Trust Your Rebel Heart, Take the Road Less Traveled

Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to be a teacher. I have known that my mission in life is to help others, serve the under privileged and share my gifts and talents. Since elementary school, I knew that teaching would be my gateway to the rest of the world, specifically Africa, and I’ve been working towards that since then. Tanzania in 2015 validated this life-long dream. Then, my ten month sabbatical in 2016-2017 in east Africa allowed me to specify exactly what kind of experience I was ultimately looking for in Africa. And this year, I was able to commit to one community, one entire school year with a group of students, living with a host family and experiencing a new country!

But, let me be real for a moment…living and teaching in Namibia this year, is the hardest thing I have EVER done. And I will be totally transparent and say that this year was somewhat disappointing and completely unexpected.

We were told at orientation in January that, “This year is for you, you’re here to have an experience for yourself.” But if that were true, I would have gone home a long time ago. What I really came here for, and what I ended up staying for, was the kids. I came here to educate these kids. I came here to model how learning can be fun and active, more than just copying words off the chalk board. I came here to empower students to be creative and think for themselves about solutions to problems. I came here to love and value all my students, whether they fail or pass any given class. And finally, I came here to be an example of what school can ultimately do for young people; that it can allow them to make changes, impact communities and follow their own dreams.

I DID NOT expect to come here to be the only teacher at the school that taught all of her classes on a daily basis. I did not expect to come here to be the only teacher who cared about her students. I did not come here to just be another teacher that punched her card at 8am and then 2pm, taking a year long “vacation.” I did not come here to be invisible to the other teachers. They went to class late and arrived back to the staffroom early. They gossiped and laughed about the special learners at the school, who “aren’t serious enough” to pass their lessons. They went into their classrooms to fill the board with text, assign a test a few days later and then complain that most of the class failed the test. They finished personal phone calls and conversations while their classes started or when a student came to them with a question. It was a toxic environment to work in and was extremely disappointing for me. I never could rise above and ignore these behaviors and attitudes.

Sitting in the staffroom with teachers who were the opposite of touchy-feely, caring, motivated and dedicated teachers was shocking. Not having an outlet for my frustrations, or being able to bounce ideas off fellow teachers was maybe the worst part. So many days I just wanted to celebrate a student or a successful lesson with a fellow teacher. Additionally, most of the year it seemed that the teachers did not even care about me being there, so long as I greeted them respectfully each morning. I still don’t know why this school wanted a volunteer teacher and I don’t know if they even understood, liked or respected the work I came to complete.

But then I came to realize a hard truth: just because I came here to care about these students, does not mean these other teachers should start to care also. That thought dawned on me in May, and I still vividly remember that phone call home. A pretty sad week followed and I seriously considered going home at that point. 

I felt jaded, naive and embarrassed about my expectations versus the reality I was experiencing. I was frustrated with myself for how I was struggling to handle the challenges of the school culture. I was confused why my program would send me to such an unsupportive and apathetic school. I was exhausted already from continually adapting my emotions, adjusting my expectations and trying to engrain myself into a culture into which I do not fit.

Outside of school, I tried my best to get out of the house and refresh in the evenings and over the weekend. I tried going to town to get fast food, walking to my local shops for groceries, and running. But, after a few months I developed social anxiety every time I left my compound. Literally, every time I went to town, I was verbally harassed by complete strangers. Men either told me they loved me, told me I was sexy and beautiful, laughed while looking at me from head to toe, touched my arms while passing on the sidewalk, followed me around the supermarket, refused to get out of taxis without my phone number, and/or insisted that we get married and have brown children together. I began having panic attacks during the taxi ride to town as I emotionally put on my armor. If I went to my local village shops, men made noises at me, catcalled me, asked me to buy them things, told me they wanted to get to know me and come to America, etc. Even after living in the same village this whole year, I still was victim to these behaviors.

Even in November, I still struggled with expectations that were too high, or assumptions I made without considering the cultural norms. I have always been taught and encouraged to do something about the things that I do not like or that give me stress. For 29 years, I have learned how to make changes, speak up, or advocate for things of which I feel strongly. That’s part of the reason I came here to begin with. I can’t sit idle in my first-world-American-life, knowing there are students out there that aren’t receiving the education they deserve. This year, while I wasn’t in any position to be making changes, I did expect that I could motivate, influence or inspire some of my fellow teachers. But, after some trial and lots of error, I learned to bite my tongue and (try to) worry about myself for most of the year. Maybe “walking the walk” would wear off on my students instead?

Over the course of the year, there were rarely any rules at all for kids or adults, students or teachers. Rewards were absolutely nonexistent. Consequences were only followed through with when teachers were in a “mood.” So much of the culture here was reactive. Whether it was waiting for a kid to misbehave, watching kids literally climb the walls without a teacher in their classroom until someone broke their leg, or watching a student fail paper after paper for ten months…there were so many times I wanted to roll my eyes and say “Of course that happened, there was nothing to discourage or motivate them otherwise.” As a teacher, an American teacher at that, it was at the forefront of my mind to set up policies, procedures, rewards and consequences. And I did that with my classes. It worked well for me! However, I found this impossible outside of my 40 minute lessons. 

The consequence to any rule being broken at school used to be beating the student. Despite this now being illegal in the country, many schools still practice corporal punishment. In fact, during the second and third term, the police were called to come to school and beat the students who were consistently not following school rules. This is a common call for the police, and my host family told me horror stories of what happens when they do show up to a school. Yes, you read that right; corporal punishment is illegal in the country, but the police will come and take it upon themselves to break the law for the “good of the school.” The police never actually came to my school this year, thank God. And overall, I experienced very little beating, thank God again. 

What I did experience were teachers who now don’t follow through with any broken rules, disrespect or misbehavior. Apathy is one word to use here. Lazy is another. I was often patronized with speeches of excuse after excuse as to why students now misbehave more in school because of this law. When I kindly explained the need for agreement between teachers for common consequences and creative solutions, I was met with more excuses. “That’s too much work. You want me to stand in the sun with the kids? Detention, no way! The kids should know better. Let’s just lecture them tomorrow at morning assembly.” Sigh.

I found that aspects of my personality that made me a good teacher in America, translated to my Achilles Heel here. My optimistic outlook gave me too high of expectations and I often felt disappointed. My patience in giving kids second chances made me wonder if they were taking advantage of me. My love for these students made me too emotional about things I couldn’t change. My go-getter personality was seen as anti-cultural in that I sometimes wanted to do things my own (American) way. Speaking up at staff meetings resulted in disagreement or silence from the staff. My creativity and desire to collaborate with other teachers was met with apathy and laziness. And finally, my generous giving resulted in kids stealing, cheating and fighting over who got what.

For a majority of the year, I couldn’t see the good that I was doing and I didn’t feel like a good teacher in the slightest. I struggled to teach each class every day with patience, creativity, energy and management. I came home exhausted, starving and usually succumbed to a nap, only to wake up and wonder how the hell I was going to do that again tomorrow and the next day and the next. What I expected would be a life-giving year of positivity, was proving to be a year that was draining and disappointing. I posted sugar coated pictures and videos to cope with these feelings, hoping the shame of my struggles would magically disappear. Some days the water was shut off. Some days there was no electricity. Those days were especially hard to refresh.

Then, I took over teaching art class in May, and in June I was able to finally take a breath of air and get some perspective. It was such a joy for me to teach this subject, and the kids showed such joy back to me. This was about the time I first wrote the “Golden Linings” post on my blog, and I loved writing that post! I loved thinking about my students, their quirks, interests and personalities and how they were shining in my class! I finally had some brain space to think outside my “teaching trench” and consider the creative gifts and talents of my many students. If only they knew how much this fueled me on a daily basis.

It also made me realize, that for the first time in my teaching career, I needed to solely rely on my students to get me through the day. My coworkers couldn’t care less about me or their students. My kids, on the other hand, had energy, were interested in me-sometimes too much, loved my new games/activities and soon became my best friends. Walking to school and getting “Hellos” and “How are you Ms.?” from even the “not serious” students is why I came here. Seeing the non-academic students succeed in art class, is why I came here. Seeing my troublesome fourth graders running to the front of the class to participate is why I came here. Seeing pre-teens follow along word for word with the story book I was reading, is why I came here. Seeing my “non-English” students read a speech, read a book or raise their hand in class, is why I came here. Seeing my students draw pictures/write stories/complete assignments and look at me and smile with pride, is why I came here. Seeing my shiest students sign-up to dance at the art show, by themselves, in front of the whole school, is why I came here.

This year I’ve written a lot about the joy of teaching the non-academically gifted, special, and “naughty” students. While they are indeed failing in many ways (ie. being failed by the system), it was my quest throughout the year to develop some kind of relationship with these kids. Whether it was through a joke, a nickname, saying hello to them every time I saw them, calling on them insistently in class or sitting them in the front row, I was desperate to connect with them. And these moments were often my golden linings of the day. 

These are the students that I wish I could bring back to America. The students that the other teachers complain about. The students who are failing most of their classes. The students who are instead athletically, artistically or musically talented. The students who haven’t learned English and/or can’t read or write, and frankly never will. I feel for these kids who are just wasting their time in a school system that doesn’t serve them in the slightest, at a school with teachers that don’t care about them, and in a country with very little employment options in general. And now I am leaving them. Guilt fills me up.

Because of these realities, I was really thankful for the freedom I experienced in teaching. No emails to write. No parents to meet. I was simply given the standards to teach and timetable of the topics that would appear on the exams in May, August and November. Then, I got to to do the fun part and create lessons! I picked the books we read each week in fourth grade and designed a week’s worth of lessons based on the book. I decided group activities and games that aligned with the syllabus for each class. I designed projects and homework assignments that allowed for a hands-on approach to learning. I made my own quizzes and tests in the form of crossword puzzles, matching, fill in the blanks and picture identification. Some of my best memories from this year are the days we got out of our desks, worked as groups and did different and unique activities that still taught the same material everyone else was teaching!

I also really loved teaching different grade levels within one day. It was fascinating for me to go from fifth grade art to sixth grade art to seventh grade science, all back to back and see the emotional, social, academic and language progression (or lack thereof). I loved to see how their art skills developed; quick and rushed in fifth grade, to straight lines and unique ideas in seventh grade. From barely understanding a simple set of English instructions in fifth grade, to jumping the gun on completing tasks in seventh grade. From using simple praises in fifth grade, to being sarcastic and witty in the seventh grade. It was a great chance to see that these students do indeed learn something through copying words off a chalk board. Go figure. 

Then there was fourth grade, my babies, I called them. Working with the fourth grade class was like teaching American first grade, which I surprisingly enjoyed! Teachers always huffed and complained about them, their lack of English, and their rowdy dispositions. But those are the features I loved about these kids (most days). Their unbridled energy, innocence, and hunger for learning inspired me to be the best teacher I could be! Reading story books to kids who had never been read to, singing English songs I made up on the spot, creating a star system of management that they lived and breathed by, and seeing them catch on to my routines, catch phrases and mannerisms made me smile every day. 

By the end of the year, I basically had an echo in my class, as students correctly predicted what I would say! One class started counting themselves down from ten as they transitioned to a different activity and got quiet again. Some students started helping others in the class without me even asking. Students begged to help me carry things to and from classes. Students comforted their peers and apologized with an affectionate back rub/pat (like I did). Those are the moments I will remember and hold on to!

I knew I would come home in November and say that I’ve grown through this experience, but I didn’t actually believe that I would be able to see, feel or articulate that growth for quite some time. I couldn’t after my sabbatical year in east Africa; that was a confusing and stressful year of re-entry. But this year, I could actually feel myself growing. There’s a quote that says “You don’t know how strong you are until strong is the only option.” I lived that quote each and every day this year, and even though I hated it in the moment, I knew it was good for me. I could feel myself getting stronger each day I walked to school, each time I opened my door to play with my host family, each time I kindly greeted my co-teachers in the morning, each time I made my weekly goals, and each time I stepped into the classroom to try again. 

A lot of this growth came from the fact that I had to rely on myself for love, kindness and attention. All the words of affirmation, the gift giving, the quality time and all those other Love Languages were things I had to do for myself. Don’t get me wrong, my friends and family were incredible sources of strength for me during the year, but in the moment and face to face, I had to be my own supporter. Culturally, the people around me were’t going to provide this for me. I fought this reality for much of the year, feeling lonely, alone, unappreciated, and confused as to why I was here in the first place.

But you know what? I am extremely proud of myself. There were many days I wanted to give-up, call my director, and tell her I was going home. There were days I didn’t want to get out of bed, days I cried in the toilet stall at school, days I walked out of class early, days I stayed in my room all day away from my host family, days I felt physically ill from exhibiting so much patience while swallowing so much frustration, and days I went to bed hungry instead of eating porridge for the 300th day in a row. I’m proud of myself for letting go of things that were not in my control. I’m proud of myself for showing up to each class with a fresh attitude and continually trying every day with a new lesson. I’m proud of myself for organizing fundraisers and projects to benefit the students themselves. I’m proud of the personal growth I’ve seen in myself. 

I’m also proud of the relationships I established within my host family. It was a rocky start when I realized that Meme and Tate didn’t actually live here, and the next oldest person to me was Kuku, at 89 years old. We were all left to our own devices, all fighting for our own needs to be met, while living in harmony with each other, without any source of authority figure. It was vastly different than the host family experience I was expecting. But, I had some really happy moments with them as the year progressed and I saw a huge growth in my interactions with my younger host brothers and sisters. By the end of the year, they were the ones starting conversations with me, asking me questions, reading books to me, joking with me and asking for help with their homework, all in English. I was able to let my guard down and express myself more and more as the year progressed. 

My birthday was the highlight of my year with my host family. The surprise, the thoughtful meal of making hamburgers together, the delicious cake and champagne and beer… It was enough to make me cry in front of everyone that day. It was an event so opposite of the behaviors and care I had experienced for nine months. I felt so loved by people here for the first time, and that meant everything to me. 

As October came and went, stories of my kidnapping started circulating around my family. How the kids would sneak into my room at night, put me in a dustbin, and then sneak food to me every day. Inga said to me one day, “Abby, you have already figured out that you are not leaving to America because we love you.” Ndakolo told me multiple times each week that, “You are never going back to America Abby until x, y, z (all sarcastic tasks I should complete for him).” Donna said, “Abby we are going to miss you because you are so funny.” They all causally asked me at random times during the last few weeks if I was going to come back to visit. My answer was always that I will be back for the next family wedding!

Life will be extremely boring for these kids when I leave, and I feel bad about that. I was their source of entertainment and also a pseudo-mom. I could barely get one hour of alone time after school before there were knocks on my door to play. I showered while also answering questions and solving arguments. I graded papers while they watched movies and played puzzles. They fought over who would wash my dishes, mop the shower and organize my books. They played on my doorstep while waiting for me to finish napping. I will miss them terribly and look forward to the day when I come back to visit and see how big they’ve grown and how well their English has progressed.

My host father, the village headman, asked me every time he saw me, what I was getting out of this experience. He struggled to understand why I was here, eating porridge with my hands, sweating each day, and living in boring Onayena. I told him that I was developing professionally and have become a better teacher this year. I told him that I had the opportunity to teach art, PE, special education and science, topics I can’t teach in America without expensive certificates and additional years of study. I told him that I have come to understand and live within another culture, which I believe is extremely important for my personal growth. And finally, I was able to make new friends and develop relationships with new people. 

He seemed mostly satisfied with that answer, but like most people I have met here, they just don’t understand why I would quit my job, sell my belongings, save my money and come to live in the middle of the boring, Namibian desert. HA! I too questioned myself many times, but in the end, I know this year was meant to be and I know this experience will continue to influence me and the people I came to know for a long time. 

I will miss many things about Namibia: my students, my host family, sunsets, baby goats, puppies, summer weather all year, clear night skies and my wide open running route next to the highway. Someone told me before I left, that Americans spend 95% of their lives indoors, and that made me a little sad. I can safely say that I spent 95% of my year outdoors, and I loved it! 

Finally, the support I received from around the world this year was remarkable. The fact that I was able to create multiple murals on the school, order dozens of textbooks, sort through hundreds of schools supplies, and give out books and clothes is truly, truly amazing! I couldn’t have done this year without the kind words, generous donations, personal messages and the overall support from people around the world. It was a humbling feeling to have so many people believe in what I was doing, when half the time I didn’t even believe in myself. Whether it came from gofundme, being friends with my parents, being my friend or family member, I thank you deeply for your support.

Thank you to everyone who followed along, or maybe read only one of my blogs this year. I LOVED writing it and looked forward to giving you glimpses into the reality of life in Onayena, Namibia. It helped me process events, reflect on my emotions and organize my thoughts throughout the year, and that was huge for me. So thank you for your time and interest.

And now, what comes next? Well, after the initial Coors Light, hot shower, chips and salsa and putting on of new clothes…I’m not sure yet. I don’t know what my next dream is, what exactly I want to tackle next, or with whom I want to work. And that’s a strange concept for me. But also kind of exciting! 

On any given day I daydream about dozens of jobs: teaching preschool within a non profit setting, being a nanny and snuggling babies all day, teaching middle school with hooligan students that accept my weirdness, being a dog walker or foster puppy mom, reading story books and singing songs in a primary school classroom, teaching dance classes again, or just going back to the comfort of fifth grade, which I loved…

This year I feel like I had a touch of all of these jobs within any given week, and I came to really like that variety and challenge. We shall see where my arrow points next. As always, I will lead with my heart and take the road less traveled. 

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Over Soil says:

    I so enjoyed reading this. You did a huge thing and succeeded. You touched the lives of all of those you met in one way or another. Well done. Truly I enjoyed reading all of this about your adventure in Onayena, Namibia. Thank you for sharing.


  2. Meg Pehlke says:

    Abby,you are wiser beyond your years…you are truly blessed to have had this experience and gifted to have learned all that you have…I am so impressed and full of wonder as to how you have endured…I love you and know great things are ahead of you…carpe diem and let’s have a Coors toast… can’t wait to see you…aunt meg


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s