Chatfield teacher returns from two-year experience in Tanzania
Social studies instructor hopes to inspire students for future adventures
Tuesday, October 01, 2013 3:41 AM
Adam Archer took time off from teaching in his Chatfield social studies classroom to teach abroad in Mailisita, Tanzania, Africa.
Adam Archer has returned to his position as a social studies teacher at Chatfield after teaching in Tanzania, Africa, for two years. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
"Taking time off to volunteer abroad had been something I had been interested in for some time, but it had always seemed impractical and unrealistic," said Archer, speaking of his two years of experience teaching elementary students in Tanzania. "After six years of teaching at Chatfield and turning 30, I revisited the idea again. Without a family of my own, a mortgage or debt to hold me back, it appeared that the time may be right. When I heard that my brother would again be deploying with the military for the fourth time, my mind was made up. While I could never do the work that he or so many of our soldiers do, I wanted to be overseas serving, in my own way, at the same time."
Archer related that his choice of organizations made a difference in what difference he could make for the students of Mailisita. "Having researched scores of opportunities, I chose to work with a non-governmental organization (NGO) called the Mailisita Foundation. I was drawn to their stated vision, 'to see all who seek education to be educated,' and their consequent mission, 'to see orphan and underprivileged children in Mailisita are able to effectively compete for scarce secondary school openings."
The social studies teacher, accustomed to public education for every student, forged into a new education system. "Public education in Tanzania is very new - established in 2001- and it performs at a level one might expect of a developing country that only introduced public education a little over 10 years ago," he explained. "Previously, only the wealthy were able to send their children to school and provide them with an education that would help them gain meaningful employment. Unfortunately, the public school system has not changed this system very much."
Archer elaborated that many more children are going to school now, but few are able to receive an education beyond primary school.
"There is an exhaustive, cumulative government test given at the end of seventh grade, given in English, that must be passed to enter into secondary school," he explained. "Unfortunately, these new schools teach in Swahili, leaving their students without any real chance of passing the exam."
Archer said very few students make it to secondary schools, and the ones that do are most likely from wealthy families who can afford to send their children to an English Medium School where all classes are taught in English, starting in first grade.
"Everyone else is stuck without any real chance of education or any real chance of upward mobility," he continued. "The Mailisita Foundation aims to change this. An English Medium School was built that would seek out the poor and disadvantaged to be its students. These fortunate students would, and are, receiving an exceptional education that would otherwise be impossible."
Archer said a foundation is being laid for these students to be prepared for the government exam, secondary school, post-secondary school and the jobs that offer a real opportunity to break the cycles of poverty that so many of these families have been stuck in for so long.
There were many reasons why Archer said he chose the Mailisita Foundation, but the main one was that it is attempting to create a self-sufficient revenue base for the public education it offers.
"Africa, and where I was in Tanzania, is littered with well-intentioned but ultimately unsustainable charity, aid and development projects," Archer explained. "On the short drive to town, several abandoned buildings that once housed creative and ambitious projects can be seen. Funds dry up. It is hard for people to give to the same project year after year. Knowing this, the Mailisita Foundation built a very nice hotel adjacent to the school that would take advantage of the substantial number of tourists who come to Tanzania."
Archer also explained that, if the hotel is successful, it will pay not only for the costs of running the hotel, but also of running the school. "At some point, donations, charity and aid will no longer be needed, and a thriving, non-profit business will pay for the students to get this quality education," he said.
Archer's English instruction was the key to helping students get the educational edge they need for success. "During my first year, I taught first through third grade English, assisted in some science classrooms and helped launch the hotel," he said. "None of the staff had previously worked in a hotel whose primary guests would be foreign tourists, so education and training was needed as to standards, expectations and practices."
In Archer's second year, he taught second through fourth grade math, helped out in other classrooms as needed, and continued to help run the hotel and entertain guests. "It was an unbelievable experience," he said.
Archer also said the children he taught were often using English as their third language and were severely disadvantaged and often had very difficult or very troubled home lives.
"These are the kids the school aims to help," he continued. "Despite these challenges, students loved and embraced school - part of that may be due to the fun they had at school and the numerous and exhausting chores they would have at home. Even while learning in a foreign language, our math students were learning concepts that were ahead of their peers in America."
Archer said he had to smile when his weakest students would sometimes approach him during recess and ask if he would give them some homework so they could get more practice.
"On any given night, I would share a meal and conversation with newly arrived hotel guests from all over the world," Archer said. "I was able to watch as our hotel grew into a professional business with excellent ratings and reviews."
The days in Mailisita weren't all wonderful, however, Archer admitted. There were challenges which presented some tough times as well.
"The work could be beautiful, wonderful and life-affirming, or it could be depressing, dispiriting and heartbreaking, sometimes in the same day," Archer shared. "It is difficult to say what the experience, in its entirety, meant to me. I believe that I am still unpacking much of this, and will be for some time."
After two years of living in a different country, culture and community, teaching different ages and subjects than he was accustomed to, Archer said he was often experiencing the confusing, frustrating and nebulous world of aid and development. "I am left with more questions than answers."
Archer publicly thanked the administration and school board of the Chatfield School District, aspiring to share his experience as a volunteer with his students.
"I hope that my experience can benefit my students in several ways. On one level, I am able to share my experience - what I saw, experienced and learned," he said. "Further, it allows me to offer comments, context or insights into current events and topics covered in class, which is very useful for world history and government classes."
However, Archer feels that most importantly, he hopes to help students realize just how small his own experience was and just how big, beautiful and diverse the world is.
"I hope students understand that I learned only a fraction of one other culture, one other viewpoint and one other way of life. I hope this creates an appreciation for and curiosity about all of the other viewpoints and ways of life that exist," he concluded. "There is so much that we don't know, that we haven't experienced, that we haven't even begun to imagine. That's pretty cool and very exciting! There is so much out there to learn, experience and be a part of. This is what I hope I can convey to my students."