Lisa Thistle had been preparing since January and knew she would face some gut-wrenching conditions during a recent educational mission to Haiti.
Still, the overwhelming sights of extreme poverty, buildings still reduced to piles of rubble from the huge earthquake that struck the Caribbean island country in 2010 and the lack of government social supports have left her transformed.
The French immersion teacher at G.C. Rowe Junior High School was one of four Canadians selected to go to Haiti as participants in the Project Overseas program for three weeks in early July. The program administered by the Canadian Teachers Federation sent 80 teachers to eight less fortunate countries around the world in an effort to try to enhance the level of education delivered to their respective populations.
In Haiti, the unemployment rate is a soaring 70 per cent and education is a luxury since most families cannot afford the $250 annual fee to send a child to school.
Those fortunate enough to be students find themselves in classes with as many as 70 to 100 students. Teachers are challenged in that they often have to provide their own chalk since schools often don’t have the funds to purchase this extra.
There is no Internet. Most homes have no electricity and the only lights on the streets after dark are those that come from the headlights of junky cars sent to Haiti because no one in North America wants to drive them anymore.
What often qualifies for work is trying to sell motor oil, packages of cookies or fresh fruit on the side of the road just so they can buy food that day. Children selling packets of gum that North American children might receive by the bundle on Halloween are afraid of the disappointment they might face at home if they can’t sell any of their cheap wares.
Somehow, the people of Haiti still seem genuinely happy with their lot, said Thistle. She attributes their positive attitude to the fact Haitian culture is rooted in families supporting one another through the tough times they face daily.
“I think we’re all up here in the pursuit of more,” she said of North America’s materialistic culture. “We have it wrong. It’s not about stuff.”
The team worked with 80 teachers, most of whom earn only $155 a month. Thistle hopes the strategies she and her three Canadian colleagues showed the Haitian teachers they worked with will help them and their students rise up beyond the abject, unfathomable poverty all around them.
“We presented them with a plethora of teaching strategies for elementary French language arts, science, and math, along with French language arts at the secondary level,” said Thistle, whose specialty is French at the secondary level.
The first week of the visit to Haiti was spent planning in the city of Jacmel. The second week saw the team work with 40 teachers from outlying communities and the third and final week involved training 40 more teachers from Jacmel itself.
She was amazed at how the Haitian teachers were so reluctant to ask questions and were not using techniques to better engage and challenge their students. It took merely minutes to show them better ways to get students to have more interaction and to have more fun with learning.
“The teachers were sponges, taking in all that they could and more,” said Thistle. “Their only complaint was that our stay was too short. They wanted more.”
Thistle wanted more too. She found it extremely hard to leave Haiti, knowing there was still more she could do.
Project Overseas tries to spread the experience it offers to as many Canadian teachers as possible. Thistle will apply again next year, but the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers Association selects only one teacher to be a part of the project each year and it is not likely she will be picked again.
That may not stop Thistle from returning to Haiti to do more of the work she wants to do there. She’s already considering going back, on her own dime.
“I don’t think this is the last time for me,” she said. “It can’t be ... I’m thinking this might just be the beginning.”
One of the team leaders from Canada has, in fact, has spent her own money to go to Haiti five times to help with the program because she has seen the benefit it has had.
Project Overseas has just begun implementing a three-year development program for its work in Haiti. Thistle said she would love to go back to help enhance and continue what she and her three colleagues began last month.
“Our petty complaints about the inconveniences in our lives are trivial in comparison to the realities of most of the world,” she said. “I have a stronger understanding and belief that we are all in this together. We need to help where and how we can to enrich the lives of others. In doing so, our own lives will be enriched exponentially.”