Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Share Experience

Every year the MAT students come with experience teaching in all types of contexts, both in the U.S. and abroad. The variety in experience makes for a rich, diverse learning environment where everyone in the classroom is a teacher and a learner.

In the following interview, two students reflect on their previous teaching experience in the Peace Corps. Colleen is originally from California although most recently she was living and teaching English in Taiwan.  Colleen is one of the SIT Student Association representatives for the MAT program and is very active in organizing student events on campus.

Geoff is from Virginia. He is proficient in Kyrgyz, German, Spanish, Latin, and some Russian, and greatly contributes to class discussion on language learning from his extensive experience.

In what context did you teach with the Peace Corps?

Colleen: I was a TEFL volunteer assigned to a rural community called São Domingos outside the capital of Praia in Cape Verde. I worked in the local Liseu (High School 7-12th grades) I taught all the Grade 10 EFL classes in my first year and all the grade 11 EFL classes in my second year. My secondary project was to assist my school in constructing a library, which I did in several different ways.

Geoff: I taught in Talas, a provincial capital of 30,000 people. Talas is one of the seven Oblasts (or provinces) of Kyrgyzstan and is located in the northwesternmost part of the country. Kyrgyzstan is a Central Asian country and part of the former Soviet Union.

What is one significant experience from your time in the Peace Corps that has shaped you as a teacher?

Colleen: I can’t point to one specific event during my two years there and say this was what made me the teacher I am today. Rather, I have to look at the whole experience and say, I’m here at SIT because of what I experienced as a teacher in Cape Verde. It’s been more than 5 years since I left Cape Verde and it’s still influencing my view of the world and helping me understand my own role a little better. Knowing that, I’m here at SIT to learn how to be the best teacher I can be, so that my students can have the best education I can give them. Education is the first place where change can be made in the world. I want to be in the classroom, where and when change happens.

Geoff: I think my most significant Peace Corps experience was working with local teachers of English. We collaborated on teacher-training seminars and the writing and publishing of a Teacher’s Resource Book. As much as I enjoyed working with my students, the teacher-training aspect was the most fulfilling and how I felt that I made the greatest impact. The insight that came from the experience is that teachers can all bring something to the table and that, no matter how many years you teach, the greatest asset to a teacher is a curiosity about learning.

How have you applied the experience you got in the Peace Corps to your classes in the MAT program so far?

Colleen: Including my Peace Corps experience I have 8 years of experience in education, in many different settings, coming into the MAT program. Every year has been widely different, and each one has something to teach me. I’m using my experience to shape the context of my learning. Being an experienced teacher means that I know what goes on in a classroom and how the knowledge I’m getting here can be used in the classroom. Mostly, I find myself reflecting on how much more effective I would have been had I known then what I know now.

Geoff: In my SIT classes, I’ve been able to directly share my experiences both from the perspective of an adult language learner of Kyrgyz and as a teacher.

What do you wish you had known about teaching and/or yourself before your started teaching abroad?

Colleen: Before I started teaching, I wish I had known how to teach. I specifically wish I had known how to teach in a multi-level classroom, with no textbook, no photo copy machine, no extra paper or colored markers, and 40 students equipped with tiny notebooks and stubby pencils. I’ve already learned so much that could have been applied to my classrooms in Cape Verde. There’s so much that can be done with very little and if I’m ever given the chance I would return with my newly full teaching toolbox to give the students in Cape Verde a chance to see what I’ve got for them now.

Geoff: It’s hard to narrow down. I had no experience or even the slightest idea of how to teach when I began. My learning curve was steep as I did not know how to structure a lesson plan or how to even present something concisely. To be glib about my answer, everything.

What is your favorite memory at SIT so far?

Colleen: Just as I can’t say that one specific event in my Peace Corps experience has sent me on my road to being a teacher, I can’t say that there is one particularly special moment here at SIT where I have come to a realization about my teaching. Rather, my classmates from all over the world, my teachers with all their combined knowledge, and the setting on a hill in rural Vermont are all pressing themselves into my memory. When I say goodbye to SIT I’ll be saying goodbye to a very important portion of my life, a place where people and experience came together to show me a new path to walk on.

Geoff: Wow, that’s a tough one to answer! I would say that my favorite memory at SIT was a trip that I took hang-gliding with my dormmates. My dorm, Bolton, organized a trip to a school in New Hampshire and we had a really great time there. I would never have gone had we not gone as a group. So that has been my favorite SIT related memory.


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