Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Minister, Culture & Teaching


It was way back in college when, during one of my required education courses, we discussed our teaching in terms of what is explicitly taught and what is implicitly taught in the classroom. In other words, when I am teaching students there is a set of objectives or standards I want them to master by the end of the day, but while I set out to teach those, I unintentionally teach them ways of acting, ways of receiving information, ways of responding, and other not-so-concrete ideas that come from my culture, what I have learned and what I deem to be effective.

Last week, when Tonga 77 had our in-service training, 'Ana Maui Taufe'ulungaki, the Minister of Education spoke to us about our task as teachers in Tongan schools. She spoke passionately about education and her connection to the Peace Corps - she is still close to a member of Peace Corps Tonga 1 (as in, the very first group of volunteers to come to Tonga back in the 1960's), but was also extremely honest. So far in Tonga, many people have talked about how I am going to help my students to learn English and that it will open doors and I will make a huge (and positive) difference. And how anything I bring to the school will be a great. Now I'm not saying that the Minister didn't say these things, however she also reminded us that the task isn't that easy. Here are some bits that I took away from her talk:

She stressed the importance of literacy education and that the current system is failing the students. Why is it failing them? Because learning a new language isn't just about learning a new language... it's a process. With this process comes cultural baggage and values ("liberal and western") that are imparted onto the students as well. This is where conflict arrises. Not only do students have to navigate a new language, but they have to come to understand a set of values and ways of thinking that are drastically different than what they know. While some could argue that liberal and western views concentrate on the "rights of individuals", so much of Tongan society is based on the importance of relationships. Wealth in Tonga isn't about the amount of money people have, but the scope and depth of the relationships they form (and not just with family members). These relationships provide mutual support for every member of Tongan culture. The Minister questioned what values Tongan schools are promoting and cautioned that these values should be balanced between Western and Tongan ideals. In order for Tongans to "take charge of their destiny" learning must first be rooted in Tongan culture. Taufe'ulungaki spoke of the Tree of Opportunity and the roots are in students' first culture. From there people grow and go in different directions, like branches. According to the Minister, Tongan culture seems to be disappearing from schools. And that it is our job (as well as the job of other Tongan educators) to make sure that this doesn't happen.

----- So what do I do with this information? ---

I came to Tonga with loads of ideas about what I think best teaching practices are. But also excited to learn from the teachers and experts that I will be working with. I know that not every class responds the same way. Each classroom and child are unique, but how do I know if I am doing this teaching thing right? How can I - Ms. Western-MiddleClass-America make sure that Tongan students are not forgetting about their own culture? What parts of Tongan culture are taught (implicitly or explicitly) in the classroom and how can I support that teaching? How do I know if I'm imparting too many of my Western values on these students? What are my Western/Liberal values? What is the balance?

I've got a lot of work to do.

I know one thing is for sure - I will continue building relationships with my students and community members, encourage them to do the same and continue to learn about what's important to them and what Tongan culture includes. You have to start somewhere.


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