Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. ~ Nelson Mandela
If you are reading this blog, it is likely that you understand the critical role that education plays in the life of an individual, and the future of our society. You know that the ability to read, write, solve problems, and reason are a necessity in the successful navigation of the twenty-first century. You also may be aware of the fact that (as alluded to by the Mandela quote) for children in poverty, education is absolutely essential to closing gaps, and changing their world.
Even in the best of conditions, education is not a simple matter. It requires intense effort, and investment of energy, by knowledgeable, caring, and compassionate educators. Sufficient resources must be available to adequately support high expectations for student performance, and provide relevant learning experiences. Perhaps most important (especially for students who come from challenging circumstances) is a learning environment that is comfortable, free of excessive distractions, and safe. Students who invest a substantial amount of energy in simply surviving — who deal with challenging home lives — must have an environment that allows them to focus on learning. Not an easy task, even in a developed country.
On a recent trip to Haiti, when I first witnessed the learning environment at a school, and orphanage, near Port Au Prince, I was overwhelmed by the degree of need. Even visibly shaken and heartbroken. Inoperable vehicles, trash, and even nails, littered the school yard where barefoot children play. Classes are held in a sweltering twenty-eight by eighteen foot aluminum shed — divided into four small classrooms. A small cadre of committed, but underprepared (and overwhelmed) teachers work with extremely limited resources to prepare meaningful lessons for their students. There is a severe shortage of physical resources — the teachers frequently borrow books from students who can afford them in order to prepare lessons. There are no manipulatives, or learning tools, that we are used to seeing in schools, and students frequently lack pencils, pens, and paper.
When we met with teachers, and discussed their concerns, I sensed a desire to do better — for the children — but limited resources and manpower (common themes in Haiti) have established a ceiling for meaningful change. As I listened, my mind was reeling, trying to come up with something to say that would be beneficial. Something I could do that would help. Given time, and resources, I knew that I would suggest the following (not necessarily in this order):
- Clean the school grounds — getting rid of old machinery, picking up large rocks and trash, creating a more inviting environment.
- Get the kids and teachers out of the tin shed classrooms — they are not safe, comfortable, or conducive to learning.
- Build a new, open-air building, with separate classrooms, chalkboards, student desks, a library, and a room for school records.
- Ensure that teachers, and students, have access to materials — books, manipulatives, pens, pencils, notebooks, etc.
- Work with the teachers on professional development and teaching strategies that will engage the students and encourage problem solving. Most have had very limited teacher training.
- Improve teacher wages (they are making approximately $58 US dollars per month) and ensure consistent payment.
The list could go on, but as we talked, all I managed to say was that I admired them for the job they were doing with the given resources and conditions. I told them they should be proud of their commitment to the children of the orphanage, and the community. I certainly don’t want anyone to imply blame from what I write. I honestly believe that the orphanage director, and the teachers, truly care about the kids that are in their charge. But, they are overwhelmed with the number of kids, the lack of resources, and the amount to be done. They can only do so much on their own.
In the end, in a desperate attempt to feel like I was doing something positive, I walked the school, and orphanage yard, processing what I had seen, and heard — and picked up nails.
I want to do more, and there is so much more to do. After all, education may be what is needed to change their world.
Flickr Slides from Haiti