It was a hot Thursday afternoon in Laredo, Texas. The build site had been transformed from a concrete pad to a framed house in three days, and the only remaining step was to get the roof trusses in place. It was close to 100 degrees, and the group was beginning to feel the effects of working in desert-like conditions.
Many of the 51 teacher candidates had never worked on a construction site and were anxious to contribute. As the roof trusses were unbundled and carried to the site, young women and men lined up to be the next person to traverse the wooden beams and guide the roof trusses into place. At this crucial point in the build, they had to face their fears about heights and trust their own strength.
As each person got into place atop the framing, the group fell silent to hear the instructions from the leader guiding the roof trusses below:
“A little to the left … a little to the right … you’re pushing too fast … now too slow.”
Meanwhile, in a bare, concrete building, 15 teacher candidates slouched in plastic chairs following their first day teaching more than 50 children in the Dominican Republic. Exhausted and frustrated, the group discussed with their leader, Nadja, how some children wouldn’t — or couldn’t — follow the instructions they were given during class.
“When they don’t understand, or if they start fighting,” Nadja explained, “just wrap your arms around them and gently move them where you want them to go.”
The group fell silent, until one teacher candidate said what the rest were all thinking: “You just can’t do that in Canada.”
Nadja replied, “It’s okay to touch and hug your students here, because when you can’t speak Spanish, you can at least ‘communicate love.’”
This year, 67 teacher candidates from Western Education traveled to Laredo, Monte Cristi or the Dominican Republic to serve for one week with a non-profit organization. Their experiences with Habitat for Humanity, which works toward a world where everyone has a safe and decent place to live, or Outreach 360, which supports Spanish literacy and ESL programs for children living in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, were part of their bachelor of education’s Transition to Professional Practice (T2P), in which teacher candidates volunteer with an alternative education program as the final component of their degree.
Most candidates completed their T2P in Canada, but the students on these international service trips chose to challenge themselves in new and entirely unexpected ways.
In Laredo, as each of the candidates put his or her truss in place and got down from the house, the team began to cheer and shout comments. “I feel like I can do anything now!”
The experience took on the atmosphere of a high-ropes exercise; it pushed the students out of their comfort zones, and they felt powerful and moved by the experience. As Juan, who had worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the group all week, moved the final truss into place, he cheered the loudest. The Laredo group had served not only Juan’s family but also each other, as there was plenty of encouragement, empathy and tenderness for their teammates who had faced their own personal challenges, including traversing those high 2×4 beams guiding the roof truss.
In Monti Cristi, Western’s teacher candidates practiced overcoming language and cultural barriers by ‘communicating love,’ one of Outreach 360’s 10 principles for success in their program.
The idea children could be touched, hugged and moved around was at first a ‘foreign’ idea, but it became one of the many cultural expectations ‘unlearned’ over the week. In fact, many of the teachers found, through physical contact with their Dominican Republican students, their bonds grew stronger. These future teachers developed a greater ability to adapt to new teaching situations and a greater understanding of how children bring their own cultural expectations into the classroom.
In both of these international community service experiences, Western Education’s teacher candidates found new ways to cope with their fears and with uncertainty. From developing patience and respect for the communities they served, as well as for each other, this year’s graduating bachelor of education students are certain to bring their new understanding and skill sets back with them into Canadian classrooms.
Matt Bazely is the director of practicum at the Faculty of Education. Elan Paulson is the digital communications specialist at the Faculty of Education.