Not the Same Song and Dance
by Starr Smith, WorldTeach American Samoa volunteer 2015-2016
It has been nearly a month since school finished at Coleman Elementary in Pago Pago, American Samoa, and I am dreaming of doing it all over again. I was so happy to come home and see my family and dog, and yet, I have a homesick feeling for my American Samoa family and friends.
Let’s back up first to where this started. A little over a year ago, I was searching online for positions overseas teaching English when I came across the World Teach website. I had been thinking of South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and China and then I saw an ad for the Marshall Islands which caught my interest. I clicked on the link to the WorldTeach.org website and saw a list of countries where World Teach had a presence. After pouring over the options, I chose American Samoa. There were several reasons: the volunteer fee was low/subsidized, American Samoa is part of the US so less of a language and currency difference, and it was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! How many opportunities are there to spend a year on an island in the Pacific with most of the comforts of home still available? I wanted to teach overseas more for the adventure and experience than for a salary, so I changed course from teaching for a living to teaching for an adventure.
I was the oldest volunteer of our group….by far. At nearly sixty, I had a different background and perspective from the rest of the group. I also had a comfortable pension to augment my stipend and I happily took advantage of that for myself and my students. I was surprised how welcoming and warm my fellow volunteers were during orientation. While we had different tastes, they were supportive and open about learning about each other. We all got along very well and I saw no real friction between any of us, which is saying something, as orientation was like an adult summer camp. We had chores and were responsible for cooking dinner in teams along with cleaning sleeping rooms and bathrooms. Everyone pitched in and conversation during meals was lively.
Our orientation had some great information and some of the typically less-exciting presentations. Our favorite speaker was a Rachel Jennings, who was half Samoan, half Southern belle and 100% real. She gave us the low down on living, teaching and surviving Samoan students in a fun and informative way. We laughed so hard little knowing how real she was. To say that Samoan students are challenging is putting it mildly. I came into this with a background in project management and financial analysis and a one-month TEFL certification as my credentials. My teaching background had been limited to adult business learners and helping my mom out in her classroom so many years ago. My biggest challenge ahead of me was CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT.
Our orientation spent some time on how to manage the classroom. I learned a lot from that and yet, I still was unprepared for my students. If I could do my orientation again, I would pay more attention and take more notes on the tricks and tips they shared and focused on that during my first weeks at my school. Having survived my year and come out in one piece, I want to share some of my ideas that I would use if I was starting over again.
Get a whistle. I finally bought one in April. Half my students loved it, half cringed and covered their ears if I just held it up. You need to get their attention when they are talking to each other…and they do that a lot! Samoan students are as friendly as puppies and about as disciplined. They react well to authority (anybody older than they are) and follow directions and then three minutes later they are playing again. It is better than herding cats as they are much better-natured, and yet they are easily distracted. During my first months, I yelled to get their attention which strains your throat. I only realized how much I was I was yelling after I survived a case of laryngitis and my voice stayed down in a tenor range from all the shouting I was doing over the students’ voices. So, get a whistle to get their attention. Better still, from week one, train them to recognize a pattern of claps to be quiet and listen to the teacher. During orientation, we were taught several techniques and I several that really worked. If I were doing my year over again, I would use more of them and more frequently.
Samoan students do very well with repetition. Daily, I heard the Level 6 math classes start the day chanting the times table from one to ten. I found a poem on the parts of speech that my English class chanted daily for weeks very enthusiastically. Even the non-readers could tell me some of the parts of speech after a while. If you give instruction consistently over time, it sinks in and they know it.
Another thing my Samoan students loved was points. I taught a level 6 Reading class for one quarter and midway through I was struggling to understand why less than half were turning in their homework. In order to assess their progress, I really needed to see their writing and my two homework assignments a week were competing with their chores, church and play time after school. I implemented a reward program based on participation rather than performance. Students got points for turning in homework, showing up to class prepared and on time and doing in class assignments. They lost points for disrupting class or hitting each other. Each week I posted all the students points and highlighted the highest. They really liked seeing their points grow and it did affect the rate of homework completion.
For most of the year, I taught technology. Using laptops and iPads, students practiced typing, using the internet for research, learning MS Word and PowerPoint. I found some free programs for typing, grammar, math, health, science and geography. Each of the programs had some kind of points systems. The students would share their scores when it was good and cover the screen when they got low marks. It was a motivator. Some of my favorite moments was watching the boys on a program called Typist. If they typed a paragraph correctly with no errors, they were dancing in their seats patting themselves on the back and pointing out their score to me and their neighbors. If they got most of the way through and made a mistake, they literally hit themselves on the head over and over. I would laugh and tell them that hitting themselves in not the way to get the information into their heads. Then they would just look at me and grin sheepishly. Boy do I miss those moments.
So Samoan students are a tough group to control and I found myself yelling far too often. Samoan students are also so easy going and even after a tough session, as they left my room, I heard so many of them saying “Thank you, teacher” and “We are sorry, teacher.” During one art class, I must have gotten more than 20 posters praising me and everything about me. What a heady feeling to have so much love and appreciation. I lost track of how many times they told me I was pretty. As a nearly 60-year old woman, who has always been rather plain, it was almost as comical as it was heart-warming.
Now that I am home, 5000 miles from my former home in Pago Pago American Samoa, I have time to appreciate all the wonderful lessons I learned in the last year.
- I can interact and teach young people. They are fun. As a single, childless woman, I was a bit nervous about being around so many young ones. Would I even know the current lingo and handshake? In Samoa, if you are kidding, you immediately say “jokes” at the end of your sentence. We all got trained and would end our sentences with “jokes” if it was funny. I also learned about the game of “Ish”, which is a fast paced version of “Rock/Paper/Scissor”
- I can survive the heat and humidity. As long as I have a fan pointing at me when I sleep. It is hot there. Even the students wilt during the summer there, January through March.
- I can survive with little to slow internet. It is hard, very hard, especially when teaching technology and the WIFI is down. Switch to the typing games students! “No YouTube” became my most common instruction. Students continued to sneak onto YouTube and other students continued to tell on them. We had such a slim amount of WIFI in our room that any bandwidth hogs like video streaming would crash the net. I was very lucky though as most of the other volunteers had no WIFI at all in their classrooms.
- I can dance Samoan! At nearly every event, there would be Siva Samoa, a dance where one person would be the object of a lot of cash throwing. I was the guest dancer at one of the end of school dinners and received the princely sum of $21. Normally, the cash was collected for some kind of fundraiser for the school, but I got to keep my money. Does that make me a professional dancer?
- I can make a difference. I know this not only from my own opinion and evaluation of my students’ progress, but also because of all the generous praise from my principal, fellow teachers and students. The greatest compliments were from those students who asked me to come back next year. I was very fortunate. My principal decided to use my background in technology and gave computer lab, which had been unused the year before. I was able to create a technology program, update their laptops and iPads (never used) and find programs and applications that the students used and enjoyed. For most, it was only an hour a week. For some, who were able to stay after school, it was their research lab, a hang-out zone, a homework resource and a place to work on reading comprehension. Every day, I had students lining up to come in for extra time and disappointed faces when I had to close the lab. My American Samoan friends and family offered me so many wonderful moments. Moments that will be with me forever. I know that there are students who will remember me and the wonderful moments we shared in the computer lab at Coleman Elementary.