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>  News Releases >   2003 >   May

Island teachers

Posted 05/17/03, by James Donnelly

Rachel Baker '04 teaches deaf pupils ages 6-12 at Rita Elementary School in the Marshall Islands last winter.
(photo courtesy of Andrew Garrod)
Students and recent grads teach in Marshall Islands

In Marshallese - the native language of the Marshall Islands - the word for "teacher" is rikaki. It is used in such sentences as Na ij rikaki eo ami kaal, or, "I'm your new teacher." However, to many of Dartmouth's current students and recent graduates, who for the last four years have been part of Dartmouth's Marshall Islands Program, this word has been imbued with complex meaning and emotion.

Dartmouth's Education Department, under a program led by Andrew Garrod, Professor of Education and Director of Teacher Education, sends students and recent graduates to the Marshall Islands to work as teachers in local schools. The participants teach at all grade levels, living in dormitories and local houses, eating local food and learning about the culture of the Marshall Islands. Starting in the summer, 19 graduates will spend the next year teaching in the capital city, Majuro, and on some of the outlying atolls and islands including Wotje, Kili, Ejit, and Enewetok. For ten weeks during the winter term they will be joined by undergraduates-this year there were seven-who live in Majuro and also work as teachers. The growing program, organized by Dartmouth's Education Department, is cosponsored by the Marshallese and Bikini governments.

Traveling more than 7,000 miles to teach students who, even at high school graduation, may have only a fourth grade reading level offers a number of challenges to participants both in and out of the classroom. The United States administered the Marshall Islands for nearly 40 years following World War II. Not until 1986 did the Islands gain independence, and reparations to displaced Bikinians and others continue due to nuclear tests carried out in the area. Unemployment in the Marshall Islands runs as high as 30 percent with a per-capita gross domestic product of just $1,600. It is not unusual for students - and some teachers - to fail to show up for school, and textbooks, if they exist, are generally outdated and culturally inappropriate, according to participants.

"It's just a tremendous challenge," says Garrod. "I have to be clear with the Dartmouth students when they set out for the islands, saying that they will likely encounter much that frustrates them, as well as much that challenges and delights them."

Garrod notes that the Marshall Islands require students to suspend their personal judgments, "to be flexible, curious, and respectful," and to learn to work within the culture.

"It's important that they come to understand that there are reasons for the way things work in a place like the Marshall Islands," Garrod said.

Rachel Baker '04, who participated in last winter's undergraduate program, says that though she never fully adjusted to all the cultural differences, by the end of her ten-week stay she had grown used to such customs as intermittent school attendance and 'Island Time.'

"Island time means that you could say you would meet someone at 7, and that could mean anything between 6 and 9," she said.

Baker learned of the Marshall Islands Program in an education class she took in her first year where students returning from the Islands gave a presentation on the trip. Baker said she was immediately drawn to the idea of going to a place that offered the opportunity for personal development while performing a needed service. Also, as an education minor about to enter the Teacher Certification Program, she had an interest in teaching, and the program offered one of the few opportunities for an undergraduate to take a leadership role in a classroom.

"I don't think there is any other program where an undergraduate would have the chance to walk into a classroom, design her own lesson plans and teach," she said.

The fact that Baker also happened to be proficient in sign language and had worked previously with deaf children led her to perform double duty; she worked mornings at the Majuro Middle School, then taught in the afternoons at Rita Elementary School with deaf students. Baker's class of deaf children consisted of 10 students ranging in ages from 6 to 12, some who understood limited sign language, some who understood no sign language at all.

"Trying to work simultaneously with students at such different levels was difficult," she said. "You'd be boring one student while another was getting completely lost. The mix of the three languages - English, Marshallese and American Sign Language - was challenging, too."

Through the course of the ten-week term Baker says she saw tremendous growth in her students.

"Probably most rewarding for me was seeing the development of the kids. I'd see them outside the classroom, and they'd stop me to tell me about the most mundane things. Like seeing a man with a blue shirt or brown shoes. It took me a while to realize that this was probably one of the first times they'd had an opportunity to express themselves, and they just wanted to say something because they finally could," she said.

The experience has had such an effect on Baker that she is considering returning to the Marshall Islands to continue teaching after graduation.

"I never felt distant," she said. "This culture is so amazingly receptive. It added to our experience to be in such a hospitable community."

Garrod says that plans for the continued expansion of the Marshall Islands Program are developing and that support from the Marshallese government is strong.

"They say they will take all the students I can send them," said Garrod. "It's a perfect partnership because the need there is very great, and at the same time this is helping to enrich the lives of many Dartmouth students, all the while providing invaluable experience for those who enter careers in public education."

-James Donnelly

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