Monday, June 9, 2008

Ramblings: Homage to My Greatest Coach

In January I started teaching again with the beginning of a new Malawian school year. A year into teaching I am much more comfortable in my role as a teacher, and see it as the greatest impact I am making in Mwazisi. Teaching provides a connection to the younger members of the community, and is a great opportunity to begin encouraging environmental stewardship for the future leaders. A lot of my students are orphans, so in addition to encouraging environmental values I also try to serve as a role model to encourage some of the qualities I think are valuable in a person like honesty, respect, and focused effort. In pushing these traits I realize that I am echoing the words I used to hear from my Dad growing up, and modeling my teaching style and classroom management in Mwazisi after so many years of observing my Dad coaching basketball.

When I arrived in Mwazisi last year I offered to help out at the secondary school during my spare time. The headmaster took that to mean I would be a full time teacher, and told me that I’d be taking over the Form one physical science class the following week. I began teaching by taking over for a class halfway through the school year in a subject that I haven’t even thought about since I was 16 years old. The additional combination of a language barrier with my Form ones, and the hormonal insanity of any 13 to 15 year old, made my first couple weeks of teaching feel like the third circle of hell.

I decided to stick with it when I realized what an incredible need for teachers there was at Mwazisi Community Day Secondary School (CDSS). Most of the other teachers only show up to teach about half of the time, and when they do show up they just sit under a mango tree while the class prefect copies the notes straight out of the teachers edition onto the crumbling chalkboard. A few of the teachers put a legitimate effort into their teaching, but most of them are burnt out and uninspired. I can’t say that I really blame them; teaching in Malawi is a daunting job, with over-crowded classes (58 students in my Form one class), and a complete lack of resources (my class doesn’t even have desks or chairs, but instead sit on planks and scrap wood from the half finished school block next door).

Over the remainder of the school year the students got more used to my teaching and my American English. As I saw that they understood the concepts I was teaching faster I was able to pick up the pace of my teaching and cover more material. They began to participate more and I became more creative in my teaching, improvising class experiments and demonstrations with whatever materials I could scrap together. In one instance I used the students themselves to represent atoms in different states of matter. One third of them acted as solid matter, squeezed together, just shifting their weight back and forth to represent the vibration of the molecules. Another third of the class represented liquids, and moved freely around the room weaving around the solids and passing each other. The last third were the gases, running from one side of the class to the other, colliding (while laughing) into anything in their way including each other. I’m sure the rest of the school was wondering what the crazy Azungu was up to in his class, but the students clearly enjoyed my break from conventional teaching and showed better and better efforts as the year went on. I was extremely proud to see the tremendous improvements the class as a whole showed on my final exam, and was really touched when I heard that at the end of the year the class had gone to the headmaster and asked if I could also teach their Form two Physical Science class.

While I looked forward to teaching my original class, I was not looking forward to starting from scratch with a whole new class of Form one students. I knew that the first few months would be a struggle so I decided to set the tone for the year early on, laying out my expectations for the class at the beginning hoping to start off on the right foot. I thought back to the teachers who had most impressed me and how they controlled our classes, while also inspiring us to give our best effort. But the more I thought about my past experiences, the more I realized that the best example I could imitate didn’t come from my classroom teachers. I realized that my greatest example for teaching is my Father as a basketball coach.

I recently received an article that my Mom had clipped out of our hometown paper The Broomfield Enterprise about my Dad. He received well deserved recognition during halftime of the Broomfield boys basketball game for his efforts in coaching boys basketball at the Broomfield Recreation Center for the past 25 years. My Dad began coaching with my older brother’s first team, coached me through the program, and has kept on all the way up to the present. It was fitting for him to receive the award at a high school game since he has helped to provide so many fundamentally sound, dives for the ball kind of players for the program. Although I had already realized my Dad’s teaching gift, I was incredibly happy and very proud to see that so many other people recognize his efforts as a coach as well. When I started back to teaching this year I really wanted to try and emulate the characteristics that I think make him such a great coach; the way he includes each and every one of his players, not just the star athletes, truly making them feel like they are as much an important part of the team, and drawing out the best efforts and positive attitudes.

Every year at the beginning of the first practice he sits the whole team down at center court and lays out the three rules he expects everyone to follow when they play on his team. After years of hearing the speech as one of his players, as well helping at his practices when I was available in high school and college, I can recite his speech pretty much word for word.

Rule # 1 Do what’s right.

At eleven to fourteen years old his boys are at an age where using good judgment becomes a crucial life skill. He explains to his players that somebody getting into trouble all of the time can’t be a useful part of the team, so making sound decisions on and off the court is an important part of playing basketball.

Rule # 2 Do your best.

He always promises his players that he will never get angry with any of them as long as they give their best effort. A promise he always lives up to, favoring whoever gives his best effort, and not necessarily the best athletes on his team or the players with the most experience.

Rule # 3 Treat everybody how you want to be treated

He demands that his players apply this rule to everybody they encounter including their teammates, coaches, the referees, and their opponents. Respect is very important to my father, and he leads by example, always showing respect to his players, encouraging them to reciprocate his example and carry it into every interaction.

In addition to his three core rules my Dad always asks that the players remember to have fun. His emphasis on enjoying the game is something I have always found refreshing coming back to his practices, particularly after experience as a college athlete. In all my years around athletics I have encountered too many coaches and players who take themselves way too seriously and tend to think of the game as some sort of glorified battle, when in reality its still just a game, and games are meant to be fun.

My Dad reinforces his rules throughout the year in every practice and game. If someone is loafing up and down the floor he yells, “come on you’re not doing your best,” or when he sees someone teasing one of their teammates then he asks, “is that how you want to be treated?” My Dad is always quick to remind his players that they should apply these rules to all aspects of their life; school, family, friends, or just every day life. As he says, “if you strive to practice these rules each and every day than you are bound to be a much happier person.”

I have always believed that my Dad is a natural teacher, and am happy he gets to fulfill this calling by coaching. He motivates and encourages each and every one of his players to achieve, always ready on the sidelines with a smile and a high-five. As I teach my classes here in Africa I like to think that by following my Father’s example and emphasizing the same values he taught on the Basketball court I might have the same kind of long lasting effect in Mwazisi that he has made in Broomfield.

So when I walked into class last January and faced a new class of 60 form one students for the first time, I drew on the experience and wisdom of my Dad, and recited his three rules speech almost word for word. I figure that even if my students never understand more than half of what I teach in class, at least they will still remember my father’s moral code, via his three rules. I know this because these are the classroom rules I write on the board at the beginning of each week, and. When I see a boy looking at his neighbor’s workbook while writing a quiz, I ask him to recite the first rule, and tell me if he is doing what is right. When I see a girl nodding off while I’m lecturing in physical science, I question her about doing her best. Or when I hear a group of students laughing at a classmate’s English mistake I ask, “is that how you want to be treated when you make a mistake?”

I think I was extremely lucky to have such an influential teacher, not to mention to have that teacher as a Father. Happy Father’s Day Dad, thanks for everything.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Prouder Than Ever To Represent America

It's fitting that I'm in Lilongwe right now to go to the American ambassador's Independence day celebration (he has it a month early because he'll be in America for the real day),it just so happens that tonight we have an even better reason to celebrate our home country...The Nomination of Barack Obama to be the democratic candidate for president. I have never seen a political candidate in my lifetime with as much potential to change the world, and I'm so happy to see that so many people in America see the same thing in Mr. Obama. I have also never seen a candidate that has such an effect on the American public, it seems like he has mobilized and energized my generation in a way that I would have thought was imposable three years ago. He's bringing out people that never even thought about voting, and making passionate believers of them.

The only thing that might be comparable to the excitement in America is the excitement here in Africa! To give you an example the other day I rode my bicycle from my site to Mzuzu to do some repairs. While I was riding through Ekwendeni about 80 kms away from my village,(where nobody knows me or that I'm an American) a women raised her fist and said in slow Malawian broken English, "OH-BAA-MA." You can only imagine the size of the smile that grew across my face as she hid her embarrassed laugh in her her friends chitenge.

Six months ago everybody around my village just laughed at me when I held up my copy of "Dreams From My Father" to show them the picture of the man who I think will be my next president. Everybody, except for Vincent Mpese Gondwe a retired Member of Parliment that lives in Bolero who has become a very close friend of mine. This incredible man has seen the darkest days of Malawian politics, which he still bears in the form of scars on his head from when an attempt was made on his life for making a bold vote in Parliament. He also saw the darkest days in American politics as a student at Harvard in the early 1960's.

When Obama first won the primary in Iowa I rode my bike to Vincent's house to share the good news. He had already heard on BBC and was working on framing a picture of Mr. Obama that he had cut out of a Newsweek magazine, with his added caption "A Symbol of Change." Mr. Gondwe was chuckling as he said, "Daniel I tell you, if that man is sworn in as the American president then all of Africa will change the way it looks at your country."

Now everybody in my village is believing in the possibility of a black man leading America, and changing the world. When they walk into my house and see his picture hanging on my wall under a huge American flag I inherited from another volunteer, they say his name with the same delibrit hopefullness in their voice that that woman had the other day....OH-BA-MA. I'm proud to be a representative of America, and am all too happy to sit down with anybody who will listen and start ranting about this man who I believe has the life-experience to understand the world in a way no previous American president has, and the eloquence to relate that understanding to all American public as a whole, and the integrity to use all that influence to help us find a better way in the world.

I'm so proud to see the excitment of a growing movement in America. A mass awakening from the past eight years of our appathetic slumber, and a new demand for change. I'm also proud to see that his nomination was ensured with the final few delegates from my adoptive state of Montana, and will be confirmed with his official nomination in my home state of Colorado. But I would be most proud to say that I served as a Peace Corps volunteer under President Barack Obama's administration. Let's make that happen now!