On October 27, 2002, we arrived in Namibia as Peace Corps volunteers. All we really knew was that Zac was going to teach math and I was going to teach English for the next two years. Zac and I had both graduated from OSU in June 2002; I had my master’s in English secondary education and he had a B.S. in civil engineering. We married one week after graduation, and flew to Namibia four months later. This website is a collection of our letters and photos from our two memorable years in “contrasting beautiful, Namibia.”
The Peace Corps provided us with the following information before our departure:
Upon attaining independence on March 21, 1990, the Government of Namibia began reforming and restructuring the education system to include the rights of individuals to education and to rid itself of all discriminatory provisions practiced by the former apartheid regime. To address these inequalities, the entire education system had to be unified and changed. Against this general background of reform, the government resolved to use English as the medium of instruction to replace Afrikaans. The government appealed to the outside world for assistance in tackling the transition. Since then, education has remained the highest priority for both the Government of Namibia and The Peace Corps.
A 1997 government report revealed that the qualifications of teachers had improved substantially between 1993 and 1997. The biggest improvement has been in the proportion of teachers who have passed grade 12 or a higher level of academic training. Though qualifications are improving in general, secondary education continues to be adversely affected by a shortage of qualified teachers, especially in math, and science. This is due in large part to the fact that before Independence, Science and Mathematics were not taught in most schools. At times this was due to the lack of qualified teachers, but more often because people from certain ethnic groups were not allowed to further their studies in these fields. The supply of teachers in the fields of Math and Science is also influenced by the lack of confidence in use of English, the language in which these subjects are taught and examined.
This project attempts to address the following issues, problems, and needs:
-Conversion of national medium of instruction in Namibian secondary schools from Afrikaans to English.
-Development and implementation of new and more relevant secondary education curriculum, exams and resource materials.
-Addressing the shortage of teachers in subject areas such as English, Math and Science.
-Enhancing knowledge and skills of less qualified secondary teachers of Math, science and English.
-Enhancing the skills of teachers and students in the use of English across the curriculum.
-Enhancing the knowledge of teachers and students in environmental education and HIV/AIDS information by integrating it into English, Math and Science classes.
-Assisting Namibian schools to establish, maintain or upgrade and use new school libraries, labs and other essential educational resources.
-Assisting the education Ministry’s efforts with gender issues, especially in terms of high dropout ratio of females at the secondary level.
Since the opening of the Peace Corps in 1990, more than 350 Volunteers have served in the seven educational regions of Namibia as secondary teachers of mathematics, science and English. There are currently 80 Volunteers serving in the education sector. They are assigned to teach in five of the seven Educational regions of Namibia, working as secondary school teachers, pre-service and in-service teacher trainers, and school and community resource volunteers. The responsibilities of Volunteers in secondary schools are mainly threefold: classroom teaching, peer coaching and resource material development.
You will be assigned to one of the secondary schools in Namibia. Schools at the secondary level range in size from about 300 to 1,000 students and offer instruction in grades 8-12. These schools are located throughout the country, but the heaviest concentration is in the far northern region (formerly called Owamboland) where 53 percent of the student population lives. The Northern region is the most densely populated region of Namibia. Major academic subjects usually offered are Geography, History, Physical Science, Agriculture, Accounting, Math, Economics, Biology, English and Afrikaans. Additionally, students may also choose between Typing and Home Science.
As a Volunteer, you will be under the direct supervision of the principal of the school. The weekly load for teachers can vary, but is usually between 20 and 30 periods. In some schools where there is a grave shortage of teachers, the load can shoot up to 35 periods a week. Each period lasts 40 minutes. As a valued staff member, you will also be nominated to committees that work on various aspects of administering and organizing the school. You may also be called upon to organize extra-mural activities. Your weekly routine can become quite full with the addition of these activities to your teaching duties, preparing lessons, marking homework and grading exams.
The school year is divided into three trimesters; each separated by a two to five week break. Except for the 24 days vacation you earn from The Peace Corps each year, you will be expected to utilize trimester breaks to work on special school-related projects, projects in another sector, to attend Ministry of Education workshops or Peace Corps in-service training events.
Besides your classroom teaching responsibilities, you will have opportunities to enhance your own professional skills as well as those of your Namibian colleagues through formal and informal discussions and working together within schools. The teaching experience (perhaps without qualification) of the Namibian staff, coupled with the subject expertise that you bring represents a rich, mutual learning opportunity. The peer-coaching role of a Volunteer includes working with co-teachers, subject heads and headmasters at your school in developing teaching and learning resources, utilizing both locally available materials and appropriate external resources.
This assignment will require a high level of motivation, initiative, and patience. It will also require a certain level of confidence in your abilities, an enthusiasm for working with students of different age groups (which may vary from 14-25 years old), and adults (co-teachers), as well as a good deal of creativity and flexibility. Volunteers assigned to one of the secondary schools will find themselves working on providing students with technical skills, and teachers with the professional insight, skills, and subject knowledge required to promote the principles of a learner-centered approach, focusing on interactive teaching and learning. The Namibian education system also includes the promotion of social responsibility, gender awareness, respect of cultural values, environmental awareness, national reconciliation, and the use of the national language, English, as the medium of instruction.
While the Ministry of Basic Education, Sport and Culture will continue to have a critical need for trained teachers at all levels within the system, the Ministry wishes to maximize the potential spin-off effect from the use of Volunteers. A major goal of the government is to integrate English across the curriculum, thus, all Volunteers must be prepared to learn to teach English. Additionally, Volunteers are often viewed as subject resources, whose command of the subject matter complements the practical teaching experience of their co-teachers. Further, about 30 schools offer computer studies as an examination subject. Additional schools may have one or more computers for administrators and teachers, and may expect a volunteer to help train teachers and learners how to use a computer.
Activities or projects outside of your primary work are known as secondary projects, and can be a great opportunity for you to use other skills or focus on personal interests. Secondary projects are ideally low- or no-cost endeavors that help communities to address their most pressing developmental needs.
Volunteers often embark on secondary activities that may link school and community resources, or which produce more immediately tangible results. Because you will live and work within the immediate environs of the school, you will be able to engage the participation and contributions of community members in such activities. Volunteers have accessed many types of local and external support to help schools establish or upgrade school/community libraries, laboratories and create an environment conducive to learning.
In any secondary project, keep in mind that the principle goal is to develop the community’s capacity to implement such projects themselves and, thus, develop self-reliant and sustainable skills. Project ideas and strategies for encouraging community participation will be discussed during your pre- and in-service training.
Class sizes are often large, often with 50-65 students per class. Namibia, however, has a high dropout rate, which usually increases exponentially in the higher grades. As a result, Volunteers may find themselves teaching relatively small classes in grades 11 and 12, where the classes in grades 8, 9, and 10 were much larger.
Overall, teachers in Namibia have a variety of material, institutional and human resources at their disposal. What resources are available at a given school, however, greatly varies. Unfortunately, some Volunteers may find that their school buildings and facilities are inadequate, and books and resource materials are lacking. Schools that offer science and math in most rural areas are poorly equipped and thus, concentrate on theoretical aspects only.
Location of Job
Education Volunteers are placed in schools throughout Namibia in most regions of the country. Teacher are placed in both towns and rural schools.
Although schools have set hours, Volunteers schedules may vary tremendously and may include evening and weekend activities. Your typical work day will be from 7:00 AM to 4:30 PM Monday through Friday.
Cultural Attitudes and Customs in the Workplace
Teachers and principals in schools for black Namibians have traditionally been seen as authorities who are above reproach. Even other professionals who have the potential to assist in school management have traditionally left school affairs to the school. There remains an almost complete separation between school and community development. Aside from the contributions to the school fund, parents play little to no role in their children’s education. Despite the fact that children (referred to in Namibia as “learners”) spend substantial time outside of the school and in the community, few resources are available to support classroom learning. Historically, a teacher-centered approach to education was utilized and learners were not encouraged to question or think critically.
Many schools in Namibia have serious learner discipline problems, due to teachers’ lack of knowledge of alternatives to corporal punishment. The failure and repetition rates in Namibian schools are high and Volunteers may find themselves teaching much older learners than they expected. In addition, principals may not have sufficient managerial skills to provide proper supervision at the Volunteer’s school and/or parental support and supervision of the learners themselves may be almost entirely lacking.
You will be expected to adjust to the high standards set by the Government regarding professionalism and conduct. These include professional attire. You will be expected to be presentable in your appearance. Volunteers often express surprise upon seeing how dressed up teachers are for school and work. “Smart casual” is the accepted attire for Volunteers.
In general, men should bring dress shoes, slacks, ties, and collared shirts. Women should bring nice, comfortable cotton dresses, skirts, and blouses. It is also highly suggested that you bring at least one more formal outfit, as there will be several occasions throughout your tour (including your swearing-in ceremony) for which you will need to dress up. Women tend to dress more formally than men do even on more casual occasions.
Before being sworn-in as a Volunteer, you will participate in an intensive ten-week Community Based Training program. Your training will be composed of several parts: technical, language/cross-culture, health maintenance, safety and security, and the role of the Volunteer in development. The bulk of the training addresses developing and adapting technical skills and acquiring a required level of language skills.
During training you will live with individual host families. Facilitators and small groups of trainees meet on a daily basis for intensive sessions. Most training at the community level takes place in trainees’ homes or another place chosen by trainees and facilitator. A wide variety of community members are called upon to cooperate with training activities. Trainees and facilitators are charged with seeking out local people and resources. Community-based activities are supplemented with weekly seminars in which all Volunteers come together at a central location.
Although Volunteers are recruited according to their background and skills, the transition to working effectively and sensitively in another culture necessitates country and subject-specific preparation. The Peace Corps is fortunate to have a two-week long ‘model school’ in the pre-service training. Thus, those who have little or no classroom teaching experience have the opportunity for “real” practice before going it alone, while the already-trained teachers have a chance to test and adapt methods used previously in Namibia.
The second component of the training program is the language/cross-cultural component. Through this component Trainees will develop initial language competencies and the skills necessary for further language acquisition. Formal language lessons, guest speakers and “cultural encounters,” such as local celebrations will complement exercises in observation, participation, adjustment and assimilation. Trainees may also be asked to do individual informal research assignments and report back. Language/cultural facilitators not only teach formal language classes but also serve as cultural and technical guides for the trainees. Namibian languages are socio-linguistically diverse, presenting a particularly exciting learning challenge.
The third component of the training program is the role of the Volunteer in their host country’s development process. During this component, trainees explore different development approaches and techniques, how their own attitudes, values and working styles affect their contribution to development and what we mean when we talk about a “community based” development effort.
Finally, and as importantly, the pre-service training also includes approximately 20 hours of health maintenance. This component consists of personal health care and maintenance lessons, and personal safety policies and procedures.
During your two-year service, you will have other opportunities to strengthen your skills and share your knowledge with other Volunteers and community counterparts. The Peace Corps provides Volunteers with the opportunity to participate in at least three in-service training workshops. The focus of these workshops is often Volunteer driven and based on specific needs such as HIV/AIDS education and awareness.
Your housing is a contribution of the government of Namibia. Housing varies considerably and might be a Western-style cement block house, usually with electricity and running water; an apartment attached to a student boarding facility (hostel); or in the case of more rural junior secondary schools, a room with a local family. As the government has invited assistance from a variety of sources, you may also be asked to share a two-or-three bedroom house with one or two colleagues (either Namibian or volunteers from other countries). Our expectation is that you will have a private bedroom, but remember that there is a shortage of housing for government staff in most areas in Namibia. The Ministry to which you are assigned is responsible for paying your monthly utilities and providing you with basic furniture (such as a bed, fridge, stove, etc).
POTENTIAL CHALLENGES AND REWARDS
You are likely to experience first hand the many racial and ethnic divisions in your communities and may find yourself caught in the middle as you try to serve as a positive force in bringing various groups together for community development efforts. This may result in you not feeling fully accepted into any one part of the community, making your adjustment that much more difficult.
When coming to Namibia, you will need to be prepared for experiencing discriminatory behavior and practices. This discrimination may be targeted at other Namibians or at the Volunteers themselves. Be prepared for the realities of the economic apartheid that still is very much in existence in Namibia. The bottom line is that Namibia will offer you a special challenge which requires an extra amount of flexibility, tolerance, diplomacy, understanding, and positive attitude to overcome. It is, however, a particularly rewarding experience to be a part of the formation of a new democracy and to contribute to the healing process of a nation.
While the Peace Corps has a proven track record of supporting the development of basic education in Namibia, many Namibians’ think that all Volunteers are teachers. The program is young, still growing and establishing itself. This can pose a challenge at times because you will often be called upon to explain your work and presence outside the classroom. On the other hand, Volunteers have been able to exceed the expectations of many of their colleagues who were unaware of the potential.
Another challenge often experienced by Volunteers in the early stages of their service is the seeming lack of community and parental interest and involvement in education. The historical delineation of educational opportunity by race, the lack of formal education in general, and the lack of rewards for education contributes to this phenomenon, and often the true causes are not addressed. However, like with most challenges, Volunteers have found their reward in developing activities that address the root causes of this problem. Volunteers have developed creative ways to work with illiterate parents, raise their confidence levels and institute innovative ways to involve them in school activities.