Keynote address delivered at my fellow Fellow’s English language and literature conference at Uganda Christian University (Mukono, Uganda), 28 May 2015. Inspired by another friend, my dear MT.
Conference-goers and the verdant window
Good morning, it’s a pleasure to be with you on this beautiful day. As the first speaker for this conference, I suppose it is my job to launch the festivities and begin the work of calling you to think about what you teach and how you teach it.
So, I will begin with a question.
What do you believe?
We are gathered at a university named Uganda Christian University, so perhaps you will think this is a question about religious beliefs. I’m not here to separate this group between Christian and Muslim, Catholic and Protestant, Evangelical or Methodist.
For some, this question is a personal one. I have found during my time in Rwanda that asking this is far more normal that for Americans, where beliefs, especially those of the religious variety, are held close to the chest and reserved for the time in a relationship or friendship when you know the other person well enough not to offend them. Here, I am asked this often. What is your religion? Maybe East Africans are more comfortable discussing their religion, so let’s transition to a similar idea: belief.
Belief- what does that mean? Sometimes these words that we use so often can be the hardest to define. What you believe, again in the religious context, might be strongly guided by the orthodoxy of your religious group. Outside of religion, what is belief? I have attempted to give a definition here, just a few words: what we believe, what we think, what we do. For me, I see belief as the intersection of knowledge and experience. What we know is married to what we have experienced, just as for teachers: our book learning and academic inquiry, a two-dimensional mental exercise, combine with what we have seen and done in our three-dimensional classrooms. This, then, is what we believe.
In the United States, on public radio and through a website, a nonprofit organization, committed to storytelling, asks this question everyday. People write their responses, some of which are recorded and posted online or played over the NPR radio waves. Other essays are published in written form. Everyone is asked to write and speak to the same topic: “This I Believe.”
I became interested in this project several years back when a friend and colleague introduced it to me. Answers varied widely, as you can imagine. Bill Gates, brainchild behind Microsoft, wrote about creativity and what he believes about its importance to technology. Another man, anonymous simply due to his lack of fame, wrote about how he believed you should be kind to the man delivering your pizza.
But as I thought of this keynote, and what to present, I cycled back to those essays. What do I believe. I am a teacher: this I believe. But what do I believe? Beyond my long years of study, the thousands of pages of theory digested in my graduate teaching program, what do I believe for myself? And so, I asked myself to finish the thought, this I believe. As teachers, maybe we don’t often think about our beliefs about our work. Is teaching a job? A career? A craft? What do I believe about education, learning, and my purpose?
Maybe nothing I say today will be particularly groundbreaking or original, but it represents my beliefs about my work. So, here I present my answer. In my examination of myself, and who I am as a teacher, I settled upon four responses.
I believe in potential.
First, I believe in potential. Potential is broad. My students’ potential to learn and gain knowledge and overcome the challenges of their own situations. My own potential to continue to learn from my students, my colleagues, my continued study and academic inquiry.
Potential represents what is possible. When we look out at our classrooms full of students, do we see potential, or do we see already existing failure? Have we already decided that our students can’t perform, can’t meet the standards of what we expect, can’t pass their courses? Do we allow them to rise to their potential?
But potential is not a guarantee: we must still work toward something, we must commit and work hard and apply ourselves. Potential is a distant location and the road to reach it. We can have potential, but it’s no free ride. I believe all students have potential, even the ones who seem to have already failed out. Even the ones coming from poverty, rising from illiteracy, from broken homes or violence. Malala Yousevsi survived violence, attacked by those attempting to curtail her potential and the potential of young women in Pakistan, but in vain. She still stands and speaks today, a powerful symbol for the potential of a driven young person.
I believe in vulnerability.
When I was younger, I came to believe that vulnerability was a deficit, that those in authority should appear always strong and always correct. Critique of a leader was always negative, undermining their authority. As a teacher, though, I do not believe this. I believe in vulnerability. I believe that we are allowed to make mistakes and we do not have to be examples of perfection. I believe our students can see us make mistakes, they can see us fumble to find the answer to the question. We are allowed to be human, and we are allowed to show that we are human.
As a language teacher, this vulnerability can be the key to connect with students, to help them open up and try the language that they are learning. When they see that I make errors, sometimes confuse verb tenses or can’t give an answer to a question, they don’t lose respect for me, but realize that the learning of language is a process, and a life-long one that even native speakers haven’t completed 100%.
As teachers, it’s refreshing to be vulnerable. Imagine what you students will do if you admit that you don’t know everything, that you don’t do everything correctly. Will they decide that you are an unfit teacher? Or will it help them cope with their own failures and shortcomings? I believe the later is true. I believe it can instill in them the belief that mistakes can be opportunities to learn and to grow. So, I challenge you: be vulnerable.
I believe in social justice.
I believe in social justice, that our world is a place that is fundamentally unjust and all people must work to correct this balance. And I believe that teaching, and learning, has the possibility to either continue injustice or break from it. What are we teaching? Are we teaching our students to be passive containers of knowledge, to accept the way that things are, to never challenge or as why? Education can be used as a tool for evil, as we have seen throughout history. It can be used to teach people to hate. I come to you from my work in Rwanda, a country where education functioned as an indoctrination tool, dividing the country into Hutus and Tutsis and teaching them to hate and revile each other, culminating in the genocide of 1994. Education played a terrible role there, with teachers and textbooks perpetuating and encouraging racial violence.
But I believe that the classroom, and the learning experience, should do the opposite: it should make communities and countries more just. We have the potential as educators to create a microcosm of society in the walls of our classrooms, to teach tolerance of opposing opinions when students debate. We can help them see the value of differences, just as students of different religions, colors, and beliefs populate our rooms. We can teach them to stand up for those who do not have a voice, to advocate for the silent.
When we teach language, we have the capability to teach them to express themselves and participate in this larger language group. Language, especially in East Africa with speaking English or French, allows not only participation in the economic community but the globalized knowledge community. When you speak English, you can advocate and educate others about your group and your experience. This is the power of language with social justice, and maybe we need to be reminded of this more often. I believe that we have the potential to be educators for social justice, or the opposite- but I hope for the former.
I believe in transformation.
Transformation, I would argue, is the final stage of potential, when potential is realized, followed, made alive. So, finally, I believe in transformation. I believe that the experience of education can transform lives. In my own life, it was my university education that sparked something within me, a genuine desire to never stop learning. And even for me, it didn’t begin until I was 20. This spark can happen any time – your primary students, someone in secondary, even university. Education can transform hatred into peace, it can empower voices in places where women and minorities are denied that right. It can offer opportunities previously unavailable; it can bring lasting peace.
I’ve taught for nearly ten years; it was only recently that I completed this activity and saw what I believe. Not how to teach, not what pedagogy I follow, but what characteristics I truly believe as necessary to my work. I would encourage you to do the same.
- Ask yourself and give yourself time to answer
- Check what you write against what you do
- Make this a yearly activity
- Encourage others to do the same
And finally, I will leave you with the words of Jim Henson. “Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” What are the beliefs that make you who you are as a teacher? What will your students, be they kids or adults, remember about you?