Friday, July 9, 2010


As I was walking home from my workout at the Teufaiva gym this morning the air had that clean feeling that comes after a rain shower. The sun was up; a few clouds mingled with the blue sky. It rained again just after I arrived home, just another brief shower coming out of nowhere, which seems to happen a lot in Tonga.

We’re back from our 12 day trip to New Zealand’s North Island, a comfortable reminder of our former life, and beginning the second half of the school year. The schools are back in session, but I have this week to prepare. The Tongan Winter is so much more pleasant than the summer; temperatures in the 70s most of the time, with some nighttime lows dipping into the 60s and even the 50s. A consistent breath of fresh air, and the odd day that does climb into the low 80s only stays there for a few hours.

Whatever “honeymoon” there may have been when we began our work here is long gone. Our experience this first five months of teaching has revealed that in our current assignments we will have little lasting impact on our Tongan colleagues or our schools. The integration into our various schools has revealed some stark realities of working here. The education system in Tonga, with it’s overarching emphasis on rote learning and knowing the “right answer” (rather than how to think) makes it very difficult to effectively engage students in a discovery learning process. A big surprise has been the behavior of many primary and secondary teachers. There is little discipline or accountability required of them; Many teachers often arrive well after the school day has begun and some frequently do not show up at all. Particularly vexing is arriving at school to find out some event or another (“Didn’t anyone tell you?”) has completely disrupted the schedule and put you another day behind.

Which is not to say that there aren’t many fine and dedicated teachers working in Tongan schools, women and men who can be counted on to be there every day, who will cover the absent teacher’s class whenever necessary without complaint, and who seem to respect the students as learners. These teachers are not responding to any external rewards or stimuli, they just seem to care more, particularly for the kids. However, it is “the Tongan way” to not complain about the inequities, and the absent and/or indifferent teachers’ jobs are not jeopardized.

As Kathy has so eloquently described in a previous post, it’s the children who are responding to our efforts and who will be the primary beneficiaries of our efforts, not the system. Especially at the primary school level they are a lot of fun and can be very responsive, but that frequently depends on how controlling their regular classroom teacher is, how much permission they feel they have to speak up, to be creative, to do something other than try to figure out what the “right answer” is.

It was eye-opening for me to come to the end of my first term with college students with the realization that I really hadn’t done much toward expanding my Economics students understanding of the world. The last few weeks were all about getting ready for the end of term exam, memorizing concepts to parrot back and then just as quickly forget. The few application questions I included and tried to prepare them for bombed. Time to rethink my approach.

When I taught Economics before, I could rely on my students possessing some basic knowledge and background experiences. They would have all held jobs and received a pay check, paid taxes, maybe lived on their own, held a driver’s license and owned a car and bought insurance. They would understand basic budgeting concepts. My Tongan students have none of these experiences. Most live at home or with a relative and have never worked for a wage or paid income taxes, Budgeting is a foreign concept. Given their life experiences and different methodology is necessary.

So this week I’m scratching my head and researching “critical thinking” materials and lesson plans in an effort to create a learning environment that will cut way back on how much economics content we will cover and focus more on developing some basic working understandings about the way the world—and Tonga in particular—works. Wish me luck, and I’ll keep you posted.