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Community Development: why education is more than just a classroom experience


Winston Churchill said, “Where there is great power, there is great responsibility” and this notion is something that plays over in my head as an educator, a leader, and an American. Educators hold the key to opportunities; this is knowledge, and knowledge being synonymous with power, we must realize our impact. Teaching is so much more than a classroom experience; it lays the foundation upon which our students grow. This is where we must become aware of our responsibilities to those who look to us for guidance. This is where a teacher blurs the line from educator to community developer.

Learn to teach, teach to learn

In the US we receive opportunities that do not exist for many people around the world. A middle class American student can apply for college and loans to achieve most of what they set out to do. We can complete training courses and certifications stating that we are masters of our craft. But anyone who has taught inside the classroom knows that nothing in a textbook or a test can prepare us for the real experience. This is where we grow as educators, as people, learning how to tackle new challenges each day. Teaching abroad can be especially challenging, but for me, it was my call to action.

As I developed my TESOL skills through online accreditation courses, a Masters degree in Education with an emphasis in ESOL, it has been the real life experiences that influenced my teaching style. I faced extreme challenges in rural villages outside of Yangon where education was a gift, a ray of light in what many would look at as an unfortunate situation. These students were some of the most passionate children I ever encountered. Though they faced challenges I could not ever imagined confronting, smiles beamed from their faces with each new task. I learned how to adapt my teaching to assign tasks that were relevant and meaningful to their lives. In Cambodia where opening a restaurant or selling food to tourists could benefit a person studying English, we focused our lessons on food, not American cuisine but local cuisine and how it could be marketed toward a foreigner. In Myanmar where we taught university students, we connected through song bringing in elements of popular culture to relate when there was almost no common ground between language and culture. In Thailand we went on nature walks and field trips to local business to connect the English language to everyday interactions that our students encounter; how do they view the world, gaining their perspective on how their community thrives or understanding what problems exist.

Bringing lessons to life

In those lessons from my interactions with people from diverse cultures, I learned that human connection was best aid in teaching. This means total commitment towards another’s success. If I am fully committed to their success then I must be involved in more than just the classroom. I must learn about their culture, family dynamic, values, struggles, hopes, dreams, and fears. I must gain an understanding of why certain behaviors exist, this also involves critical reflection of my own behavior, beliefs, and expectations. Immersing yourself in a culture creates empathy and it is so valuable when we are faced with incredible challenges. Volunteers, teachers, and people who are interested in teaching abroad often ask me for suggestions on lessons and what to do when the students are not interested or motivated; I say try harder, go deeper, keep digging. Find a way to connect their culture to yours. Take the lesson outside or bring it in; become a part of their community. Walk the local market, each the local cuisine, visit the home of your students, listen, ask questions, make a fool out of yourself; for there are characteristics of the human condition that are not connected to language: humor, compassion, and intrigue.

When you find those connections, as educators you are responsible for building on those strengths. By letting your students know you support their success inside and outside of the classroom, you motivate to become leaders in their own community. You act as a role model to develop the leadership qualities in another, uplifting the community as a whole. When the lesson extend beyond the classroom, you can take on more meaningful projects in the community and with continued focus and dedication this work will connect students with a larger, perhaps global, community. Starting small, we create great changes that are sustainable on local levels.

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