Thursday, December 26, 2013


(From December 23, 2013)

The stars were so beautiful tonight.
I was squatting at the tap outside the kitchen door, because I’m on my period so my dishes can’t be washed with anyone else’s. The sun dropped below the hills of the valley long before dinner at 7:30 so by the time I finished eating any traces of dusk’s dim light had disappeared. And it was loadshedding so there was no light flooding over from neighboring houses.
It was dark.
When I reached up to pass the soap back inside to my host sisters, doing the rest of the dishes, I caught a glimpse of the sky. It was like a silver glitter fiasco on a dark blue kindergarten carpet. I finished rinsing and came back inside, happy to put my damp hands into my gloves, hoping they would regain feeling after the freezing tap water.
Up on the roof, I went to the north corner where the light from a nearby hotel’s generator is blocked. I gazed up and marveled at the largeness of the dark and the potency of each star. I threw my head back and leaned until the houses and the hills and the world were completely out of view.
My eyes scanned the grand expanse of the sky and I thought to myself, “wow…it looks just like a planetarium.”
Something tells me that's not how it's supposed to go.

Also, if you are interested in learning more about the time I didn't go to Sri Lanka, check out my friend Virginia's blog. I tried and didn't have the emotional stamina to relive the whole experience in writing so I'm especially grateful someone else did. Because this is a story to be told.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Lately I find myself leaving school with a particular flavor of exhaustion. The more time I spend at Kitini School, the more I recognize that I cannot fix everything. Which might seem obvious, but if you have met me perhaps you will understand how this hurts me. I care deeply about my students wherever I am. It’s what motivates me and what makes me so emotionally vulnerable. I love what I do because teaching is such an intrinsic part of who I am. But that also means that when work is hard I feel it deep in my bones.
Right now, work is hard.

I want all of my students to be able to write their full names with js and gs and ys that drop below the line. And I know that if I had infinite time with each of them I could make it happen, but I don’t.

I want the tests to actually measure students’ ability to read, write, speak, and listen. Rather than whether or not they have memorized the questions and can regurgitate minute details from a story we read in October. And I just spent four years learning how to write appropriate and meaningful assessments; it’s one of the things that I love most about teaching because it creates a tangible way to go to a student and say “Wow! Look how much you’ve grown!” But I don’t make the exams; they come from a Nepali organization and go to all the schools in the district. Kind of like MEAP tests or PSSAs except they’re the only form of assessment.

I want to stop everything and work with my third grade girls who still don’t have any idea what sounds the letters make. But then what will the other students do? And what about all the other struggling students in all the other grades? Who will drop everything to tell them that they still matter even if they can’t read and that they’re not stupid and that they can learn to be just as good as everybody else?

I want the key to the library to stay on school grounds because I hate that if the teacher with the key is absent then no one can access the resources that other schools can only dream of.

I want my co-teachers to talk to me. To tell me what they like about the way I teach and what they think is silly and what they will never ever use after I leave. I want to ask them questions and I want them to ask me questions. I want them to come to class or not come to class, I just want to stop living in this strange limbo land where I never know how much to plan.

I want to know the words to say in Nepali when I walk into a classroom and find a student crumpled in his/her chair with tears dripping onto the floor. I want to know how to ask if they’re hurt or sad or hungry. I want to know enough to understand when they finally blubber out a response.

I want to be able to communicate to the kid, who hit the grade one student so hard, that his behavior is not okay without making him feel like he himself is horrible.

I want my girls to grow up in a world where their teachers and principals don’t hit them. Because if every male authority figure you encounter beats you, even once, why would it even occur to you that it’s not okay for your boyfriend or your husband to do that too.

I want the things that I learned in college to apply in this context. I want to have a team of colleagues, administrators, and specialists who I can call upon to cooperate and bring so-and-so up to grade level because I’d hate to see him/her drop out at the end of third grade.

It’s hard right now because I want all of these things from the most well-intentioned part me, but the more time I spend at Kitini School, the more I understand why things exist the way they do. And when you start to understand something it becomes harder to wish it away.

I now know how little teachers are paid; probably not enough to even compensate for the work they are doing let alone the work I think they should be doing. I now know that the decision to cancel school at 1:00 instead of 4:00 is far more complex than I could have ever imagined; weighing political factors, policy decisions, economics, and even physical safety threats. In America, the culture drives people to create change and make progress, and I now see the consequences (positive and negative) of a society with different priorities.

This casserole of wishes and realities, this complicated mess of life, is forcing me to let go of my illusions. Which is good because it means that I am beginning to grasp the arrogance of what I hoped to accomplish in eight months as an ETA. But it’s also deeply painful because letting go of what I want for myself includes letting go of things I want for my students. I want the world for them, but my time and my resources are so much smaller than the universe.

So where do I go from here? How do I choose where to invest what I do have to offer? Do I choose the student most likely to succeed in hopes that they’ll pay it forward one day? Do I choose the students who nobody thinks will succeed and swallow the reality that they still might drop out next month? Do I stick with the whole class just to be an example of an adult who follows through or do I drop my classes and switch to intensive small group work? Do I pursue the goals I originally set for creating sustainable change in teachers and administrators or do I focus on making my last six weeks unforgettable for my students?

The teacher voice in my head says “those are great questions!” But the actual me wishes I also had some really great answers. Fortunately winter break is fast approaching and with it comes my American family! Perhaps I’ll become enlightened somewhere between trekking to Poon Hill and riding elephants in the terai ;)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What Teachers Want

Teachers want
Less standardized testing
Smaller class sizes
More engaging in-service days
More appreciation
More leveled books
Less paperwork
Cuter classroom decorations

In America

I hope they get the chance to take risks and try new things without fear of falling test scores, job insecurity, and budget cuts. I hope different styles of teaching gain recognition like different styles of learning so that all teachers can succeed in a field where 50% leave within their first five years.


In Cameroon

Teachers want
Practical training instead of theories from the 1950’s
Enough textbooks for every child
Math manipulatives

I hope they get a stable and honest government with a commitment to equally distributing materials and appropriately allocating resources. I hope they get opportunities for professional development. I hope they get a sense of satisfaction for doing so much with so little.

In Nepal

Teachers want
Smarter students
More consistent attendance
More time to finish the book
To sit in the sun

I hope they start setting goals and creating solutions more often than sitting back and asking “ke garne?” I hope they get support rather than empty resolutions on “continuous assessment” or “differentiated instruction.” I hope the ones who go above and beyond get rewarded; they deserve it.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Top Ten Treasured Photographs

It’s hard to believe that by the end of this week I will have been in Nepal for over five months. My one semester commitment to Reach the World has ended when I sent it my last article at the beginning of December. I knew it would be impossible to summarize all of my experiences in a coherent way, so I decided to write my farewell to my RTW students with a top ten list of my most treasured photographs so far. I’m not done writing, but I thought the pictures and the comments were worth sharing. (Especially since I haven’t been very consistent in my postings lately.) Some of the pictures have already made an appearance here, but I think some are new.

As written for my Reach the World students…
1) Time to Fly: this picture was taken at an old stone temple that sits atop a hill on the edge of the Kathmandu Valley. From the temple you can watch the morning fog roll across the entire city and then dissolve like sugar in a cup of hot Nepali tea. Religion, in many different forms, is an essential part of Nepali culture. The way the birds are frozen in mid-air in the picture reminds me of the way that religion forces people to stop, to reflect on their lives, and to enjoy a moment of peace.

2) Camaraderie: the people whose outlines you see in this photo are my friends. I didn’t know any of them before coming to Nepal, and if I hadn’t accepted the opportunity to teach English here I probably would never have met them. Sharing this wonderful experience with such friendly, funny and generous people has made my time in Nepal even richer.


3) Dance Like No One’s Watching: I took this picture during a celebration at a local school. I’m not sure who started it, but soon a circle had formed and students where showing off their coolest moves. Teachers and students alike gathered around to cheer. This particular kid was pretty shy at first. He acted like he didn’t know what to do, until someone started playing music and he went crazy.  No matter where you are it’s important to embrace the current moment, be spontaneous, and have fun.


4) Untitled: I love this photo because when I saw it, I felt like I had walked into a postcard. I love travelling because this feeling happens to me all the time. When you are surrounded by things you know it is easy to ignore the beauty that exists all around. Arriving someplace new invites you to open your eyes and marvel at your surroundings. Even if it’s just a flower or a wall or the sky.


5) Tika: one of the hardest parts of leaving home is spending time away from friends and family that you love. But by investing in the community and building relationships with local people I have often found myself absorbed into a new kind of family. I can’t just say “mom” anymore because I have to specify if I am talking about my Nepali aama or my American mom. This picture was taken during Dashain and it will always remind me how graciously my host family accepted me as part of their family.



6) Desk at Dusk: when I return to America, I probably won’t miss the loadshedding schedule and the inconvenience of living without electricity for several hours each day. I hope that my experience will remind me not to take things like electricity and clean water, straight from the tap, for granted anymore. However, I also hope that I will never forget how simple it was to adjust to living without. I hope that I won’t become so easily frustrated my life it’s as convenient as I might have wanted. I hope that I will be patient and grateful.


7) Mero Bidhyaarthiharu (My Students): since I am teaching English in Nepal, my student are a huge part of my experience. I treasure their shouts of “good morning miss!” on my way to school, and I even smile at their snotty noses or dirt stained uniforms. I love them on the days they listen and I love them on the days when they spend the whole class misbehaving. I am almost positive they are teaching me more than I could ever teach them.


8) Strength: living in Nepal it is hard to look around without seeing someone carrying something with a strap around their forehead. I have seen women carrying bundles of hay or other crops larger than their bodies. I have watched men stride down the road with full entertainment center cabinets like it was nothing. I struggle to keep my jaw from dropping open when I pass someone with a basket full of bricks or cement, and I constantly wonder how their neck can support such a heavy load. Living in Nepal I am surrounded by examples of intense physical labor every day. I continue to be awed by the strength and perseverance each of these individuals display.
9) In the Kitchen: in all of my travels abroad I have learned how the process of preparing food can bring people together. You don’t have to speak the language, you don’t have to know the recipe. All you need is a willingness to get your hands dirty. The need to prepare, to eat, and to clean creates an international language that can be understood even when so much is lost in translation. And if you can master a dish or two, it will make for a delicious reminder of that particular place no matter where your further travels lead you.


10) Himalaya: a photographic summary of Nepal simply wouldn’t be complete without these resplendent mountains. They stand mighty bold like an impassable fortress, but then disappear behind the clouds like magicians. They are beautiful and imposing in a way that is difficult to express in words. I was never someone who was big on “nature,” but if you ever get the chance to visit this mountain range in person I urge you to take advantage of it.