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Education students teach internationally

April 11, 2008

Education students teach internationally

In January 2008, nine education students began their student teaching experience in Windhoek, Namibia, and returned to campus in the spring to complete the experience at Tacoma schools.

The student teachers worked for six weeks in three Windhoek primary schools, which were some of the poorest in the area. It was the first time PLU offered the study-away experience.

Primary schools in Namibian include first through eighth grades, and the school day runs from about 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. There are typically 40 students in a class, and overcrowding is an issue. Many students are orphans and care for their younger siblings. Many walked more than five kilometers to school each day.

Resources were scarce. Students had to bring their own pencils. There was a limited paper supply and chalk was hard to find. It was impossible to make hundreds of copies, so the PLU student teachers had to adjust their teaching methods.

Most of the student teachers began teaching immediately, which isn’t typical of the experience in the United States.

“These students did well above what a normal student teacher does,” said Paula Leitz, associate professor of education who organized the study-away experience. “They had to be flexible … they really had to find ways to engage the learners.”

Leitz developed the program over two years, finalizing the details during her sabbatical last year. With the heavy credit load, it’s difficult for students in the education program to study away. However, research shows a profound impact on a student’s self-efficacy and cultural competence when they work in an international school, she said.

“It’s transformative,” she said of the experience. “You’re very much aware of your perspective and other people’s perspective, and you know how to teach to those.”

The Republic of Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990. While the constitution guarantees free, quality education for all, the education system is only 18 years old and doesn’t reflect that ideal yet, Leitz said. Traditions are hanging on, and students still wear uniforms and pay to go to school.

“They have a long way to go, but they’ve made great gains in a short period of time,” said senior Heather Miles.

The PLU student teachers were faced with challenges every day, but they also affected their cooperating teachers. For example, corporal punishment is still used for discipline. The PLU students demonstrated other tactics for handling similar situations, and the Namibian teachers started using those strategies, Miles said.

“The coolest thing was their willingness and desire to want to change and move away from it (corporal punishment),” added senior Ashley Aylett. “They just don’t know how … they need guidance.”

The PLU students returned to campus in February and were placed in elementary school classrooms to finish their student teaching requirements. Returning was difficult for some and brought the differences between the two education systems into sharp relief.

“The longer I’m here, the more I realize how I’ve been impacted,” said senior JoAnne Thaves. “I appreciate what we have, but at the same time, I realize it’s just stuff.”

Her time in Namibia showed it’s the relationships with her colleagues and students that are really important, Thaves said.

“I learned about being culturally sensitive and culturally competent,” Miles said. “I didn’t know or understand why it was important before.

“In Africa, I realized how significant it is,” she continued. “I see things, notice things about my students now and how to reach, how to relate to them better.”

Learn more about the School of Education and Movement Studies at its Web site.