“When you take all the […] paperwork, […] put it on the back-burner and throw out the rulebook; this is where most of the change will come from. [Teachers] are already encumbered by enough paperwork. If we can get real with them, be friends with them, express genuine care and concern first and foremost, they will be more apt to listen to our ideas. The paperwork is necessary as is a deep understanding of the goals, objectives, and principles of our project, but passion and compassion will be the true vehicle for change.”
Paperwork: the crux of teachers’ jobs in educating students. You see it in every sector of almost every developing nation on Earth. From public, to private, to not-for-profit, no one is exempt from this tedious assessment protocol. I understand its importance, even the mild formality it calls upon when tending to the task. However, if you want change, then require some “professional” honesty. Thankfully, honest is something I do not fall short of.
This post is spurred by a recent error on my part as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Peace Corps requires volunteers to document our activities and fulfilled objectives in a formal document known as the tri-annual report. Many people have the notion that Peace Corps is a hippie liberal organization, maybe even a waste of government money, that attempts to enact change through peace. Some of this may hold truth, but we, like every other government organization and education institution in the world, have to tend to the same laborious paperwork to show that we are actually meeting our objectives. See, and some of you thought I was studying abroad for two years while showing up occasionally to volunteer at the local school. That just isn’t the case. There is definite structure and a clear agenda set in place. I overlooked the structure, mistakenly thought this tri-annual report was optional and procrastinated to the point that it was two weeks past due date. I didn’t even realize that there was a due date, so it was news to me when my Program Manager was phoning me to kindly harass me for my data. Obviously, I felt guilty for not recognizing it as a mandatory document so I hopped to it, sending my Thai host family away to trek through a nearby mountain without me. They hung their heads low with a little sense of sorrow, but all-too-well understood the paperwork involved in the career of a teacher, volunteer or not (every grown adult in my immediate Thai family is a well-established and respected Thai teacher).
Five hours into my tri-annual report, just before thinking I was barely to the finish line, I clicked on a tab titled “Tell your Story.” My Thai family had patiently waited four hours for me in hopes of my report’s timely completion. I tried to convince myself that this part, surely IT was optional. I called to check with my Assistant Program Manager and as you figure, this also WAS NOT optional. I sent the family away for good, promising to catch a ride with my cousin later in the evening. As I heard the screen door shut with finality, I pulled my notebook close and hunkered down with intense focus. No wonder I thought the tab optional, it was a large blank box with a blinking cursor that growled at me with formality. I worked through each tab assiduously until coming to my favorite tab of all: Lessons Learned. Even as I write this now, I chuckle to myself.
Here you have a creative writing major with a penchant to dismiss rigid formality and a large blank screen to express whatever I’d like in whatever format I see fit titled “Lessons Learned.” Certainly that is what a blank space says to me. Boy, where do I start? After carefully reviewing the legal statement at the beginning of opening the program which reads:
All activity, communication, and information on this system may be monitored, recorded, read, copied, retrieved, and disclosed by and to authorized personnel for official purposes, including criminal investigation. [However,] there is no right of privacy with regards to communication, activity, information stored within this system, including information stored locally on a hard drive or other peripheral media in use with this system (Peace Corps VRT Main Warning),
I concluded that because there is no right of privacy, and the ideas and opinions expressed are mine, and mine alone, without reflection of Peace Corps ideals or direct representation of the Thai government it would be perfectly acceptable for me to share the following golden nuggets of lessons learned nine months into Peace Corps Thailand. Legal jargon aside, and contrary to the scary introduction, I have positive things to report. The following words, jovial sarcasm and all, are the exact words I reported to Peace Corps Washington.
1. Forget about work with the first foot you step in the door. It’s all about becoming friends with people in the community before you ever try to discuss something as serious as work. Thais are much more concerned whether you have eaten or not than whether your 4Mat lesson plan has been started.
2. Just when you think you’re integrated enough to show a little skin above that bony part of your knee one hot afternoon, you’re wrong. Thai grandmothers and extended family members will gasp at your white knees and knock you back to cultural integration square one.
3. Just because Thai people have a relaxed and laid back work attitude, does not mean that you conforming to the same standards are going to apply. They view you as a vehicle of change and even a tiny part of them expects you to constantly be pondering ideas and contributing in a large way. It’s a struggle to balance the cultural lesson with the Peace Corps service lesson.
4. Most of the community needs are not community wants. They may need a youth development program [over]haul, but they may want something as small as a simple talk at a school one afternoon about drug prevention. I am realizing that part of my job is to help these communities think bigger, think more innovatively to carry out some hidden needs they may not recognize.
5. Smiling is over 70% of my job. Genuine smiling, genuine happiness. It has allowed me to enact change, share positive cultural exchange, and produce any of the productivity I have managed to do so, to date.
6. When you take all the Peace Corps paperwork, completely put it on the back-burner and throw out the rulebook; this is where most of the change will come from. Thais are already encumbered by enough paperwork as is. If we can get real with them, be friends with them, express genuine care and concern first and foremost, they will be more apt to listen to our ideas. The paperwork is necessary as is a deep understanding of the goals, objectives, and principles of our project, but passion and compassion will be the true vehicle for change.
7. I could go on and on about lessons learned about myself, but what fun would that be for my second tri-annual report? Stay tuned for lessons on personal growth.
Is the paperwork necessary or a insurmountable burden on teachers trying to improve education? As with any great argument, there is more than one side, and I’ll leave you to discuss and decide. Please feel free to post comments and discussions.