Friday, June 1, 2007

Uncommon experiences travelling

Most of my group left this morning for the 15 hour flight back to their various corners of the United States so I have had a bit of time before gearing up for my work in Yemen today. I have remained behind in order to determine how the AFT can help teachers over here with their work in the classroom as well as their work in building a successful, democratic trade union. In this time, I have had the opportunity to list all of the little things that I did not prepare for but came up anyway on this trip.

First of all, I am typing on an Arabic keyboard that has keys in slightly different places than my English keyboard at home. That and the fact that this website consistently comes up in German (I can't read German) has made for some entertaining work in managing this blog, spell-checking, and trying to make the best use of my limited Internet time. While I have had the some of the usual translation stories that accompany my limited language acquisition and my hosts limited English, I have been impressed over and over with how hard everyone works to understand each other when we don't share a language, how patient the Yemenis are with me, and how polite everyone has been. My perceptions of Islam and experiencing a Muslim country have been enlightened along the way.

In thinking about all of these opportunities to problem solve, I realize that this is exactly the sort of navigation we need to be teaching our students everyday. This world is theirs and we need to equip them with every skill possible so that when they find themselves in these situations in the future, whether that future is a business trip to Yemen or navigating a new social studies class and the culture, language/lexicon, expectations, and norms that follow, they are able to see the experience as an opportunity to problem solve as well at stretch, grow, and learn about themselves.

I went into teaching because I loved my subject and I loved the idea of a career in teaching, so it was work for me to remember that loving English/language arts (and being okay with 7th grade) wasn't native to every student. I had to bring them there. It seems common that our first reaction to change or to something new is to retreat. Travelling has certainly brought that instinct out in me from time to time, but I know in teaching it took time to reflect on my classroom to remember that sometimes all it took to retreat for my students was the time it took to travel down the hall to my room to feel foreign, to retreat, or to become defensive. Balancing the ambitious work of teaching with setting a classroom climate where it would be safe to take risks and use their time with me as an opportunity to stretch, to grow, to learn about themselves was always a challenge. The real issue became the time I had to reflect to improve myself, or rather, the lack of time.

Just as I have a break in my schedule this morning, those moments I had the opportunity to reflect amidst the break-neck pace of teaching helped me better meet the needs of my students. Too often I only found that time when I couldn't sleep at the end of the day because I was still too wound up from my day of teaching, reviewing my rotating list of things to do during my prep the next day and trying to figure out how I was going to get my children dropped off early enough before school (but after my day care opened) in order to do those things that could not wait until prep time.

Like travelling, all of us need down time to think and to reflect on our work. We need opportunities to remember that we may have made our classrooms native for us, but we are inviting all travellers who have only a short time to learn from us before we send them off to the care of our colleagues in the next grade, the next room, or the next step in their education. I believe that the St. Paul Federation of Teachers should make it our priority to carve out that time to reflect. Each of us as individual professionals will then make it our priority to use that time to welcome the world to learn with us.

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