Applying her Peace Corps experience at SIT, Akisha Pearman went on to be a US State Department English Language Fellow in Mozambique. Here she reflects on her SIT experiences and presents a compelling, insider’s view of what it means to teach, to listen, and to change. In this email interview, note how she uses her SIT learning in a variety of settings. How different education would be if we all had had teachers like Akisha!
Why did you chose SIT for your graduate education?
I chose SIT because I really appreciated the fact that it valued international and professional experience. I had done the Peace Corps twice, taught in Korea for over a year, and taught in a community college in the US before coming to SIT. I felt like I was a teacher, but didn’t have the qualifications on paper. I knew I was teaching language, but didn’t know the theories behind what I was doing. The experiential learning cycle was my life, it was how I tested theories and made conclusions. SIT gave me a name for it and let me know that it was okay to learn this way. Actually, lots of people do, SIT alumni among them! SIT gave me this as well as giving me a supportive professional community of teachers. Going through such a unique graduate school with a small group of classmates made us that much closer. I made great friends at SIT that I respect as professionals and who are on similar journeys: to find our place in the world and help as many people as we can along the way.
What was the most valuable part of it?
Sometimes I get overwhelmed at how much I am aware of when I teach, but I know in the end it is for the benefit of my students and myself. The most valuable part of my SIT education was actually experiencing the fact that language learning encompasses much more than just teacher and student in the classroom. Being a beginning language learner (Thai) during my SIT coursework made me go back to when I learned to speak my first language, which was English. How did it feel to learn how to read again? Those Thai numbers looked like pretty pictures but by the end of a week I was starting to associate numbers with them and was able to play games and have fun. How did I feel as a student in a language classroom? What was affecting my participation? (Man! That girl next to me keeps answering questions out loud. Am I really slow or is she just annoying?) This two-week class helped open my eyes to the many components of a language classroom – from the teacher and students themselves, to how each was raised, their learning styles, to the structure and style of activities, energy of the teacher and students, to the mood everyone was in that day.
What was the first teaching job you had after you left SIT?
After finishing my coursework at SIT, I stayed on campus as a resident advisor for the summer and worked on my portfolio. I have always had a heart for service, so after finishing it I wanted a position that would allow me to really impact people and would let me put everything I learned at SIT into practice. Long story short, I lucked into a hard-to-fill, State Department-sponsored, English Language Fellowship in Mozambique. I had done the Peace Corps there a few years before so I welcomed the opportunity to go back and help some more—this time more prepared.
I was placed at a small tourism college in a beach town and really tried to show students that English is alive and kicking and is right outside their dorm room door. My theme was a quote from Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” I hoped to use it for every project I developed and executed. Not all solutions are appropriate for every context so I thought that I could work together with my host country colleagues to find the best solutions.
I have reflected and reflected and reflected about this statement since I first found it. Change in Mozambique is very slow to come—it does show up every once in a while, but it does take a lot of patience and a capacity to celebrate small victories. Mozambicans want change very much and know what to ask for but the logistics to get there become a tangled web and this is where I often found myself during my first year as a fellow. I had to constantly remind myself to start building from the reality that exists, use locally available resources, and make sure I always came prepared and on time. The participants, students, or recipients of my help had their own choices whether or not to take advantage of what I was offering. This resulted in uncertain predictions of the number of students I could count on or how many teachers to expect at a workshop. I had to start questioning what my impact would actually be and what exactly impact consists of. In the end, I found that relationships are the largest part of being a fellow. Encouraging, initiating, and developing relationships between the US Embassy, the University and other Universities, and other NGOs and organizations was also part of my job. This is yet another lesson that teaching isn’t just about teaching, but a lot more.
What are your career goals and how have they been influenced by SIT?
One thing that I still remember from SIT was our opening at the Grange. We sat in circles and talked about who we were and what we were passionate about. I remember Marshall Brewer, our admissions counselor and later on our classmate, said he was passionate about baking cakes. I left the Grange that day thinking, oh, this is soooo cool, but…what do cakes have to do with anything?!
My own passion is photography in addition to teaching and in the past few years I have integrated it into teaching. I had a photography in English Club in Mozambique to get students learning and speaking English outside the classroom. I had students taking photos and producing short podcasts for tourism promotion. And I presented at a conference in South Africa on using photos in language classrooms for communicative activities. What do cakes have to do with anything? They represent a deep enthusiasm for something that, when employed, is contagious. I have seen Marshall’s cakes and they are so beautiful, but even more fabulous when eaten.
I organized a conference for 150 English teachers in and around my town in Mozambique at a local pedagogical university. One day was full of video sessions in which we watched short films on a variety of teaching subjects and had short discussions afterward. One sentiment that came out of the sessions was that what was being shown was great but could never be done in Mozambique. Classes are too large and resources too few.
SIT classes helped me practice the art of adaptation. In Approaches to Teaching Second Languages we learned different methods and the principals behind them. We then looked at all of it and defined out own approach as a mixture of many.
Many Mozambican teachers don’t do this, so when they were watching the videos they only saw images of things they could not easily reproduce themselves. It was not my thought to have them look at something impossible to use, rather I wanted them to adapt it. Well, all of this to say that after thinking about the absence of critical thinking and adaptation skills and the fact that I have not yet seen a multilevel, large classroom video shot in Africa, I am thinking about ways to produce one. How powerful would it be to get images of best practices in Africa itself, instead of bringing foreign images into the continent and expecting people to modify it! I am serious about this and really want to see what I can do to accomplish it.
My passion could lead to lots of great things. The key is to keep pushing and trying to figure out how to make those connections I need to get them done.