What I learned in PST (and other cultural notes)

“Good teachers know that discomfort and pain are often signs that truth is struggling to be born among us” -Parker J. Palmer

 

Eleven weeks ago, I stepped off an airplane in a place that I knew very little about. I was quickly greeted by some other Americans that I immediately trusted with my life, stuffed into a car, and hauled off for a few hours through twisting and unfamiliar country roads. I was disoriented, to say the least. But these were only the very first moments in what would prove to be an incredibly challenging, awkward, rewarding, and memorable experience. Also known as PST.

Today, I write as a newly minted Peace Corps Volunteer. By assuming this new title, I claim to have no new special powers, knowledge, or insight compared to my former Trainee self 24 hours ago. But what I can share are my observations and lessons learned after living in Madagascar for 3 months. Throughout the whirlwind and often mind-numbing life of a Trainee, I’ve managed to keep my eyes and ears open just enough to take in the delights of life in Madagascar. In my own words…

Spoons are very underutilized in America. At the Malagasy dining table, the spoon tends to be the main utensil. It’s effectiveness is remarkable. Especially with a rice-based meal, using a spoon to pile food together for each bite is your best option. A fork can help collect different pieces of the meal from your plate, but the spoon is the real superstar.

Convenience is relative. What’s easy for you in America can sometimes be impossible or extremely difficult in Madagascar. Things that many of us take for granted in America, such as clean drinking water coming from multiple faucets in homes, are far from the reality for the majority of Malagasy people. I’m learning to appreciate and be mindful of these differences.

Peace Corps Trainees love snacks. From the first full day of training, we had 3 square meals each day and both a morning and afternoon snack. It was a nice perk at first, until we got accustomed to it and became unknowingly distraught when snacks were not provided. The joke started by our group getting a laugh anytime snack was explicitly stated in the daily schedule, as if we were children being looked after because we couldn’t fend for ourselves, and then we became dependent on snack. It quickly turned into a major question of the day, we now each have our favorite types of snacks, and we would even get snacks packed for us to take if we were out on the road traveling during the normal snack time. It’s probably something I’ll go to therapy for many years from now.

Making plans in person is worth the effort. For the first few weeks of training, none of the trainees had cell phones that worked in Madagascar. So we had to make plans with each other in person, which probably sounds like a really simple thing to do. And it is, but I came to really appreciate the ability to look someone in the eye, set a time and place to meet again, and follow through on it. We had to trust each other just a little bit more, even after knowing each other for only a few weeks.

No matter how many teeth you’re missing, you should still smile. Be thankful and proud for what you have, and spread joy through your smile every single day.

Chickens. Everywhere in rural towns. Everywhere.

Every single butterfly is a work of art. The colors, the patterns, the grace. I have yet to see a boring butterfly in this country.

Washing your clothes by hand can destroy your knuckles. I still haven’t perfected the skill yet, maybe I never will, but inevitably I walk away from washing my clothes with one or two more wounds on my knuckles from rubbing the wet clothes together. I’ll either master the technique or form sizable calluses on my hands.

If you let one student go to the bathroom during class, pretty soon half the class will ask to go as well. In the first couple of days of our teaching practicum, some of us learned this lesson the hard way. Malagasy students are very formal about approaching the teacher to ask permission to go to the bathroom, but without proper regulation, it can quickly get out of hand and all of a sudden a class of 60 students dwindles down to 25.

I’m a white man, so I must be French. In the eyes of most Malagasy people I’ve encountered, Caucasian people are almost immediately seen as French. Until I open my mouth and dribble out a few rudimentary Malagasy words, I am almost always greeted with a “bonjour monsieur!” Madagascar has a long history of French colonization, many French people (and people from other nations) live here today, but this stereotype seems to be deeply rooted.

Malagasy people point with their lips. If a Malagasy person wants to draw your attention toward something in a fairly discreet way, most likely they will use their lips to point in the direction they want you to look. It’s similar to what many Americans do when they nod their head in a particular direction. Try it out next time you’re sharing a meal with someone and you ask them to pass the salt, just point with your lips.

Despite the amount of rice in Madagascar, putting it in a salt shaker to prevent clumping is unheard of. I suggested this to my host mother one day and she looked at me like I had 7 heads. In most cases, the salt shakers are so clogged up because the moisture binds the salt together. But sacrificing a few dry pieces of rice is not an option.

Malagasy students are incredibly meticulous about copying things from the blackboard. Usually they have at least three different colored pens to write with, rulers to draw straight lines and make grids, and their handwriting is almost uniform. It’s amazing to see, but unfortunately it usually takes them much longer to write down simple information because they want it to look perfect. Due to lack of resources in many areas, typically there are no textbooks for students so the notebooks that they write information in become their textbook.

Clean is relative. Clothes, dishes, homes, bodies. They are usually free of obvious dirt and debris, but I’ve noticed that few things in this country are as clean as they are in America. I’ve quickly come to modify my standards of acceptable cleanliness and manage to maintain my health at the same time. Your clean is probably not my clean anymore.

Everything I come in contact with tends to have a light dusting of chalk. Teaching with a blackboard means tons of chalk dust everywhere. It starts on my hands, gets blown around the classroom and sticks to everything else, and it eventually ends up on my clothes and consequently everything else I touch until I get the chance to wash off.

Sometimes making a fool of yourself is the best way to get your point across. Whether I had to teach a new concept in class or pantomime an action to overcome a language barrier, sometimes I have to swallow my pride and get laughed at because I’m being perceived as ridiculous. I believe that it can show some compassion and humility.

I hope that through sharing these experiences, I have been able to shed a little bit more light on the truth that is my life.

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All of a sudden, I’m a teacher

It seemed to happen overnight. One day I wasn’t, the next day I was. I didn’t look or smell any different, but somehow I was allowed to assume this new role. I walked into a dimly lit classroom with a blackboard that looked like it had years of chalk dust accumulated on it and I was told to teach. I had a curriculum, I had a lesson plan, I had the attention of my students. I just needed to put all the pieces together.

During this current portion of PST, the focus is on developing our technical skills as teachers. To do this, we have a practicum section built into training where we teach English to local Malagasy students. For the students, it’s basically a free summer school program in English for all levels from 6ème (what’s this, you may ask?) to adults. For me and the other Trainees, it’s a way to practice all the skills that go with teaching including lesson planning, classroom management, and administering exams. A few people in my Stage have had prior teaching experience in the US, but a majority of us, myself included, have no formal classroom experience to speak of. After each lesson that we teach, which can be between 1-2 hours, we get feedback from staff and peers to help us process what went well and what needs improvement. I use practicum as the time to experiment with different teaching approaches and methods, test them out on real students in a relatively low-stakes setting, and learn new techniques by observing my peers. In Mantasoa, the students are generally better at English here compared to other areas because the Peace Corps has been offering similar practicum programs for many years when each new group of Education Trainees comes through.

My very first experience in the classroom was with the 6ème class. In Madagascar, the schools use the French model of education. This means that the class levels follow the French system, and 6ème (“ème” is the French abbreviation for ordinal numbers, equivalent to “th” in English) is roughly equivalent to 6th grade in the United States. This is typically the grade when English is first introduced into the curriculum. As the students continue through school, the grade levels have smaller ordinal numbers. For example, after 6ème, students move on to 5ème and then on to 4ème. Lycée (the equivalent of high school in America) begins at 2nde and continues for 3 years to Terminale (senior year). Other than Malagasy and foreign language classes, the language of instruction in the classroom is French. Math, science, history, etc. are all taught in French and most of the administrative paperwork is in French as well. This helps to explain why most people in this country speak both Malagasy and French.

But back to my experience in 6ème for a moment. This particular class has come to be loathed by many Trainees because of the size, about 50-60 students, and the resulting challenge of keeping control of the class while teaching. In 6ème, the student profile is basically anyone who would normally be in this grade and anyone younger who shows up. So it’s very common that a true 6ème student brings his or her 6-year-old siblings to class. This also means that you have a multi-level proficiency class and a huge age disparity, which makes it very challenging to be an effective teacher. Despite all of this, I feel as though I had a much smoother start to teaching than I anticipated. After that first classroom experience, I’ve had the opportunity to teach almost every other level of students as well, all with what I believe to be poise and effectiveness. I feel relatively comfortable in the classroom. During practicum, I’ve received helpful feedback about my performance and I’m confident that with more practice I can be a great teacher. Through this experience, I’ve also learned first-hand how much planning and preparation goes into teaching before the teacher even walks into the classroom. Lesson planning and materials development are important and time consuming endeavors that payoff in the classroom. Working with the older students has the advantage of higher proficiency and more interesting topics, but working with younger students also has it’s perks because it’s easier for a teacher to set a good solid foundation in English and correct errors before they become bad language habits.

Outside of practicum, the PST experience marches on. My days are filled with training sessions, Malagasy language classes, and mental exhaustion. Just like when I was living with my host family, the only truly free time is on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. Otherwise, I am told where to be and at what time to eat and so on. The schedule and amount of information overload is starting to wear me down. Some days it feels like I’ve been going full speed all day but I can’t pinpoint exactly what I’ve accomplished during my waking hours. A few other Volunteers that have been in country for at least a year have told me and my fellow Trainees that PST is the hardest part about Peace Corps service. It’s not the rigorous schedule or high level information. It’s simply the fact that we come here to be Volunteers, not Trainees. Although most of the things that we learn during PST are essential to preparing us for service, we are also chomping at the bits to start doing the type of work that we all came here to do. With that reasoning, I can’t decide if by the end of the month I’m more excited to move to my new site or to be done with PST.

As I mentioned before, the next major step in my Peace Corps service will come at the end of this month when my Stage is sworn-in and we officially become Volunteers. The ceremony will take place on the morning of August 29th in the capital city of Antananarivo. This ceremony is not only a big deal for each individual, but the country of Madagascar takes it very seriously well. I’ve been told that the local television and newspaper media outlets will be covering the event, several government and Peace Corps officials will be in attendance, and the Prime Minister has also been invited. Within a day or two of being sworn-in, each new Volunteer will begin the journey to their respective permanent sites where they will each be living and working for the next 2 years. I have been assigned to go to a town in the north east part of the country called Andapa. It is located in the SAVA region, which is widely known for its rich biodiversity, vanilla bean production, and lush national parks. I’ve been in contact with the Volunteer that I will be replacing in Andapa and she has already shared many stories and photos of the town with me. I feel as though I am already part of that community. Although I am about 100km inland from the coast, Andapa is nestled in the foothills of a large valley and the weather is usually hot for most of the year. During the rainy season, the storms coming in from the Indian Ocean can prove to be quite a headache for daily life. As in many developing countries around the world, most areas of Madagascar lack good paved roads and infrastructure. This is also true of the SAVA region and the rain typically makes the few good roads in the area either flooded out or completely impassable. As the saying goes: when it rains, it pours. Personally, I think I can tolerate heat and a few months of constant rain in Andapa better than the virtually year-round cold and wet of the highlands where I am now. My job assignment will likely be at both the local CEG, or middle school, and the lycée, or high school. I’ll have to wait until I arrive in Andapa and meet with my Malagasy counterpart to iron out those details, but this was also the assignment of the previous Volunteer. My house is located on the CEG campus and it is a converted office space. With that being said, it will be small. The previous Volunteer insists that it’s enough room to live comfortably. But I’m 6’2″. We’ll see how my definition of “comfortable” changes. I will also have electricity, an indoor shower and a flush toilet, so I really can’t complain about anything else. All the information I have about Andapa and my teaching assignment comes from other people, albeit reliable people, but we will all have to wait another month for me to get there and see it in person. Only then can I give a more detailed and accurate portrayal of the situation.

Needless to say, I’m very excited and slightly nervous about transitioning into life as a more autonomous Volunteer in a new town. Never the less, I’ll have 24 months to write about the trials and tribulations of my so-called Malagasy life.