November 13, 2014
Since I was a teenager, I dreamed of one day being a math teacher. In Rwanda, of all places, my dream finally became a reality. The class itself began as a student initiative, when some of the older students were researching university opportunities abroad. Realizing that their options were limited without taking the SAT exam, they requested help preparing. The students were told that the SAT exam is difficult even for Americans, who grew up in the education system for which the test was designed. But the kids, always eager to push themselves further, persisted. The Village happily responded by organizing an SAT class, in which another volunteer handles the English sections and I take care of mathematics. So while I was initially hired as an informal educator at Agahozo-Shalom, within a very short amount of time, my responsibilities also included teaching in the classroom.
In many ways, the SAT class complements the math knowledge which the students attain at school. While Rwanda has instituted a number of necessary education reforms over the years, the education system as a whole is still catching up to the west. Schools tend to focus on acquiring information and the memorization of facts, rather than abstract thinking and critical analysis. Even in math classes, the students are taught to regurgitate theorems and equations, sometimes to the point that their exams merely contain problems they have done in class with some of the numbers changed. But to their credit, the kids' understanding of basic concepts and their thirst for knowledge surpass even my own.
The strategies and methods for succeeding on the SAT's, you may recall, are the polar opposite of memorization and spit-back. One needs to be comfortable with abstract problem solving. At first, this scared me. While in a technical sense the students at Agahozo-Shalom have the mathematical background necessary for the exam, I assumed that I'd basically need to start from scratch when it came to the ways in which they approach a problem. Boy was I wrong! Yes, there are still skills and methods which they need to work on, but their zeal to learn, propensity for teamwork, and unwavering determination have made teaching them both exciting and rewarding.
It is the kids' tendency to work together, and the responsibility they have toward one another, which I find most inspiring. Each challenge seems to present a new opportunity for partnership. Even when everyone is not up to speed, they'll take it upon themselves to ensure that no child is left behind. Indeed, this spirit of unity and partnership is the best preparation for the real world. We all bring different skills and perspectives to the table, and nothing worth accomplishing can be done alone. Watching the kids' behavior, both inside and outside of the classroom, gives me hope for the future.
Interestingly enough, Rwanda's education system has also struggled on the opposite end of the spectrum: practical training. With few natural resources compared to elsewhere on the continent, the only real asset the country has is its human capital. The Rwandan government, therefore, has taken the initiative to capitalize on this by making Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) a core component of its national development agenda. The initiative, implemented in a host of specialty schools across the nation, focuses on imparting practical skills, such as construction, plumbing, manufacturing, and mining to the future workforce. As of 2012, about 38% of Rwandan students were enrolled in TVET programs. The enrollment is expected to increase to 60% by 2017.
Agahozo-Shalom in fact, will introduce a TVET track to its high school in the coming years. I couldn't be more excited. While some of my boys here struggle in their academics, many could thrive with an opportunity in the TVET program. For example: my boy Alain. He has both an unparalleled work ethic and a heart of gold, not a bad combination. But while Alain doesn't necessarily struggle in school, he certainly doesn’t stand out for his academic performance either. I vividly remember one of the first days of my carpentry enrichment program. As I began to teach the kids how to use some of the basic tools, Alain started to wander off. Noticing that something was on his mind and assuming that the Village may have been a lot for him, I decided to let him do his own thing. About an hour later, when the other kids could barely cut a piece of wood evenly, I turned around to see that Alain had single-handedly built a chair. I asked him about it and his only response was "this is for Mama." My heart melted. Imagine what this kid, with his skills and kindness in-hand, could become in the global workforce.
I am confident that the student body as a whole will tremendously gain from the introduction of TVET. For now, the students here already benefit from the mandatory Professional Skills program, in which they spend two years studying their choice of information technology, hospitality, or modern agriculture in addition to their studies at school. Thus, Agahozo-Shalom graduates enter the job market with more than just an academic background.
The beauty of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, in its holistic approach to education, is that it strives to give students the opportunity to excel in a variety of different platforms. At school, the kids learn from some of Rwanda's brightest and most talented teachers. The curriculum includes history, math, economics, science, languages, and technology. And extra-curricular activities such as the SAT class and the debate club complement what they learn in the classroom. As the kids get older, programs like TVET and Professional Skills ensure that the kids are ready to be self-sufficient upon graduation. Last but certainly not least, so much of what ASYV has to offer, from traditional dance to chess, volleyball to movie night, exist because life is meant to be experienced and enjoyed, not just carried out. Agahozo-Shalom reminds us, then, that it really does take a village to raise a child.
It's funny to call myself an educator, formal or otherwise, as I often find myself on the receiving end of learning. The SAT class, indeed the Village as a whole, has taught me more than I could have imagined. I have learned that teamwork, in the long run, is the best solution to life's challenges. There is no "one size fits all" approach to problem solving, and creativity should never be stifled. I am experiencing new levels of patience, as well as discovering that dedication and commitment can propel people to unbelievable heights. Finally, I am learning to never underestimate one's potential. Hardships and difficulties are a fact of life, not an indicator of future success.
As the line between teacher and student blurs, I know what it means to truly be part of a learning community.
Submitted by Michael Kasdan, 2014 Village Fellow