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Profile: Young Lam

Kenya

Teachers seeking adventure, or simply a shot in the arm, may want to consider a 27-month stint with the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps is always looking for teachers, and for many, the break from teaching in the U.S. is just what teachers need for a fresh outlook.

Young Lam had a brief career in engineering at a small bio-medical firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then spent a year in a graduate program at the University of Michigan School of Education before leaving for Kenya to teach math and physics for the Peace Corps. She teaches at a boarding high school of 235 girls and wrote a letter to share her experiences.

“My students range in age from 14 to 23. Often times, a family cannot afford to send two kids to school at the same time. Priority is given to the boys, and girls must stay at home until their parents can afford to send the girls to school,” she explains. “Most of our students come from villages surrounding the school.”

“My teaching style is to try to demonstrate everything possible, accompanied by lots of questions and lots of loud noises and sound effects. One of the challenges I struggle with is how to encourage students to do homework. Unlike in the U.S., the Kenyan educational system doesn’t seriously take into account students’ grades from exams or homework. The only factor used to determine their success in secondary school is the national exam. As a result, students often neglect doing their homework or don’t take the minor exams seriously. I have adjusted my teaching to try to cover all the material during class time. I feel that in mathematics, practice in solving problems is crucial. I often move around the classroom checking each student’s progress one by one. I focus on the national exam, choosing to spend lengthy periods of time going deeper into topics that are common on the national exam,” she says.

Form 1 and Form 2 mathematics (ninth and tenth grade) do not involve a lot of abstract theories, so she demonstrates concepts using locally available materials. “When studying land surveying, we used the school’s playing field, which has large patches of tall grass where the cows have not fed. Those patches were excellent for us to measure, using local twine and twigs. My Peace Corps mountain bike was a fascinating gadget for students when I used it as part of a demonstration. I had students ride the bike and record distance and time. I used this data to teach the linear equation y=mxtb. Simple clinometers were constructed by students using rulers, sticky tape, strings, plastic tubes from chemistry solution containers, and protractors to learn angle of elevation and depression.

“One advantage of teaching here is that I don’t feel limited or restricted in the activities I do with students. There are not as many school rules and regulations like permission slips and parental signatures to bar teachers from taking students outside or down to the river for demonstrations or class,” she says.

“We’re very busy right now preparing for the exam. I want to use vocabulary cards, formula flash cards, and problem cards. I have ideas of creating games and puzzles based on the exam topics. Students are visiting my house in the teachers’ quarters at night and on weekends seeking help,” she says.

While some Peace Corps Volunteers live in cities in apartments, Young’s environs fit the stereotype of Peace Corps service. “I have grown to really enjoy my house. It is comfortable, cool, and airy, especially with the many gaps and openings in the timber walls where sunlight often filters through. Even though I live alone, I have many living companions – creatures living in the roof and in hidden nooks and corners. The most fascinating to watch are the lizards, which stay for hours on the walls, motionless,” Young explains.

“My Peace Corps experience has changed my life. I would like to think that in December 2002 when I set foot on an airplane to fly home, I can say I have helped people, changed lives, made my family and friends proud…I do know that being a Peace Corps Volunteer has done something for me. Better awareness of the world. More appreciation for the things I have, the way people live outside of America…deeper understanding of people and cultures. A clearer sense of the important things in life. A closer connection to loved ones at home. A better defined meaning of what it is to be a teacher…

“I believe that the Peace Corps needs more older, experienced teachers who can bring their experiences, skills and bag of tricks to the challenges of teaching in a different culture. Readers might consider Peace Corps service as part of their teaching career. The frustrations are many. The personal rewards are even greater. Then, perhaps you will find that service in the Peace Corps demonstrates its motto: ‘The toughest job you’ll ever love,’” she concludes.

Young Lam (Kenya)

Young Lam has an MA in Secondary Education. She is from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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