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Opening Hearts and Minds: Melissa Rabess and Peggysue Bacon Reflect on Their Experience of Project Overseas

ETFO Voice

VOICE: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what connected you with Project Overseas?

MELISSA RABESS: I have been an educator for 15 years with the TDSB. My path to becoming a teacher was not a direct one. As a child and youth worker, I supported hundreds of marginalized youth as they tried to maneuver through various systems and institutions to meet their basic needs for food, housing, education, employment, transportation and medical attention. The ongoing challenges they faced to their educational success and well-being motivated me to become a teacher.

I have also always believed that access to high-quality education is a right to which everyone is entitled. A key component of quality education is adequately preparing teachers with useful training and experience. I was motivated to support teachers in developing countries committed to improving their practice. I chose CTF’s international program because of their belief that teachers learn best from other teachers. It is also important to me that CTF is committed to working in partnership with national teacher organizations in the global south towards the goal of quality public education for all students.

In July 2009, I embarked on my first Project Overseas (PO) experience in Uganda. Since that first trip, I have been privileged to represent ETT, ETFO and CTF as a PO team member in Dominica (2013) and as a team leader in Guyana (2016) and Uganda (2018).

PEGGYSUE BACON: I am an Ojibwe/French woman from a small gold-mining community in northwestern Ontario called Red Lake. I was born and raised there and left a few times for higher education and/or work but I have always come back to the area as this is where my roots are. My mother is an Ojibwe Elder from the Mishkeegogamang First Nation near Pickle Lake, Ontario, and my father is a French man from Amos in northern Quebec. My father went to Pickle Lake to work in the mines. He met my mother and they both moved to Red Lake in the early 60s where my father worked in the mines until his retirement. I am the second youngest of five, with four brothers.

I was taking part in another wonderful ETFO program called Leaders for Tomorrow. During one of our sessions my roommate was filling out an application for Project Overseas and she asked me if I was interested. I said no. When I got back to my school, during lunch one day, a flyer caught my eye. It was the world in the shape of a pair of open hands and I realized that this was what my roommate was talking about. It resonated with me and I filled out the application.

I had never been out of Canada except for a few trips with my family as a child. This was a big leap out of my comfort zone. I was selected to go to southwest Uganda to teach physical education.

VOICE: What did you hope to gain from the experience? What did you hope to bring back to your own classroom?

MELISSA: Sometimes we need to step outside of our own situations to gain a fresh perspective. Every time I applied to Project Overseas my hope was that I would get back to the reason I became a teacher – to make a difference in the lives of students by focusing on sound pedagogy and student-centred teaching and learning. I witnessed teachers in Africa and the Caribbean coming to our workshops every day motivated to do their best to improve their students’ learning despite their lack of resources, overcrowded classes and sometimes going unpaid. Following their example, I returned home a better teacher with strategies grounded in my own creativity and the belief that the students I work with are my most valuable teaching resource.

PEGGYSUE: I hoped to gain a better understanding of how different cultures deal with the realities of their situations. We may live in very different parts of the world but we face many of the same issues. Working with First Nation youth who are struggling with issues of their own, it was beneficial to see how African communities deal with similar concerns. Many First Nation schools are isolated and overcrowded. They lack the basic items needed to teach a lesson properly. Most have problems with the buildings such as lack of heat, not enough space or no running water. These realties make it very hard to get students focused on learning. The educators I met all had much larger class sizes than I could ever imagine. They are alone in their classrooms without the help of education assistants or tutors. They do not receive any help or extra money for special education. Many of them do not get a salary or receive very little pay. What I did learn was that you take it day-to-day and you do the best you can with what you are given. Once you realize that it is more important to connect with a student on a personal level you begin to see that all the money and resources cannot take the place of genuine face-to-face interaction. I brought back to my own classroom the idea that I am here today, in the moment, looking at my students, helping them in whatever way I can to reach their highest potential.

VOICE: What kind of work did you do in your host country?

MELISSA: During all my PO experiences, I worked closely with my co-tutors to create a subject-specific plan for the project. This included reviewing the host country’s curriculum documents, planning lessons, sourcing local supplies for activities and integrating traditional games, songs and activities into our lessons.

As a team leader, I also worked closely with the course directors prior to the start of the project and while in country to figure out logistical details. This included preparing speeches for opening and closing ceremonies, organizing access to teaching spaces, arranging the timing of activities and transportation and addressing issues of meals, accommodations and health and safety concerns.

PEGGYSUE: I taught the physical education component of our sessions. I had a co-tutor and we looked at why physical education was not a priority and why it was not being taught. Right from the beginning, it was clear that P.E. wasn’t being taught because it was not being assessed. With the classrooms as large as they were, it was easier for teachers to just focus on the subjects they were required to teach. My co-tutor was a wonderful man who was close to retirement and he had a wealth of knowledge to share. We went back to the basics and reminded the teachers we were working with about the joy that comes from play. We let them see that through play they could get a lot of learning accomplished as well as deal with many of the behaviour issues that a class of 90 seven-year-olds might have. We took out their curriculum documents and looked at all the great traditional games they had and started to play them. They had been so busy being teachers and worrying about day-to-day mundane tasks that they had forgotten how much fun it was to play games. We brought out the child in each of our teachers and we played, had many laughs and felt rejuvenated once again. I had read a quote years ago that I shared with them: “If you do not make time for physical education today, you will make time for sickness later.” They really focused on these words and realized what benefits everyday physical activity could have.

VOICE: What did you learn from your experience? How did working with Project Overseas shift your perspective on teaching in your own classroom?

MELISSA: As a guidance counsellor, one of my key responsibilities is to advocate for my students. I was reminded how important it is to be humble and listen, to take the time to really hear the stories of my students and their families and to honour their voices. I was also reminded that it’s important to bring my own lived experiences into my teaching. I saw firsthand how excited the teachers in Uganda, Guyana and Dominica were to recognize how they could use their local resources, traditional games, native songs, stories and languages to bring their curriculum to life in their classrooms. I was reminded that my challenges and privileges as a Black, able-bodied, native- English-speaking, upper-middle-class female of Caribbean heritage hold value that I can use to pull curriculum off the page and help me connect more meaningfully with my students and their families.

PEGGYSUE: From the very beginning of my trip I had the idea that I would encounter more similarities than differences. After all, I come from a tribal culture and I was going to the cradle of tribal culture. This was more and more evident as the trip went on. Even though I was further away from my home than I had ever been, I never once felt I was alone. That is something for me to say because from the moment I left Ottawa, I never once met or saw another First Nation person. The people I encountered had never met a First Nation person and they were very interested in me. Many discussions were about how we were so much alike – the drum, the dancing, the storytelling, the role of Elders, the state of our health, the quickly changing diet, how many of our communities are doing without the many advantages mainstream society takes for granted and, most of all, the hope and laughter that is pulling us up, keeping us together and making us stronger and stronger.

This helped me realize what I had already suspected; even though we are from different parts of the world we all have many of the same issues, dreams and desires.

VOICE: What kind of training did you receive before you went on the trip? What do educators need to think about or have training on before engaging in international development work?

MELISSA: My professional experiences as an elementary guidance counsellor, a special education teacher, teaching in the primary, junior, intermediate and senior divisions helped prepare me for Project Overseas because participants can be asked to deliver PD to a variety of participant groups in different subject areas. My ETFO training as part of Leaders for Tomorrow, Women in Action and Presenters on the Road gave me a solid foundation in workshop facilitation.

CTF provided team leaders with two full days of focused training on development cooperation, intercultural awareness, handling team finances, emergency preparedness, media interviews, social media protocols and team-building skills. In addition, CTF brought all the teams together for three days in Ottawa to review our roles and responsibilities, address potential challenges, explore culture and reverse culture shock and dispel myths of PO being edutourism.

PEGGYSUE: We also met people who had participated in the program. This was very helpful because it gave us good perspective and provided the opportunity to ask questions. We had some videos and discussions about travelling abroad, what we could do and could not do, what our role was and the expectations of us as educators.

We all come to the table with our own perspectives and biases and what the training did was allow us to talk about those in a supportive environment. Most of us do not even know that we carry biases until we are confronted with them. I think it would be very helpful for educators going on these trips to understand what white privilege is and how they might be embodying it without even realizing. Although it is a subject that was touched upon, I do not think we did enough to gain a strong understanding of how we might unintentionally be reproducing systems of power and oppression.

VOICE: What advice do you have for those who are planning to participate in the program?

MELISSA: It is very important to recognize that Project Overseas does not exist in a vacuum. Do your research. Learn about the history of your host country’s educational system. Recognize that Canadian teachers and our international colleagues all function as part of educational systems rooted in a colonial past and built on foundations of exclusion, displacement and marginalization. As a result, as teachers from the global north, our intentions may not be the same as our impact when doing international development assistance work. We must be willing to centre all our work on anti-oppression practices and to examine our biases critically, especially about developing countries. This will allow PO teams, working in partnership with their colleagues abroad, to share leadership, build capacity, encourage teachers to use their voices, and implement policies and programs that can be sustained long after we head home.

PEGGYSUE: My advice to those who are planning to participate is to be open, honest and humble yourself. We are more the same than we are different and once we realize that, beautiful things can happen. I would definitely encourage anyone to participate in this program, but your mindset plays a very important part in what kind of trip you have.

Melissa Rabess is a member of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto.

PeggySue Bacon is a member of the Keewatin Patricia Teacher Local.

With contributions from Punita Bhardwaj and Izida Zorde, ETFO executive staff.