Assessing Volunteer Training for Peace Corps Teachers

Cover image courtesy of the Peace Corps Media Library

–by Kate Avery–

Abstract

This article discusses the quality of teacher training for Peace Corps volunteers, focusing on West Africa, where the Peace Corps has been continuously active since the early 1960s. Volunteers have brought needed education to an area that is both understaffed with teachers and limited in adequate teaching spaces and materials. In particular West African schools, volunteers have met significant success, introducing new teaching programs, such as programs for adult and girls’ education, and providing resources. However, many Peace Corps volunteers remain largely unqualified to teach in African schools. Though the Corps requires all volunteers to undergo a brief training period, this training alone is not enough for teachers to gain the necessary skills for successful teaching. Without formal pedagogical training or degrees relevant to the areas they teach, many volunteers are either overwhelmed by lesson planning and classroom management or lack mastery over the subject they teach. Furthermore, the volunteers often have a limited knowledge of African language, culture, and history. This ignorance hinders teachers’ ability to communicate with their students, detracting from teaching quality, and perpetuates stereotypes about African people.

An activity for Let Girls Learn, the Peace Corps’ girls education initiative. (Photo courtesy of the Peace Corps Media Library.)

Peace Corps volunteers have served in West Africa since the organization was established in the early 1960s. The region is facing an educational crisis. There is a shortage of adequate teachers, materials, and school buildings. Classrooms are overcrowded, and teachers are often not trained to as high a standard as West African governments would like (Amin, “Making” 325). In some areas, parents and other adults in the community are illiterate (Cohen-Mitchell). As the Peace Corps’ largest program area, education is central to the Corps’ goals of providing aid and fostering international sensitivity (“What Volunteers Do”; Sherradan 400). Not only do volunteers teach children in schools, they also provide resources, such as libraries, and promote adult education by “conduct[ing] workshops for parents in the community” (Cohen-Mitchell). Training coordinators attempt to create a “cultural exchange” by teaching volunteers from the United States and Europe about West African culture and then pairing them with West African teachers for training (“Teaching”). Peace Corps volunteers and staff strive to bring the needed educational resources to the area, but new volunteers are often unprepared for the challenges of teaching in a West African nation.

Despite the Peace Corps’ accomplishments and goals, volunteers are often not experienced enough for the organization to be as effective as possible. Volunteers only have about three months of training, and many of them are unfamiliar with the local culture and language and lack teaching experience, which detracts from teaching quality. Even though the training instructs volunteers on “local languages, cross-cultural issues, security-related issues, technical skills, [and] diversity,” volunteers tend to know little when they arrive at training, and the time span is simply too short to convey everything they need to know (Amin, “Making” 323). Volunteers often have degrees unrelated to the field they are teaching and therefore may not have many skills to offer to a project (Amin, “Making” 327). At worst, they may hinder a project more than help. Peace Corps officials should, as volunteer Hayley White comments, “seriously evaluate the effectiveness of volunteers in the roles requested by their communities” (Roston). The Corps’ officials “measure success by the number of students taught by [v]olunteers” and not by teaching quality (Amin, “Making” 327). These measurements make it difficult to pinpoint quality issues.

Because of short training times, volunteers are expected to quickly adapt to the West African culture, language, and physical environment, which makes everyday teaching tasks unnecessarily difficult. Many volunteers’ only qualification for teaching English as a second language is “that they [are] native speakers of English,” even though they have never taught before and do not know the local language (Amin, “Making” 326-327). One volunteer explained that because of her limited abilities with her students’ language, her lessons were frequently “explained to exhaustion or simply did not work” (Peace Corps, “Volunteers”). The new physical environment that volunteers face also poses a challenge. The math teacher Cathy Seeley recounts a breakdown she had during the early days of her service in the Peace Corps, when she had trouble adapting to Burkina Faso’s climate. The nation was much hotter and more humid than America, which contributed to her stress-related health problems. According to Seeley, she “was operating in a very different [physical] environment than any [she] had experienced before” (56).  Volunteers’ lack of experience with the environment is not only a hurdle for quality teaching, it also overwhelms volunteers, which can further exacerbate teaching challenges.

Because of newer volunteers’ lack of training in culture, language, and history of the nation in which they are working, volunteers’ attitudes can reflect imperialistic perspectives towards Africans. In the worst cases, “[b]ecause of their ignorance of African culture, [v]olunteers sometimes referred to Africans as…different and undeveloped” (Amin, “Serving” 74). Even though providing education is a positive end, Western educators have the potential to perpetuate imperialistic ideas. The “historian and educator Jonathan Zimmerman notes, ‘All educators are to some degree imperialist — just as all educators are missionaries — because they seek to bring a new idea, belief, or skill to students who might not share it’” (DePuydt 75). Though more seasoned volunteers are more aware of their biases, newer volunteers are less culturally experienced and more prone to making assumptions about Africa and its people (Amin, “Making” 324). For example, some volunteers join the Peace Corps hoping to help Africa and “change the world,” though this mentality is dispelled as volunteers gain more experience (Roston).

To combat volunteers’ initial cultural inexperience, the Peace Corps staff attempts to create “a training ground for cultural sensitivity” (Roston). Imperialistic actions can be avoided or minimized through training and through interacting with and working alongside local people. In the Peace Corps’ education program, West African teachers often partake in training by team teaching with volunteers for large classes and by helping to organize special programs, such as Let Girls Learn, a girls’ education initiative (“Teaching”, “Let Girls Learn”). However, because training is short and volunteers do not have much prior experience, this training is not as effective as it could be. According to sociologist Margaret S. Sherradan, some of these young volunteers tend to focus on themselves and their personal development, rather than gaining “greater cross-cultural competence” (414). This view, according to Sherradan, has the potential to perpetuate stereotypes and “contribut[e] to the status quo in global relations instead of providing opportunity…and developing international understanding and cooperation across borders” (414).

This focus on personal development is often evident in the motivations of the volunteers. The “outcomes for host communities, volunteers, and sending communities will vary depending on volunteer attributes and individual capacity,” including motivation (Sherradan 397). Motivations that are focused on others may make volunteers more effective and willing to understand other cultures. However, most of the volunteers are young college graduates seeking experience, while older volunteers are the ones more driven to “give back” (Sherradan 399). Young volunteers often wish “to gain a broader perspective on the world, to contribute to society and help others, have an adventure, take a break from school or work, meet people and have fun, acquire skills, enhance a resume, or get a job” (Sherradan 399). For example, volunteers can earn their Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificates through the Peace Corps, which can later help them in their careers (“What Volunteers Do”). Many of these motivations are more personal and focus more on the volunteer than on others, which may make volunteers less effective in their jobs and less understanding of West African cultures.

Peace Corps volunteers have been providing education to West Africa for nearly sixty years and has been responding to the West African governments’ requests for educational assistance since the program’s inception (Amin Peace Corps 66). However, some volunteers lack teaching experience, as well as experience with the local culture and language. These deficiencies can not only interfere with teaching quality but can also perpetuate stereotypes about African people.

This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.

Works Cited

Amin, Julius A. “Making Sense of Fifty Years of U.S. Peace Corps Service in Cameroon.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, vol. 47, no. 7, 2014, pp. 319-338. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24393409. Accessed 23 February 2018.

Amin, Julius A. The Peace Corps in Cameroon. Kent, Ohio, Kent State University Press, 1992.

Amin, Julius A. “Serving in Africa: US Peace Corps in Cameroon.” Africa Spectrum, vol. 48, no. 1, 2013, pp. 71-87. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43941320. Accessed 23 February 2018.

Cohen-Mitchell, Joan. “So you want to join the Peace Corps and teach folks to read? Here’s what you’ll be doing.” Peace Corps, 9 September 2013, https://www.peacecorps.gov/stories/so-you-want-to-join-the-peace-corps-and-teach-folks-to-read-heres-what-youll-be-doing/. Accessed 9 March 2018.

DePuydt, Peter J. “’In the hearts of those whom you serve’: The Teachers for West Africa Program.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 134, no. 1, January 2010, pp. 59-76. JSTOR, doi:10.5215/pennmaghistbio.134.1.59. Accessed 23 February 2018.

“Let Girls Learn.” Peace Corps, 2018, https://www.peacecorps.gov/about/global-initiatives/let-girls-learn/. Accessed 9 March 2018.

Peace Corps Tonga. Peace Corps, 25 August 2017, https://www.peacecorps.gov/tonga/stories/ volunteers-describe-challenges-and-lessons-learned/. Accessed 2 May 2018.

Roston, Michael. “Peace Corps Volunteers in Their Own Words.” The New York Times, 25 July 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/07/25/world/peace-corps-stories.html. Accessed 9 March 2018.

Seeley, Cathy. “Navigating the Peaks and Valleys of Teaching.” New England Mathematics Journal, vol. 42, May 2010, pp. 56-61. ERIC, https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ951258. Accessed 9 March 2018.

Sherraden, Margaret S., et al. “Effects of International Volunteering and Service: Individual and Institutional Predictors.” VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, vol. 19, no. 4, 7 November 2008, pp. 395-421. Springer, doi: 10.1007/s11266-008-9072-x. Accessed 9 March 2018.

“Teaching English in Benin, West Africa.” YouTube, uploaded by Mark Huelsenbeck, 23 November 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWyx7w3tSuY.

“What Volunteers Do.” Peace Corps, 2018, https://www.peacecorps.gov/volunteer/what-volunteers-do/. Accessed 24 February 2018.

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