By Carolyn Duffy
“We came here to teach you strategies about how to teach reading. You, however, have taught us so much more than we could have ever taught you.”
The last day of conferences in Ghana, we shared this sentiment in a letter to the participants who attended our conference.
We left the United States armed with 70 SPF sunscreen, mosquito nets, and water purification tablets with the mindset that we were going to change the world.
In a partnership with the University of Education in Winneba, Ghana we had created a week-long conference for teachers to attend in order to learn strategies to help them teach literacy. We had each researched and prepared a strategy to share with Ghanaian teachers who would attend our workshop.
The strategies ranged from using acrostic poems to build vocabulary skills, to using drama in literacy to enhance comprehension. We hoped that because we were going to Ghana to teach the teachers rather than the students, that our work would affect children for generations to come rather than exclusively the children we encountered.
We arrived in Ghana with nine students, two professors, a professor’s husband, and bags jam-packed with schools supplies and clothes to give to the local schools.
Signs greeted us, “Akwaaba,” which we soon learned means, “welcome.” To me that is the one word that sums up Ghanaian culture. Everyone we met in Ghana, from the staff at the lodge we stayed at, to the children on the streets, to the teachers who attended our workshops, was extremely welcoming toward us.
We were treated like royalty everywhere we went and felt like celebrities walking through the streets. The teachers were extremely excited about the strategies that we taught them and were eager to find out everything about the American education system.
Comfort, a professor at the University of Winneba, with whom we worked very closely, made us feel at home in Ghana and recruited her sons to act as our tour guides. We even began calling Lagoon Lodge, where we stayed for the two weeks, “home.”
Within a few days we learned that there would be no need for the 70 SPF sunscreen, the mosquito nets, or the water purification tablets. Our trip was scheduled during Ghana’s rainy season and the weather was quite similar to the weather we said goodbye to when we left home. The “moseys,” as the locals called mosquitoes, were conveniently kept away from our rooms by heavy-duty spray that the lodge staff used.
We were each given two bottles of water a day, and quickly became rather skilled at brushing our teeth with a bottle of water.
Just as many of our expectations of Ghanaian life were invalid, many of our expectations about Ghanaian education were quickly countered. While there were undeniable differences in the education system, namely classes of 90 students ranging from ages 6-21, we found that many of the problems facing teachers in Ghana are the same things that teachers at home complain about.
I wrote in my journal on the last day of the conference, after a reflection session with the teachers, “The things that teachers here struggle with are so similar to the struggles that teachers at home face: large classes, lack of parent involvement, multiple languages, and different levels of ability in the classroom.
I think that many of us came here thinking that we would be instructing teachers who were struggling to teach. They are all very well educated and extremely passionate about teaching. A lot of what we did was sympathize with them, and offer suggestions of things we have seen tried at home to deal with the same problems.”
We left Ghana with tears in our eyes, having learned so much about life. We learned the value of education, from people who saw attending school as a privilege rather than a requirement.
We learned how to calm down and take in the world around us, from people who would say that something began at 9:00 and not actually start until 10:00.
We learned the value of taking the long way through town, from people who would tell us that we were going for a quick walk which would end up taking hours.
We learned the importance of a smile, from people who were not able to speak the same language, but communicated so much to us through a smile.
Most importantly, I think, we learned the value of being happy with what we have, from people who had little to no worldly possessions, yet were genuinely happy people. As we told the participants who attended our conference, we went to Ghana to teach, but ended up learning so much more than we ever could have taught.