’m trying to achieve? Why did I think I could bring them to a training and change anything? These teachers can’t really transform their classroom and school. The facilitators must feel like this is a waste of their time. Negative thoughts continued as the gap between the teacher’s understanding and the content seemed to get wider and wider throughout the session. Thankfully I was not alone. Dignitas facilitators observed the same realities. Even though we discussed that less is more during the early stages of planning for this Institute, today they recognized that even LESS than LESS is more.
A Quick Debriefing Session With The Teachers
During the lunch break the facilitators did some quick debriefing and revising to take a new direction in the afternoon. We spent the afternoon going over the same content again, but this time with simplified language and a condensed one-page handout with the main ideas of each technique. Each positive framing strategy was reviewed, many examples were given, and the facilitators modeled, modeled, and modeled again. At the end, teachers worked in pairs to choose a positive framing strategy and model what it looks like in action. The teachers quickly fell back on what feels “natural” or how they typically curve behavior in their classroom. But they were encouraged to try again, and again, and again. Feedback was provided. And then… it happened. Small little glimpses of change. Don’t misinterpret; it wasn’t a hallmark moment or anything. Even still, the teachers were modeling the new strategy in their practice scenarios. They. Were. Starting. To. Get. It. Not perfectly, still with misconceptions, still with much practice needed. But there was a small shift in how they addressed student behaviors before and how they address student behaviors now.
Transforming a rural community school in South Sudan doesn’t have any quick fixes. It is naïve to think that after these first two weeks classrooms will be transformed. I may return to Ariang next month to find the same quality of teaching and learning happening as what took place before the institute. These teacher fellows will require ongoing support to implement the ideas and concepts they are learning in Nairobi. It’s likely they won’t succeed at first. They will need constructive feedback. They will need strategies modeled again. They will need commitment and motivation to keep working towards change and growth as teachers and school leaders. This is the reality of development, especially in a developing country that exists in fragile peace. We may have a program planned that looks wonderful on paper, but in reality we are in the “business of people”, and people don’t change overnight. Growth takes time, energy, resources, and practice.
HOPE for Ariang’s goal to transform Ariang students through quality education will take time and it certainly won’t happen after this first institute. We need to be ready to shift gears, revise the plan, or try again. It will certainly take long-term commitment and hope in the face of challenges and injustices.
I am reminded of some of the Community Builders that the facilitators begin each day with, these activities are designed to help teachers foster community and ease into the day’s work. Today we did the Human Knot where everyone stands in a circle, holds hands across the circle with two people, and then they must try to untangle the knot and make a whole circle again (without letting go of each other’s hands). When the teachers first tried, many mistakes were made. Lack of communication or a clear plan make the task difficult. In their first attempt they were completely unsuccessful. The knot was too complex and too hard. Everyone gave up and let go of the others’ hands. In a sense, they failed. But then they tried again. This time, using their prior unsuccessful experience, they communicated better, some people assumed a leadership position, and they discussed ideas before making the next move. It was after this second time that they were successful.
Transforming Ariang students through quality education will not be easy and can’t be fixed with one simple solution. We will fail along the way when implementing new projects and ideas. We will learn many hard lessons. We will face setback. We will have try again and again. But if we don’t face these challenges, then certainly nothing can ever change.
I’m thankful that our HOPE for Ariang supporters understand the complex context in which we work and that they choose to journey with us on the sometimes long and difficult road towards growth and development. You believe in our mission and propel us forward towards our collective goal. And when we succeed, you get to share in our joy that all students are being transformed by quality education at Ariang Primary School.