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Africa and America: How Does Culture Impact Teaching

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Are you a teacher? Have you taught before? Did you teach in Liberia, Africa or in the United States? If you were from Africa, and then became a teacher in the great United States, you probably have been asked, not once not twice, not thrice, but many times about your philosophy of teaching. Coming from Africa, initially, when I heard people asking others about their teaching philosophy, I would hold my chin in wonderment at the idea of having a sort of well-designed, and highly favorably perfect teaching philosophy. Many days, I asked whether an effective teacher in the great United States was defined by an appealing philosophy of teaching. But then again, being an African who was in exile in the great United States, who was I to ask about “what makes a effective teacher in an American school system,” that is celebrated by many in Liberia, Africa, and some in the great United States.

However, later when I joined the teaching profession, I had to answer this question; not once, not twice, not thrice, but many times. In fact, I became so accustomed to being asked this question, that I probably had an “elevator ride” response waiting to dish out. An “elevator ride” chat or response is a ‘one minute’ concise response used to grasp the attention of someone or sell an idea. Born in Africa, raised on the dark soil, taught by teachers who also “helped raised me up” because of our culture and practices that it takes a village to raise child, it tickled me to put down on paper my teaching philosophy. Well, it took me awhile to pretend to detach my innermost desire to empower kids, and bring in my African or sacred belief that “each child is a gift from God, and it is our duty to positively impact their lives, and treat them as God’s little one, “while drafting my philosophy. The wonderful teaching philosophy is one that must be built on academic theories. However puzzling, I knew that it was the order of the day. As the saying goes, ‘when you live in Rome, you must learn to act like a Roman,” so there I was carefully crafting a winning teaching philosophy, and then learning to summarize it into an elevator pitch, or catch phrase used to sell an idea or marketing product.

The “elevator” pitch or chat is definitely not something I developed. No, no! It is a strategy I learned from the Founder and then Director of [New York] Columbia’s University Human Rights and Advocacy Training Program, Dr. Paul Martin. Dr. Paul Martin, a human rights advocate, a teacher and lecturer would look directly in my eyes and say with his typical American intonation, ‘‘Musue, imagine that you walked to an elevator and meet someone who’s also ready to get on the elevator. The person will be stopping on the 2ndfloor, which will take approximately a minute. That means you have just one minute to chat with this person; and that one minute to get the person interested in your idea or your project?”

When Dr. Martin gave me that exercise, I had to really sit and do my homework. The homework didn’t take a day, or two. Frankly, it took me weeks. I couldn’t stop asking myself, “How do I condense Human Rights situations in Liberia and West Africa to a one minute pitch, but yet keep it captivating to grasp the attention of human rights groups, and international stake holders?’Truly, that was an enormously whopping assignment. Many days I would stand before a mirror and practice for hours – trying to get the idea, the flow, and the jargons. I must admit that I failed many times, and found myself running back to my desk to edit, rewrite and then vice versa. If this exercise went on for weeks at home, you can imagine how many times I stood before the mirror, and the number of times I found myself running back and forth in my room like a lone soccer player.

However, after completing what I had thought was the ‘finest” ‘elevator ride’ selling pitch, I passed my colleagues, many from Africa, and some from Europe, and I walked briskly into Dr. Martin’s office without any prior appointment. I then demonstrated what I had prepared. A practical teacher, Dr. Martin didn’t take a pen or pencil, neither did he take a chalk; but he stood there and said again, “That is good, but you can make it better Musue.” I asked him, “How?” Dr, Martin asked me to look at the various human rights challenges in Liberia and West Africa. We started verbally listing some of what were then the most crucial that reflected on many aspects of human rights issues. The issues I looked at included the infamous September 18, 1998 incident that led to the killing of opposition politician, Madison Wion near the great United States Embassy in Monrovia in 1998, the 1997 killings of Samuel Dokie, his wife, sister and cousin by members of Charles Taylor’s security forces.  Also in 1998, there is the incident of Market woman Nowai Flomo who was considered, “ “Disappeared,” in spite reports that she was killed by members of Taylor’s security forces,  the incarnation of political persons, including Charles Breeze, Gbai Ballah, among others. The discussion also included the implications of these issues on the West African sub-region. Let me add that this discussion was taking place in 2000, and therefore did not include the beating of Cllr. Taiwan Gongle’s or the arrest and torture of journalist Hassan Bility’s and other incidents that occurred after early 2000, but the skills learned from Dr. Martin and other staff at Columbia University were instrumental in helping me contribute to drawing international attention to subsequent violations including Gongloe’s, Hassan Bility’s and the imprisonment of The News Newspaper editorial staff, among others.

On the day on the brainstorming exercise, Dr. Paul Martin asked me questions rather than give me answers.  Those questions helped me to dig deeper into myself, and look beyond the surface of each incident and issues that were occurring in my homeland Liberia. Whatever responses I provided, he didn’t critically assess my responses. Rather, he asked additional questions. He also told me, “Let me hear your thoughts, “adding, “Think aloud.” My responses and thoughts led to more and more questions. When I prepared to leave Dr. Paul Martin’s office, he was still seated on his computer desk calmly, and with a thin smile on his face. I turned around looked at Dr. Martin and for a moment, I thought, “here’s a man who’s caring nature reminds me of my people and my culture. But here he sits, and so much involved in my life, and the lives of my colleagues, including those from Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana and other areas. Yes, he wants freedom in my homeland Liberia, and on all countries on the African Continent and other countries around the world.” My momentary pause might have caught the attention of Dr. Martin, but as he is always, he didn’t abruptly interrupt my concentration. My concentration was broken by a sound of the keyboard. I then tilted my head in the direction of Dr, Martin, and asked in my innocent tone, “Dr. Martin, why are you so tolerant, and patient with me. I have taken up a lot of your time.” Dr. Martin moved his hands from the key board, and said, “That is why I am here. I know you can do it Musue. The next time you are in class, or you come into my office, you will have the elevator ride selling pitch.” I felt truly motivated by his response supported by his expression.

A day later, I sat in Dr. Paul Martin’s class. Surprisingly, I was quiet, and for my classmates, and colleagues, and even my teachers, that was “far from typical.” I watched my colleague from Rwanda and the Democratic of Congo as they tried to take their wars and conflicts from the continent to the classrooms on Columbia University. Dr. Paul Martin, Holly Bartling and other staff at Columbia University didn’t chastise them for openly or privately fighting one another, or blaming one another for the conflicts in their individual countries. I guess, I was too much concerned, or overwhelmed by my own burdens- the conflicts in Liberia. I also was seriously thinking that I could just complete my programs, open my big mouth about Liberia, and then pack up and return home, and be warmly received and applauded by Charles Taylor and his people for studying, making fine speeches, and my great presentations at panels and conferences, and my excellent networking skills with human rights organizations and policy organizations. In my busy-ness, I didn’t take the time to lecture with both of my colleagues about their disagreement that had become awkwardly personal. On that day in class, both my colleague from Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo were at it again- though indirectly, but they somehow send responses to one another while responding to questions. At the end of the class, as usual, students gathered around Dr. Martin and other staff. As we walked out, I asked Dr. Martin, “Why did you decide to get into human rights teaching?” Dr. Martin’s response was illustrative, catchy, but concise. When I asked that question, little did I know that one day, I would also be asked similar question.

While I may not be standing before a classroom, I consider myself a public educator. When I taught, that’s when I stood before a classroom, and even today, when asked about my teaching philosophy, I think about the path that leads me to teaching. That’s simply because, my philosophy of teaching is closely tied to my educational experience, occurrences in the real world, and my world, and who I am. Throughout the years I met effective teachers who pushed me to go beyond what I believed I was capable of doing and achieving. Also, I met teachers and other persons who made assumptions of what I was not capable of doing based on who they believed I was. However, I learned from both situations. The teachers who believed in me and others who doubted my capability – they helped shaped my teaching philosophy.

Educational Theories

As I reflect on teaching and learning and teachers, I think about a few educational theories, including Abraham Maslow theory of Human Motivation. “The fact is that people are good, if only their fundamental wishes are satisfied, their wish for affection and security. Give people affection and security, and they will give affection and be secure in their feelings and their behavior.” [Maslow, Abraham]. When I read this quote by Abraham Maslow, it reinforced my belief that each and every child has the potential to bring something unique and special to the world. This concept is and remains the foundation of my education philosophy – both for the classroom, and in my public education undertakings.

As a teacher and an educator, I reflect on Maslow’s quote and his notion of a hierarchy of needs: deficiency needs that people must meet in order to move on to growth needs that are never met, but rather expanded with experiences. I believe that a teacher should consider the needs of students, realizing that though deficiency needs is at the bottom of the pyramid, it provides the foundation for the growth needs of students. As I look at Maslow theory, I asked myself whether our illiterate parents and grandparents were actually subconsciously schooled about these theories, and therefore ensure that children from the community were fed, and taken care of before leaving home for school? I therefore have implicit belief that learning and motivation are interdependent, and the first step in guiding students and people in discovering who they are, and helping them develop their potentials.

Some of the questions that come to mind when I think about Maslow’s theory about needs: How can someone who hasn’t experienced hunger, poverty, or separation from family because of war successfully relate, or motive such child to learn? How can someone who lived under the wings of their parents, sleep in comfortable bed, eat sumptuous meals three times a day, have extra cash in their bank accounts, and carry credit cards that hold thousands of dollars, teach kids who are profoundly impoverished? I wonder how someone far from my culture and background, or someone who hadn’t had the experienced I had as a child, would have taught me or view me in a school in the great United States? If that teacher found it hard to ‘reach me,’ would they have outright-ly written me off, or considered me un-teachable? These are questions that are yet to be considered in determining who’s a good teacher in the great United States, or analyzing finely written Teaching Philosophies that are the first steps in recruiting teachers.

Unlike the great United States, in most African societies, the living and life styles of teachers are known in the community. The teachers are active member of the community, and therefore a part of everyday living in the community. Parents and students see and interact with their teachers on almost a daily basis. The teachers are not only available, but they are accessible to parents, and family members, as well as students. This “community’ living, which is also reinforced by societal culture enables the teacher to understand the needs of his/her students, as well as help the student feel “comfortable’ in the presence of his/her teacher. While there may be some disadvantage(s) to this concept, in many ways, it provides a human side to the teaching and learning process.

While there are divergent views on Maslow’s theory, I believe that students do learn better and participate more when their basic needs are met, or understood. To breakdown this concept, ask yourself, “Is it possible to teach a child or someone who’s hungry, cold, ill, disappointed or homeless?” If even as a teacher or educator, you cannot provide the student, or person, or people food on a daily basis, if you show genuine empathy to the student, or person, that compassion or understanding might motivate the child or person to come to school, participate, and learn. The student will say to others or to themselves: My teacher understands, or my teacher is with me. Teaching is not a job; it is a responsibility that requires some forms of relationship. For me, a teacher is one who is respectful, understanding, approachable, and supportive. The way I interact with students and people demonstrate my respect for them. For example, I never say anything derogatory to my students or people I interact with. I do not attempt to use my students or others (or any of their work) to demonstrate poor example. I illustrate understanding by listening to their needs, even if I am unable to comply or supply those needs. The reason for my outlook is obvious, when a child or person feels safe and comfortable, and motivated, I can then begin to assist or motivate that student to discover their strengths, and help them build on their weaknesses. When a student feels that he is understood, he or she can feel comfortable and motivated to express their own opinions and nurture their own ideas, they can become relax and lighten up to their environment.

Aside Maslow’s theory, there is also another universal theory – The use of Multiple Intelligences theory, which also draws on the motivation of students’ talents, thus helping teachers construct self-motivating educational experiences. Through creating educational experiences based on natural talents and gifts, I realize that I can increase the opportunities whereby students can become actively engaged in learning experiences that are interesting and responsive and motivational. The practicality of this theory is that “all human beings have strengths in certain areas, and that or those strength(s) can be used to motivate learning and in teaching certain skills. The practicality of this theory is that the teacher must appreciate the students’ intelligences, whether the intelligences is at odd with their own practices. Imagine that you had the opportunity to teach the late American Musician Michael Jackson or the late Liberian musical star Tecumsey Roberts a mathematical skill. Which intelligence would you opt to use in teaching the musical star: would you use the Logical-mathematical intelligence or Musical intelligence? Of course, Roberts’ talents as a musician would make it easier to teach him math using his musical intelligence. On the other hand, it may take you forever to teach singers MaYatta Zoe, Fatu Gayflor or Zaye Tete reading skills by using their Naturalistic intelligence. It doesn’t take a scientist to know that though the singers possessed some Naturalistic intelligence, which has to do with classifying natural forms such as animal and plant species and rocks and mountain types; and the applied knowledge of nature in farming, mining, etc. but their strength lies in their musical (intelligences) skills. Therefore, to motivate learning, using their Musical intelligence (using reading notes to teach them songs, or asking them to use reading materials to write songs, and dance rhythms) would not only suffice, but proved successful. Using the naturalist intelligence would be motivational for those who have demonstrated interest in farming, gardeners, agriculture and related areas.

It is therefore important to note that the use of Multiple Intelligences also draws on the motivation of students’ talents, thus helping teachers construct self-motivating educational experiences. Through creating educational experiences based on natural talents and gifts, I realized that I can increase the opportunities whereby students can become actively engaged in learning experiences that are interesting and responsive and motivational. Over the years, I also learned that every (school and public) classroom presents a unique community of learners that varies not only in abilities, but also in learning styles. That is why, I find Howard Gardner’s theory that each individual manifests varying levels of different intelligences, and thus each person has a unique “cognitive profile.” The use of the “cognitive profile” proved successful when I worked as a classroom teacher, and it has become relevant in my public education activities.

In order to be effective, each teacher must recognize that their role must include giving students the tools with which to cultivate their own area of knowledge. To accomplish this goal, I teach to the needs and intelligences of each child so that all learners can feel capable and successful. I present instructions that will include the interests of the students, and make learning relevant to life. I incorporate themes, projects, group work, individual work, and hands-on learning in order to make students active learners. In showing my students how to become responsible for their own learning, I am giving them the tools to become successful in life, to believe in themselves, and to love themselves, and to encourage creativity.

Real World Connection

Making real life and real world connection is also another important component of teaching and learning. Linking learning to activities and events in the world community has proven to help students become caring and active members of society, which can be achieved if one is tolerant of the views, the racial and other background of others. My vision in teaching and learning is to create an environment- whether in the classroom or a public arena – where we can learn to embrace our differences as the core of what makes life so interesting, make each person feel important and make a positive difference in the life of others. It has been established that education and information are ways for people to be empowered with the ability to accomplish things, and to contribute meaningfully to society. Personally, lifelong learning, and teaching have provided me the opportunity for continual learning and growth.

After many years, I sit back and reflect on Dr. Paul Martin’s response to my question that cold day in the year 2000, when I asked him, “Why did you decide to get into [human rights] teaching?” As I look back, I can proudly say, “Dr. Paul Martin made a positive difference in my life.” Not only did he use the Multiple Intelligences theory, he also used Maslow’s and a series of other theories in teaching and empowering his students, including me to find our strengths; he and his energetic staff at SIPA building guided us on various ways to use our skills and knowledge to promote our work, and our societies. Most importantly, Dr. Martin built a relationship with each of his students, and made each feel exceptionally special to their home countries, to Columbia University campus, and to the world around them. His encouragement remains alive in me, and it is that positive touch that I endeavor to share with others, including my own son in my teaching and learning; it is an intrinsic part of my teaching philosophy-whether teaching in the classroom or the public arena.

About the author: Musue N. Haddad is a Liberian Journalist/Photo-Journalist. She holds a graduate degree from George Washington University, and has worked both at home and outside of Liberia. She received several national and international awards for her journalistic practices and human rights work, including the Nelson Mandela Award for “Best Student in Photo-Journalism,” Human Rights Award from the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA), for “outstanding dedication and service towards the recognition, promotion and protection of the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” and Human Rights Watch Hellmann-Hammett Award, granted to writers around the world who have been the targets of political persecution. In 1998/1999, she received the Press Union of Liberia “Journalist of the Year” and ‘”Photo-Journalist of the Year” awards.

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