T. Howell Burke
The Republic of South Africa
5 July 2011
The professional attributes that you plan to use, and what aspirations you hope to fulfill, during your Peace Corps service.
I have had the good fortune to work with students in variety of subjects and environments: I have taught science in the classroom, ballroom dance on the hardwood floor, whitewater kayaking on the river, and natural history on the trail. While teaching in the Republic of South Africa, I will draw on techniques I have picked up for teaching in these diverse circumstances. Undoubtedly I will continue to build my toolkit of teacher techniques and strategies while I am in South Africa, learning from both my American PCV and South African colleagues.
My responsibility as a PCV to facilitate the growth of a communities around schools excites me; I have been fortunate to live and work in learning environments that emphasize such intentional living. In high school and college, I worked as a backcountry facilitator for my schools’ outdoor programs, organizing and leading backpacking, hiking, and whitewater kayaking trips. Each of these programs facilitated the development of group dynamics through common challenges and shared responsibility. (I have found that a healthy dose of fun also helps.) These programs have given me a solid grounding in the theory and practice of working with groups in an outdoor setting. I am eager to deploy these and similar practice in the schools of my host community.
As for my own personal and professional aspirations while in South Africa, I hope to contribute to the learning of the students I work with and help improve the education infrastructure in South Africa. As a middle school teacher, I understand that the full impact of my daily efforts may not be realized for a decade or more. However, seeing the short-term return on the time and energy I have invested in my students has been immensely satisfying. Whether a student gets really excited about a lab we have done in class or they confide in me for personal support or guidance, I have enjoyed the opportunity to work with them on an individual basis and seeing their growth as students and as people.
During my Peace Corps service, I also hope to form close personal and professional relationships within my host community. In a world that depends so much on digital connectivity, I look forward to interfacing directly with my South African students, colleagues, host family, and other members of the community. To build these relationships within a culture so different from my own will require a significant investment of myself—but this is an investment I feel ready to make.
Your strategies for working effectively with host country partners to meet expressed needs.
To be effective within my host community, I must first build trust with my colleagues, host family, and community members at large. Even though I will likely be the only PCV within this community, I cannot enact effective change alone. I will need the cooperation and assistance of my community. The more I can involve and empower others within my projects, the more I can empower myself to be an effective PCV and the more likely my projects will survive beyond my own tenure in South Africa. Building this trust within a culture very different from my own will depend on my ability to read the unwritten and unspoken rules of my host community.
As a development worker in a foreign country, I must maintain a pragmatic and flexible approach to my work, identifying needs as they arise and developing appropriate responses to those needs. My actions should always reflect the true needs of the community, rather than my preconceived notions of what is necessary. To maintain positive relations within my community and ensure the success of my projects, I must carry out these projects in a culturally-sensitive manner. The underlying set of assumptions and values in my host community (e.g. perceptions of homosexual relationships, ideas of Darwinian evolution, etc) may depart significantly from the underlying set of assumptions and values I have grown accustomed to working with in the United States. I must keep this fact in my mind as I manage my interactions with members of my host community.
Your strategies for adapting to a new culture with respect to your own cultural background.
You begin your life in a new culture a stranger—the cultural expections are as unfamiliar to you as you are to the new culture. Making a social mistake within this new culture can be painfully easy. Especially during my first months in South Africa, I will need to manage my relationships with others very carefully. If I do make a mistake, I must not take myself too seriously. The ability to laugh at oneself can be a disarming quality, transforming a potentially embarrassing mistake into one that everyone can laugh off. Above all I must remember that I will be the newcomer and guest within my host community: the prevailing culture will not be my own. With an open mind, a willingness to learn, and a little luck, you can become a valued member of that community.
At school assembly yesterday, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I recited it with my Peace Corps invitation in my pocket: for the first time in my life I would be representing and serving my country in an official role. Never have I felt prouder to be a citizen of the United States. For better or worse, as a PCV, I will represent the United States and I will do so proudly.
The skills and knowledge you hope to gain during pre-service training to best serve your future community and project.
I will focus on acquiring three bases of knowledge during pre-service training: the common cultural knowledge of the KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga provinces of the Republic of South Africa; the language(s) of these provinces (I believe this will be isiZulu; possibly Sepedi or Setswana); and an understanding of the school system at my post and how my skills may complement this system.
Firstly, I am interested in learning more about the culture of South Africa and my host community in particular. Understanding cultural commonalities and differences will be especially important given the incredible heterogenity of South Africa. An anthropologist once wrote that anthropology is the study of what a culture considers common sense knowledge – that body of unwritten and unexplained knowledge that is taken for granted by the members of the community. We navigate social relationships in specific and constant ways without realizing we are doing so. For example, in the United States acquaintances are expected to shake hands when meeting one another for the first time. I doubt very many people could explain why we participate in this ritual: it is just what is done. Having grown up in the United States, my social behavior is guided by a certain set of subconscious algorithms that constantly guide my social behavior.
When I moved to South Carolina, I had never been an avid fan of football. While I remain personally uninterested in football, I have learned to keep up with the scores, as daily conversations often revolve around the Clemson and Carolina games. I am eager to learn how to initiate and sustain analogous conversations in my host community. Presently I know next to nothing about the culture of the Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces. However, I also have few or no preconceptions as to the nature of these cultures. During training, I hope to build a sense for how to manage the countless daily interactions that make up the daily routine in the classroom, market, in the home with my host family, and other important areas of my host community. While the formal training the Peace Corps will provide during pre-service training will be important in this regard, I believe the informal training I will receive as a guest with a host family during pre-service training will be even more important.
Secondly, I am keen to learn the language(s) of my host community. Before my trip in Greece last summer, I picked up a few basic Greek phrases, eager to use these phrases in conversation. My efforts to use the language were thwarted, however; nearly everyone in Greece spoke perfect English! Several years have passed since I have undertaken a focused study of a foreign language. I am excited to begin learning isiZulu or Sepedi during pre-service training. This venture will be an interesting one to be sure – presently I have no understanding or grasp of the Bantu languages. While I cannot hope to attain fluency during the two-month training period, I hope to learn enough to manage basic conversation ins the market and elsewhere in my host community. Learning to speak the local language(s) will be a process that will continue through my Peace Corps service.
Thirdly, I hope to learn more about the South African school system. My responsibilities as a PCV will largely revolve around the school system. To develop effect strategies in my role as an education Resource Specialist, I must develop an intimate understanding of the methodologies, classroom structure, and administrative structure of South Africa school system. I have my own set of interests as a teacher—for example, developing observational and experimenting skills with students in the science classroom and working with groups to develop technical and interpersonal skills in the backcountry. During training, I would like to share and discuss ways to integrate such personal and professional interests into my work as a PCV.
How you think Peace Corps will influence your personal and professional aspirations after your service ends.
My experience as a PCV will inform the way I teach upon my return to an American classroom. As a teacher, I am honored by my colleagues at my own school and in the teaching community at large: they provide an incredibly competent and thorough approach I can model my approach after. With their guidance and support I have been able to constantly revise and improve the way I teach. I will continue this revision throughout my Peace Crops assignment in South Africa. While I understand my interactions with my fellow Sout Africa PCV’s may be limited once I begin my assignment, I hope to gain as much knowledge from them as I am able during training and beyond in order to continue my development as a teacher. Likewise, I am eager to understand teaching and learning from the perspective of South African teachers and students.
The generations of students I teach need me to become the best teacher I can be: the problems they will face occur at this global economic, social and environmental confluence. My students must learn to think critically about these issues on a global scale. How else can we expect them to find socially viable and scientifically valid solutions to problems like global climate change and deforestation? To successfully teach students to navigate this tenuous political geography, their teachers must have a strong working knowledge of it. Teaching in South Africa will build on the international experience I have, broadening and deepening my connections to places and people outside the United States. These are connections I hope to build my American and South African students alike into.
The question “Where are you from?” has become a complicated question for me. I can point to a number of places that have impacted me intellectually, emotionally, or physically: I spent much of my boyhood running around the farmlands outside Atlanta, I spent four intellectually-stimulating and fun years at Davidson College, a very independent and adventurous semester in in New Zealand, and two emotionally-invested years as a middle school science teacher in South Carolina. I have left a part of myself at each of these places. Each has helped me grow in significant but very different ways. I know that I will grow significantly as a person and as a teacher in Africa—I look forward to seeing just how I grow during this time. As people we are made of the narratives we relate. My time in South Africa will certainly add to the body of stories that comprise my life experience. I look forward to calling South Africa home for the next two and a half years—and to leave a piece of myself there.