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Peace Corps update: making moves with placement!

I’m moving along with the Peace Corps placement and medical process! I’m not medically cleared yet because I had to get a polio shot and send in proof of it, but the placement specialist that has been in contact with me said both my medical and placement reviews will be happening at the same time. Usually nominees don’t hear from placement until a couple of months after they are medically cleared, but it looks like they’re trying to speed up the process for me so I can leave as soon as possible!

My placement specialist asked me to fill out an English teaching questionnaire that is detailed below. Writing these answers really helped me reflect on my year working at Markham Middle School and how much it has prepared me for the Peace Corps. I’m not sure if I would have been ready to go right after college, but now I know I am!

Part of preparing for Peace Corps service is developing realistic expectations of what life is like as a Volunteer, with specific attention to the common challenges Volunteers are likely to face. From what sources and/or experiences have you learned about the realities of life as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV)? If your sources include past or currently serving Peace Corps Volunteers, please indicate so.

After graduating college, I joined City Year, a non-profit AmeriCorps program that places 17-24-year-olds in high need public schools. Corps members serve as tutors and mentors who live on a modest stipend. I made it clear to the City Year staff before we were placed in schools that I wanted a challenge and indeed, I got one. I am currently serving at Markham Middle School in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. I serve in a sixth grade English as a Second Language classroom at Markham Middle School. Markham is one of the hardest and arguably one of the most dangerous schools to work at in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The two miles that span across Watts – a neighborhood that is three quarters Latino and one quarter black – have a high rate of poverty and gang violence. Markham Middle School inherently lacks structure and is underserved. This year is the first time in nine years a principal has returned for a second year; long term substitutes, student violence, and suspensions are a norm; there is a continual lack of resources like paper and ink; teachers are forced to teach to standardized tests; many teachers and administrators reprimand students by screaming at them; and family issues such as incarceration, alcoholism, drug abuse, abuse, and the foster care system are prevalent among our students.

Working in this neighborhood and school has opened my eyes to what it’s like to serve in a low-income area. I see on a daily basis all the problems that can potentially arise from poverty, which has also given me a taste of the reality I might be living in as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a developing country. I have prepared in other ways by reading the work of Peace Corps Volunteers and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers like the Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook and following a recent PCV University of Southern California graduate’s blog who is serving in the business sector in Cameroon. Although she is not teaching English, out of all the Peace Corps blogs I could have followed, I decided to follow hers because I love hearing from someone who went to the same college I went to. She also knows other volunteers I had classes with in college who are serving in Cameroon but do not have blogs. I have also connected with a RPCV through City Year who taught secondary English in the Ukraine. I had the chance to get lunch with her and ask her all the questions I had about Peace Corps service. All of these sources have given me different, yet insightful perspectives about serving with the Peace Corps.

What are the key lessons you have learned from these sources that will help you succeed as a PCV?

After almost completing an academic year serving at Markham Middle School in Watts, the best lesson I have learned is to be patient. Instead of questioning a situation and getting frustrated, I strive to find solutions. I understand that I have no influence on any of the decisions the school administration makes, but I do have some control over the students I am directly working with. I may not be able to change what is happening at home – whether they are being put into foster care or are grieving a lost one – but I can at least change the outcome of their day by being an ear to listen and someone to talk to who cares about them.

My students struggle with academics; almost all of them are at a third grade reading level in the sixth grade and have trouble spelling and writing. I cannot bring them up three grade levels in one year, as I am only one person with many students. Moreover, because my students are so behind in school, they often refuse to do any work because they get frustrated with the sixth grade content. Getting my students to do their classwork takes a lot of patience and time.

Changing the world isn’t as easy as it sounds. Through my City Year experience, I have also learned that service-oriented work is a slow process and outcomes aren’t always evident. All the work I have done with my students inside and outside of class may not show until years from now, which I am at ease with because I know I have put all the effort I can into my English classroom this year. These lessons have prepared me to become a PCV because I know that other countries operate differently than America: Governments might make decisions that surprise me, there may be a lack of urgency in the population and students that I will teach, there may be a lack of resources in the school I will teach in, students may be just as behind as my students, and student progress may not show during my service. Regardless of any of these challenges I may face as a PCV, I know how much building relationships with students and community members is important to at least ensure happiness and to show the community the importance of education. All of these challenges I have faced in America seem similar to some I’ve read about in the Cameroon volunteer blog I’ve been following as well as experiences the RPCV TEFL woman I met through City Year had.

I understand that serving as a Peace Corps volunteer will be different because I will actually be immersed in the community instead of only working there, but I believe my City Year experience is like a stepping stone to the larger challenges that await me with the Peace Corps. There are many outside forces in the world that I know I will not be able to control and that may affect my volunteer work, but what matters is that I will look at anything thrown my way as just another swerve in the road to success like I do at Markham Middle School.

Working in Watts as a Caucasian female has also exposed me to what it’s like to work in a culture that’s different from my own. I get stared at frequently, but I have become accustomed to it. I still feel like I am part of the community because I spend around 60 hours a week in Watts. I know that it may be challenging for me as a white American in some countries because people will believe I am a rich American, which is the feeling I get sometimes when I am walking around Watts. The lesson I have learned from this is that I cannot change the perceptions about me from people I don’t know, but I can change such perceptions with people I do know. If I am getting all the work done that needs to be done, I at least know that I am doing the right thing for the community I am serving. Eventually, I believe that my volunteer work will snowball into changing people’s perceptions about me who may not have interacted with me.

Moreover, as a City Year corps member, we are not only required to create academic lesson plans for our students, but also school-wide events and activities for our after-school, morning and lunch programs. We spend a lot of time working on these activities and have learned the art of multitasking and teamwork. These skills I have honed from City Year will help me succeed as a PCV because I have experience juggling many things as a team player. I will know how to prioritize and use time management toward my teaching and secondary volunteer project to ensure that I will complete both volunteer positions to the best of my ability. Because of the environment I’ve been in for the past year, I’ve grown a lot and have been prepared for the Peace Corps in a way others may have not.

Since you first told your friends and family of your plans to apply for Peace Corps, has their level of support for your decision changed? As the time for a possible departure gets closer, how are they feeling about it? How have you helped them better prepare for the prospect of you going away to Peace Corps?

My friends and family are very supportive of the decision and proud of me. I have wanted to join the Peace Corps since my junior year in college, so my family has had time to adapt to the idea. As time has gone by and I could be potentially leaving soon, they are getting even more excited for me and are spending time with me while they can. I do not worry about such relationships being strained for two years because they are strong and I will always have my family and my childhood friends no matter what.

I have helped my family prepare by showing them the Peace Corps Website to familiarize them with the geographic regions the Peace Corps serve in as well as the FAQs section. We have also connected with people who have traveled throughout places like Africa, the Middle East and Europe to learn about traveling in such regions. I have prepared my friends by making a blog that they can follow if I have access to the Internet. If not, they understand that I may only have access to the Internet once in a while, so they are aware that they won’t be able to talk to me that often.

What are your strengths as an educator?

My strengths as an educator involve seeing my students as people rather than just students there to absorb information, my cheerful and fun personality and my creativity with lesson plans and activities for my students. From tutoring ESL students with City Year for nearly an academic year, I have learned the tricks about working with middle school aged students who speak English as a second language. The students are still at a time in their lives where they are figuring out who they are and still need to be assured their teacher cares about them as young adults and students.

My current sixth grade students know that they can come to me anything. I will always be there to help them and will not give up until I find a solution because I know I am their advocate in a low-performing school like Markham Middle School. I make a point to learn details about my students — their home lives, their friends and their hobbies so I can connect with them. Learning about my students shows them that I really am investing my time in them, so they respect me and are willing to work with me and learn from me. Likewise, I enjoy tailoring lectures and activities to subjects my students are interested in so learning is more fun for them. An example of this would be when I made a memory card game with phonetics and a game where students had to throw a paper airplane and estimate how far it would go then multiply the number by what I told them.

Working in a classroom everyday has shown me how hard it is to implement an effective classroom management system and have the students still respect you as an authority figure. I currently work for two drastically different teachers – one with a very laid-back behavior management plan and one with a strict behavior management plan. I have seen how being nice all the time may not ensure a productive classroom environment because students may take advantage of it. However, the teacher I work for who has a strict behavior management is very effective with her students because she balances strictness with fun and laughter in the classroom. After reprimanding a disrespectful student, she bounces back by making the students laugh through her sense of humor. She demonstrates through her actions that she cares about the students and their education, and in turn they recognize that she is only being strict because she wants them to do well in school. I plan to use my experience as a shadow in her classroom to help me create my classroom management plan and also build the trust of my students. From what I’ve experienced this year, I know students enjoy being around me because I always have a smile on my face, which I plan to continue when I am teaching.

I am also an experienced public speaker and can pronounce my words loudly, effectively and in different tones while teaching. My students do not get bored when I tutor them because I actively engage them in the material by asking questions during lectures or while reading literature and giving them real life examples that relate to what subject they’re studying.

List the top 3 challenges that you expect to encounter as a PCV and discuss how you plan to deal with each.

1. Working in an underserved school.

I understand that working as a TEFL Volunteer may require me to work in a school with inadequate resources – whether that means the school doesn’t have enough classrooms, desks, textbooks or other school supplies. Although one may think that a decent education requires a sustainable and abundance of materials, I can get around not having everything I need by using my creativity. At City Year and Markham Middle School, I was given few resources for tutoring ESL students because City Year trains corps members for regular middle school English classes. Thus, I had to come up with ways to teach phonetics, reading comprehension and spelling to students with a lack of materials. I have created fun games for my students as well as worksheets that addressed what they were having trouble with. If during Peace Corps service I am faced with a similar challenge, I will find a way to teach my students through interactive activities and games, which will get their minds running. If my school needs resources, I will also create a donation project that will hopefully bring extra funding to the school. PCVs are placed in underserved schools for a reason: Because they are passionate and will do what it takes so their students receive a decent education. I will find solutions to the problems I face at my school instead of worry about the problems like I already have done at Markham.

2. Not having access to electronic communication.

I strongly believe in the power of storytelling and take pride in sharing what I’ve seen through my service work with others. As a former journalism student, I value social media and use it everyday; I have a blog that I update weekly on my experience working with City Year and plan to keep updating it during my service with the Peace Corps. However, I know that I may not have access to the Internet – let alone electricity – and have already thought of alternative ways to deal with such a situation. I will write down daily interactions, experiences and stories about people I meet in a notebook that I will keep writing in until I can publish the stories online. If I cannot publish during my service, I plan to write a memoir about my years of service. I also communicate with friends and family daily on social media and get updates on their lives even if I am not always in contact with them. I know it is highly unlikely I will be able to keep this going during my service, so my friends and I are both aware that I may only get to read e-mails every once in a while when I’m either at the main Peace Corps office in my country of service or if I travel to an area with Internet cafes. As a young adult who is so connected to technology like much of my generation, I am actually very excited to experience what it’s like to not have Internet and cell phone service my fingertips because I believe it’s something many of my peers and I take for granted.

3. Assimilating into a different culture and community.

Although I am very easily adaptable to new places and people, I know that is not the same feeling for everyone, especially residents of the community I will serve in. I am open to accepting the different ideas, people and cultures around me, but it may take a while for community members to trust me. I serve with a hard head and soft heart, so after interacting with me and getting used to me I think community members will see this in me and understand that I am there to really help make a difference in the community and care about its members. I believe the success of a PCV requires support from the community, which stems first from building trust. It may be a rough start until I build this trust and support, so I plan to showcase my personality for those around me — kind, caring, passionate, creative and thoughtful — through my daily interactions and actions to allow the community to warm up to me. I have read that PCVs at the beginning of their service may feel isolated for this very reason. However, I think logically about every situation I am in and if I feel this way I will understand that it just takes time and that I am there for a reason. Also, as I’ve mentioned earlier, many countries run a lot differently than America. In America, there’s always a sense of urgency and time sensitivity is a large part of our culture. From reading various PCV blogs, I see that it can be very laid back in other countries and the infrastructure to getting things done varies — the bus won’t leave until it fills up, appointment times aren’t upheld, students do their homework and class work when they get around to it, etc. To deal with any cultural norms about time, I will just have to be patient because if I am not, I will not fit into the community. I have learned a lot about patience through City Year and the Peace Corps application process and now see things in a different light: If it doesn’t happen quickly, it will happen eventually and I just have to keep calm and never doubt it.

What do you contemplate about Peace Corps service? What are you most looking to the most?

City Year requires all of its corps members to write a leadership statement and mine reads: “As a leader, I will learn something new from every single person I meet, tell their stories and experience a culture different from my own. I will use these experiences and my creativity to do something meaningful in the future.” Thus, I am most looking forward to meeting people from another culture and experiencing their lives. I honestly want to learn something from everyone I meet during my Peace Corps service – even if it’s just a simple virtue like being kind.

Hearing about people’s life stories and cultures makes me so happy; I have a passion to tell their stories. I believe every person on this planet has a life story worth hearing and sharing, so I cannot wait to share my experiences and about the people I meet to people back in America. I am also looking forward to teaching English because it is a career choice I have been contemplating for some time.

My students at Markham Middle School are people I will never forget; I cannot wait to meet a new class of students that I know will have the same immense impact on me that my Markham students have had. I anticipate that my experience at Markham and my experience teaching abroad with the Peace Corps will give me enough ideas for a quality secondary volunteer project and service projects after I complete service with the Peace Corps. I am anxiously awaiting the time when I can put together all these puzzle pieces from my service years and use the experiences to somehow address social issues in America and/or abroad through more service projects or working for a non-profit.

In other words, I’m ready to go!!!

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I did leave out one thing in the answer to the family and friend’s question…

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