I’ve been trying to think of a good way to answer The Question for the last week or so. As I get closer to home, I know that I have to come up with an answer soon.
The question, of course, is this: “How was your trip?” How much time do you have? I’m not sure I can boil six weeks into a couple sentences. Or even a single conversation.
I tried unpacking my adjectives. Wonderful. Enlightening. Surreal. Frustrating. Inspiring. Exhausting. Enriching. They fall flat. I thought about using superlatives. “The best experience of my life.” I’m not sure I’d go that far. “The most rewarding professional experience I’ve had.” Possibly. But I don’t want to totally dismiss everything I’ve done in the last 16 years, either. “All teachers should do this at some point in their careers.” I don’t know that I’d recommend that for every teacher, though I can think of many who would benefit from such an experience. “I’ll never do anything else with my summers.” Definitely not.
The truth is that I don’t know how my trip was. I’ve been experiencing more than reflecting. In 42 days, I’ve visited two countries (or five, depending on how you count them). I’ve slept in five different places. I’ve visited 16 schools. Our team presented 15 full-day workshops to over 150 people. I’m sure, if I take enough time, that I’ll reflect more on these experiences, and that they’ll mean more to me in six months or a year. At the moment, I feel like the boa who has swallowed the elephant. It’s going to take a while to digest this meal.
But the question is still there. I can’t very well say, “let me get back to you on that in six months.” And I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be able to get away with my standard, “meh, it was all right” and leave it at that.
I think we’ve made a difference. It’s hard to say whether our work here will have a lasting impact on African teachers and learners. I’ve certainly finished many workshops in the US to rave reviews, only to see no change in teaching practice afterwards. The difference here — I hope — is in capacity building. We’re not dropping in, doing a week of workshops, and walking away. We’re teaching the teachers to teach each other. We’ve spent a lot of time on building learning communities, and showing them how they can learn from one another. The team will be back next year — working with the same partners and many of the same teachers. I think it’s a model that can work.
Noble is fond of quoting Mother Theresa. Our efforts may be just a drop in the ocean. The impact may be so small that it can’t even be measured. At this point, it certainly feels like that’s the case. But without that drop, the ocean would be less.