Thursday, February 10, 2011

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES, Turn and face the strange

I “retired” on September 30, 2009. Less than a week later I was a Peace Corps Trainee in Los Angeles receiving my orientation. Within two weeks Kathy and I were settling in with our host family in Ha'apai, Tonga, trying to figure out how to hang a mosquito net, where to brush our teeth, and how we were ever going to get clean in the rudimentary “shower.”

We did learn how to do all those things and much more (with a few health and culture challenges) and began our service in Nuku'alofa in late December. By the time our respective schools started (Kathy's in late January, mine in mid-February) we were fairly well acclimated and settled into our tiny little house and neighborhood. We attended the neighborhood church and some socials and settled into a respectful relationship with our neighbors.

As the year progressed we learned how incredibly difficult it is to be an “educator” in Tonga. There are teachers galore, and most are perfectly content to continue teaching in the manner in which they were taught. Once employed, few are interested in further professional development. Kathy was never able to gain the cooperation of her principal and the staff at her school to conduct the weekly workshops that were the basis of her assignment. But she continued to develop an engaging library program and to demonstrate many effective teaching strategies in the class 4, 5, and 6 classrooms. She insisted that the regular teacher be present during her sessions and to participate in the lesson, but few actively engaged.

After a frustrating first semester attempting to teach Economics as I had done for ten years at a community college, I completely changed my approach. Tongan students at all levels are used to teacher directed learning. They are excellent note takers. Those interested in a good grade will work to memorize the concepts so they can recall them back on worksheets or tests. But to have a discussion about the pros and cons of a position or to apply a concept to a new situation for most students was most difficult, if not impossible. I found that my second year Econ students could recall and apply little from the first year course they had taken the year before.

Despite all this, by the end of the school year Kathy and I each felt that we had had some success. Kathy in particular created some great learning experiences for her children, who seemed to appreciate the opportunity to express their creativity and develop their imaginations. But what weighed heaviest on Kathy was the lack of opportunity to do what she does best, and what she was recruited for by the Peace Corps; train teachers. She came to realize that this was not going to be possible.

So with that realization, and facing yet another medical evacuation to Australia to take care of an important but relatively easy-to-fix problem, she has ended her Peace Corps service and returned to the United States, where she is enjoying winter weather and figuring out what is next for her.

So here at Tonga Tangos, we'll be reluctantly losing Kathy's involvement in our blog. In case you are wondering our relationship is fine, we're not separating, and I have to say we miss each other quite a bit. But we are able to text chat most every day using Skype of Facebook, staying connected with each other's daily activities.

I'm continuing to work at my little university to see what kind of transformation may be possible in the wake of the founder's death last year. His children have inherited the university and not much else; the management model – autocracy – that has been the norm for the school's first 35 years is ill-suited to its current needs, and many of the potential supporters – former students and alumnae – have not been courted and some have been alienated. Time will tell; this is our week to register students and prepare for classes to begin next week, so we'll have a good idea of what 2011 holds in store very shortly. 

"Strange fascination fascinating me, Ah, changes are taking the pace I'm going through.
Time may change me, but I can't trace time."  (with apologies to David Bowie)