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Teaching abroad

Schools in less-developed countries have some of the same problems as those in the U.S. When issues arise such as administering for-profit schools, finding qualified teachers, cooperating with other districts, managing budgets, and attracting students, sometimes an American perspective helps. There can be questions about which language to speak on campus or whether to hire a teacher on the basis of English proficiency or understanding of how to teach young children. Don and Kay Andersen, retired educators from Melrose, have volunteered with schools in Hungary, Egypt and Namibia to solve problems like these.  Along the way they have made good friends and acquired a world perspective while living in cities that most of us would have a hard time finding on a map. Don was the superintendent of Melrose Schools from 1981 to 1995.  Kay was an elementary teacher in Dilworth and Ivanhoe.  When Don retired, he co-founded a consulting group called The ADM Group  (Anderson DeSutter Miller) to help find administrators for Minnesota districts such as Albany, Crookston, and Cold Spring. “During and after a number of years of that, I wanted to do something a little bit different,” he says. He jumped at the chance to volunteer with an elementary school in Hajduszoboszlo, eastern Hungary, under the auspices of the International Executive Service Corporation (IESC).  The school, a music magnet, had open enrollment, and its student population was declining.  Don joined forces with Head Mistress Dr. Zusha Kovacs. “There were three elementary schools right within the city. She figured there would probably be only two in the future, and she didn’t want to be odd man out,” he says. Under Don’s direction, Zusha wrote columns for the local paper, met with the city council to make sure the school, which was under the supervision of the city, had a presence with them, and put on special school programs for grandparents.  She organized a Christmas program and crowned a Grandpa and Grandma King and Queen, along with an honorary Grandpa and Grandma from the U.S.   She encouraged a local realtor to have prospective clients with young children visit the school and see what it had to offer.  “I knew if they met her, they would be fighting to buy a house in that area, that woman was that dynamic,” Don says. Meanwhile, Kay sat in on English classes, along with an interpreter.  Learning the Magyar language, one of the world’s hardest, was out of the question for their short stay. Fortunately, there were plenty of interpreters on hand. “We were in a pension, with one room and a shared living space,” Kay says.  “Our breakfast was served in the school, we ate lunch with the students, and when it was time to leave, the cooks had our evening meal prepared for us to take back to the pension.  If we didn’t want to eat that, we could find a restaurant.”  There they made their way through menus in Magyar and German.  They had little time for themselves. On weekends, their hosts took them to plays, operas, and other musical performances.  They visited woodcarvers and potters, saw a shrine, and toured Budapest and Prague. “If we weren’t out and about, individual staff members had us over for dinner,” Kay recalls. “It was a great experience, and one I think of as an exceptional opportunity,” Don says of his two-month stay. In 1998 the Andersens worked in Egypt for three months, again for IESC. They lived in Mansoura, which Don describes as “a small town of 450,000.”  Joining them was retired Melrose elementary teacher Joan Schneeweis and another couple from the University of Minnesota, Morris.  They worked with the administration of this for-profit school. Classes were from pre-school through fourth grade. “They were marketing to young emerging middle-class parents who wanted their children to go to a school other than public. The public schools had 40 to 60 kids in a class, “Don explains. “It was an English-speaking school. They taught Arabic language and religion in Arabic, otherwise it was English all the way through. They also taught French. My mission was to get the administration on the same page and working together.” Joan worked with the upper level students and Kay with pre-schoolers.  They also worked with the teachers, who had been hired mainly on their ability to speak English, not on how to handle little children. Kay says, “One teacher was teaching four-year-olds, and couldn’t understand why if one went to the bathroom, they all had to go.  They didn’t understand why some first graders could hold a pencil and others couldn’t.  We also taught them nursery rhymes.”  The American volunteers lived in a hotel, each family with its own suite and a maid, but ate their meals together.  Some of the friends they made there came to Melrose to stay with them. The Andersens took some time off to travel independently and spend time with their children and grandchildren.   Then Don heard about the International Foundation for Education and Self Help (IFESH). “I have a strong belief that we can’t do everything for everybody and be everything to everybody.” he says.  “They have to step up.  We have to get people into a position of doing for themselves.” Don filled out an application and visited IFESH headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona.  There he learned that there was a position available in Namibia in 2008.  It was Kay who said, “You know we’re going to go and do that.” Namibia, formerly South West Africa, is on Africa’s southwest coast, flanked by Angola, South Africa and Zambia.  It is eight times larger than Minnesota and is the second least populated country in the world, with Mongolia the first. Much of it is desert.  The Andersens worked in teacher colleges in two towns, Katima Mulilo and Rundu, in a strip along the northern border called Caprivi. “My mission was to work with the administrations of the two colleges.  I wrote my position descriptions for each teacher college, to which we had to agree.  We worked on strategic planning, communications throughout the college, and staff evaluation. I did a lot of role modeling in terms of being visible and spending time with teachers and lecturers. I was also available to help lecturers with their theses.”  Meanwhile, Kay observed the college classes, which were taught in English, and mingled with the lecturers on campus. In addition, she worked with the National Institute of Education Development on pre-school curriculum. “Students would come to our home to speak English, or we’d go downtown and speak with people there. One of the lecturer’s wives was from Zimbabwe.  She spoke English, and we spent quite a lot of time together.” As in Egypt, the Andersens had house help, but it wasn’t quite the perk one might think:  “They came in twice a week to mop the floors. We had to do laundry by hand, so they would do that.  It was uncomfortable because I’m not used to having people do work for me, but I didn’t want to offend them, because they needed the money.” The weather in Namibia tended to be hot, and the rainy season brought at least two downpours per day.  “It was 110 or 115 degrees some days,” says Kay.  “I hibernated.” She enjoyed shopping in the open markets, which had hair stylists and tailors as well as food shops.  “One whole end was just fish,” she says.  Meat and fruit were very much the same as at home, although produce was only available in season. It included apples, strawberries, blueberries, and peaches. “They grew bananas near the college campus, and we had three lemon trees in our back yard.”  But, she adds, “I like our fish better.  You can’t beat walleye!”  She says, “Africa is an interesting continent.  In the areas we were in, the people are the same as we are, but their skin color is different.  If I’d been out in the bush, I might have been back next week.  You drive down the road and see villagers having to live in a hut and sleep on the floor.  I had a house, running water, and electricity.” They spent 10 months in Namibia, went home for eight weeks, and returned in September 2009, returning home in May 2010.   Don’s second stint brought some frustration, as the Ministry of Education decided to merge four teachers’ colleges with the university, undoing some of the planning he had done in the fields of autonomy and governance in the individual schools.  Still, some of his work, such as a system of staff evaluation and promotion, stayed in place. Since returning home, Don has been asked to take on projects in Liberia, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, but he has passed on all of them. “I would take a new assignment, provided that the project fit and I could add value.  That’s the key issue—adding value to someone’s life.”

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