Bloom where you're planted
When I was in college, I had a poster above my bed with a bright yellow flower that said, “Bloom where you’re planted.”
I always found that flower reassuring and, throughout my career, I often thought about those simple words of advice. As I look back, there are times when I followed that advice quite well. Other times? Not so well.
As I browsed the Peace Corps website and looked into becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer, I noticed a position for a Peace Corps Response Volunteer teaching English at a university in Mexico. This is where I could see myself blooming. Having lived in Texas for most of my adult life, I had had many Mexican students in the English classes where I volunteered my time. I thought it would be a perfect match.
“Bloom where you’re planted," I remember saying to myself one morning soon after being assigned to work at the Foreign Language Department at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Hidalgo (UAEH). On the walk between my apartment and the university, one of the things that immediately caught my attention was that Mexicans plant flowers everywhere. They plant them in their yards, in tin cans, in old flower pots, in milk cartons, wherever. Out of all those ordinary containers beautiful, vibrant flowers, hardy cacti, and brilliant green plants bloom.
The English language learning needs of Hidalgo’s population are unique in that most of their graduates will never travel to the U.S. or other English-speaking countries; however, English will more than likely play an important role in their futures. Some will go to work for a Japanese, Chinese, or German company where English will be the lingua franca. In many of the science professions, staying current in their field will require reading the latest research articles, which are almost always published in English. With Mexico’s close proximity to the United States, English is everywhere, in the movies people watch, the music people listen to, the new words that the Mexican lexicon adopts, like internet, cool, clutch, and Facebook. Globalization may be a cliché, but for these students, knowing English allows them to play in a global world.
I still imaged myself “blooming” in the teaching of English but, gradually, I began to see what my counterparts needed was not so much my English language teaching skills, but my change management and organizational development skills. Shifting my thinking away from what I thought I would be doing to what they really needed me to provide was an important step in practicing the art of “blooming where you’re planted.”
A few years ago, my counterparts, working with a British consultant, initiated a new curriculum focused on the kind of English UAEH students would likely use. The curriculum pushed students to use the English they learned over the many years they studied English (rather than starting over each year with “This is a book,” and “What is your name?”). I was invited to attend site visits to observe meetings between the English language staff and their teacher and administrative colleagues at the various campuses. Reactions to the presentations told me that little change management had occurred. Teachers weren't prepared to use the new curriculum or to offer input about what worked in the English language classrooms.
I helped create a team that included English language department staff and teaching staff. Their mission became working through how best to integrate the curriculum and the English teaching methodology it embraces into a practical proven method of teaching English as a foreign language.
Through all of this, I kept hearing the wise words our Peace Corps staff repeated during training, “Above all else, be flexible!” In some ways, my Peace Corps Response assignment did not turn out to be what I expected. Instead, what happened is that the beautiful, colorful experience of living and working in Mexico allowed me to “bloom” exactly where I had been planted.