Saturday, April 30, 2016

Success in Failure

I am one of the editors and writers for the Peace Corps Newsletter, and this post was also in that newsletter, so the style may be a bit different, but it's still a pretty good look at some of the difficulties of Peace Corps life here. 


            Before I came to Cameroon, I met with three RPCVs who had served in different countries in West Africa, and each one of them started our conversations with the same two questions: “Why do you want to do Peace Corps?” and “What are you expecting to get out of this?”  Now, as I’m sure is the same with many of you, I got asked these questions a lot, and had my fail-proof responses all learned by heart and ready to go at a moment’s notice.  But it was different when the RPCVs asked these questions.  Each of them spoke with the same weary, and tentative tone, clearly holding back sights, as though they were afraid of what my answer might be.  Regardless, I hitched on my most confident and social smile and rattled away about changing my perception of the world and understanding different cultures, how Peace Corps opens doors otherwise closed, and about finding my true self, blah blah blah. And each RPCV answered my explanations with a knowing look and internal nod, and then allowed me to plunge into the fifty billion questions I had for each of them.
            Honestly, I never deluded myself with the idea that I would change the world through Peace Corps.  I’ve never been a big person for humanitarian or volunteer work, and Peace Corps did not appeal to me because of the idea of “giving back”.  All I wanted was to come to Cameroon, immerse myself in a different culture for two years, and come away from the experience with the knowledge that I was a strong, open-hearted, good person.  Or so I thought.  I never worried about whether or not I would make a difference in the lives of my future students, because I just assumed that my mere presence in a foreign classroom would be enough to excite my students into learning. I never once doubted the fact that I would easily be able to see the results of my service and my worth as a volunteer teacher in the improved grades of my students, the changed teaching styles of my teachers, and the revolutionized productivity and efficiency of my school’s administration.  As someone who spent two years teaching before coming to Cameroon, I was infallibly convinced that I would rock the world of my Peace Corps school.  Of course, this was not the case. 
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The sign signaling for the turn off to take for a few miles to get to CES Louh Tougwe, Bamena

            Within the first two weeks of the start of school, I discovered that my enthusiasm was taken as naiveté, and my assumptions that both my students and my school would worship the ground I walked on, were of course destroyed. I put hours of work into my lesson plans, only to arrive at school the next day to discover that they were useless.  By the end of the first grading period, I had been called into the headmaster’s office twice to discuss my progress, or lack thereof, with the national syllabus I’d been given for each grade.  And no matter how much I tried to explain that most of the students were not at the levels the syllabi required, the headmaster very firmly repeated that I must learn how to teach like a Cameroonian.  At the end of the second grading period, I found that most of my students’ grades had decreased rather than increased.  At the end of the third grading period, I learned that a few of my older students had complained to the headmaster about my teaching style, claiming that we played too many games in class and that I wasn’t disciplining the trouble-makers properly.  Needless to say, that discovery almost broke me.  I barely protested as the Headmaster informed me that he would be taking over my 3e and 4e classes, but that I could stay with 5e and 6e as whatever damage I did to their education could be undone in 4e and 3e.   And, to be honest, I was relieved.  I had come to dread teaching my 3e and 4e students, and with them taken away from me, I would have time to start working on secondary projects that I had all but neglected.
            So far, that third grading period has been the lowest point of my service.  I had spent hours and hours researching teaching methods, finding games and activities that might engage my students and help them understand, and in the end, I had failed them all.  I could see the disappointment in my headmaster’s eyes every time he looked at the Peace Corps volunteer that he had waited so long for. 
 However, within two weeks of only teaching 5e and 6e, I had 3e and 4e students seeking me out.  They had never tried too much to talk to me outside of class before, and most of my efforts to engage them in casual conversations had ended with blank stares and silence.  Yet, with their chance to talk to me in class taken away from them, many of them, especially the girls, began searching for me and trying to spend time with me outside of class and school. These students started approaching me in the market, at the boutique down the road, walking me home from school, introducing me to their families, inviting me to church with them, etc.  
Something in our relationship changed when I stopped being their teacher.  These students now talk to me about things that they would never mention to a teacher.  We talk about their children, the problems they’re having at home, what they hope to do once they pass the BEPC, questions I asked as a teacher, but that they did not feel comfortable responding to as my student.  When they ask me a question now, or seek me out for advice, they no longer fear that the hierarchy of the school administration will hear about it or that another teacher will harass them about what was said. 
Not only do these students feel more comfortable with me, but I feel more comfortable with them as well.  I am open to talking to them about my own personal experiences and feelings in a way that I would never have felt comfortable doing as their teacher.  They still respect me, even more so I think than they did before, and they are beginning to fully trust me, something I had given up hoping would happen. As the only female who works at my school, many of these girls see me now as the only adult they can confide in.  And none of this would have happened had I continued being the frustrated and disparaging teacher that I had become before. 
I still teach my 5e and 6e classes, and we now have even more fun, singing songs and playing word games to help them not just with English, but with literacy, world geography, math, etc., but I have had to learn that I cannot measure my success in Peace Corps through my school.  If I continue trying to do so, I will definitely walk away from Peace Corps feeling as though I had failed not only my students, but everyone that had believed that I might help someone here.  Instead, I’ve had to learn to base my success on small, every day interactions: a student asking me for advice, a parent telling me how much their child enjoys spending time with me, a smile from a girl who used to sleep through school.  I cannot measure myself by how much my students change academically and further their education, but instead by encouraging them when they don’t get encouragement elsewhere, advising them when they have questions no one else will answer, and trying to open them up to other perspectives of life. 

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Four students looking at a map of the world for the first time.