*** Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. ***
Before departing for Peace Corps service an RPCV friend gave me what is quite possibly some of the best advice I have ever received. He told me that successful volunteers have the capability of working in deep chaos, in situations with little to no direction. Undoubtedly, Peace Corps throws volunteers into some of the most unstructured and confusing work environments out there and it is the volunteer’s responsibility to identify their role, sometimes essentially creating their job on the spot.
The beauty of being an education volunteer is that our roles as teachers tend to be pretty clear. Last year I was assigned a set of classes to teach and provided a regular schedule with most of the chaos coming in the form of sorting out secondary projects and just navigating life. This year, however, has been an assortment of confusing moments.
At the start of the school year my school lacked a principal, vice principal, a 4th and 5th grade math teacher and a 1st grade teacher. Simply put, it was a mess. So my initial plan to not teach at all and work on developing literacy skills and secondary projects quickly evaporated into thin air. I was tasked with co-teaching English in grades 4 and 7 in order to cover the shortage of teachers. As I anxiously began my prep work, I was pulled from grade 4 and told to solo teach grade 7 English. About a week into teaching grade 7 my school received a brand new principal and I was pulled out of English and asked to teach math in order to cover for the missing teacher. That goal disappeared in a heartbeat (I mean my Setswana is good but not math vocabulary good…).
If 19 months in country have taught me anything it’s that you have to stick up for yourself. As much as I strive to be as competent as possible and capable of doing a million things, I have to care for my mental and physical well-being and remember that the school has to be functional without me. So I sat down and talked to my principal, laid out my recommendations and promised my flexibility.
So one month into the school year my teaching plan is finally (mostly) sorted out. I’m officially co-teaching English in grade 4, and as exhausting as it is, it is truly thrilling to see the kids making connections and beginning to cope with my accent. Co-teaching enables us to provide more one-on-one and small group attention to learners and helps us to avoid the language barrier by ensuring the children hear English with opportunities for Setswana translations as needed. Co-teaching also allows me to work on Peace Corps’ goal of teacher development by assisting my colleague with her English skills and helping her develop more creative and student-centered lessons.
I have always considered myself as being relatively confident and comfortable speaking to figures of authority, but feeling comfortable enough to put myself first and to engage with my staff in a culturally competent manner took a year and a half of service. I guarantee you that a year ago I would have begged my counterpart to fight the battle for me (or at least with me) or that I would have muddled through the chaos, overstretched and frustrated.
It’s 2018. I’ve been a Peace Corps volunteer for 19 months. I’ve served through two Olympic games, two American presidents, two South African presidents, two birthdays, and now my third school year. My life is still chaos but now I know how to navigate that dynamic without driving myself crazy at the same time. My life is chaos but it’s a chaos I’ve come to thrive in.