Notions of Early Peace Corps: Same and Different from Today’s Peace Corps

I’ve had to review my attitudes toward what is and is not Peace Corp-like in my way of living. I’m not alone in carrying images of the early Peace Corps in my head into this experience. Is it a violation of the spirit of Peace Corps to have a life style that’s, um, some cross between early Peace Corps and contemporary expat living in Thailand? (This is sometimes called Peace Corps Posh.) Is there supposed to be an element of hardship, and how much hardship is enough? Yeah, it’s hot. Yeah, there are bugs and critters everywhere so there’s a huge amount of cleaning to be done daily. Yeah, I don’t get to use a motorcycle (even ride along) or drive a car so I walk most everywhere. Yeah, I don’t get to speak much English as I have one, count ‘um, one, colleague who speaks enough English to really communicate with me in English so 5 days a week I’m dependent on my lousy (but improving) Thai. But I don’t have hardships, I have annoyances. Am I “cheating” if I get a washing machine? How much local food should be in my diet and how much can I retreat to my own MSG-free cooking; free of deep fat frying-in-multiply-reused-burned-palm-oil; free of the conception that since salt is good, sugar is good, and spice is good we should use all three in everything? (If you think I’m overstating take a glass of orange juice, add two tablespoons of sugar or to be more realistic use corn syrup and then a tablespoon of salt, stir it up and try, just try to get it down.) If I eat food I’ve cooked myself, that’s cool, okay? I do enjoy the comfort of a peanut butter sandwich or my own baked macaroni and cheese. If I set my way of life to match some fantasy of early Peace Corps (after all, I have wanted to do this since the 60s), is that sensible in light of the fact that I have a sixty-something year old body and there’s money in the account in the US that could jolly well pay for a washing machine? But wait! Living at the standard of the other teachers in my village is part of the deal. Wait again! They have washing machines!! There was a washing machine in the house when I previewed it and decided to rent it, but there was no washing machine when I moved in. So I live in a delightful, gracious, tiled and paneled home (rent is $100 US a month), and I bought a washing machine. I hope you’re not too shocked or disappointed.
The students I work with are disadvantaged. I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer and sometimes I’m inconvenienced, but I’m not dealing with hardship. This isn’t early Peace Corps. This is a professional development gig for two years to help teachers improve their practices. Early Peace Corps was about water a lot of the time: is there drinking water anywhere within walking distance? could irrigation improve crops? Could improved sanitation reduce disease? What my gig has in common with early Peace Corps is that there is a huge gap between current practices in Thai schools and what could be occurring given more constructive knowledge, skills, and attitudes. There’s a huge gap.

Now I will drift off into a rant on Thai school traditions and practices, the point of which is that there’s an opportunity here to help people in a developing country because there’s a gap between Thai public schools of today and the schools they could be.

Conversations online with other volunteers are dotted with incredulous comments about teachers’ practices and attitudes, like why not go for coffee and snacks as the students are writing and we don’t want to disturb them. I’ll spare you the rest of the examples. I’ll just reiterate what I’ve said before that in a system where the teachers are important and the children are not (overstated for effect) and where substitute teachers are unheard of teachers often abandon the classroom to do something else that seems important to them (and maybe it is important). What counts as teaching includes devoting hours and hours of “study hall” time to having students write again into their copy books and recite from memory, line by line, classic stories that they memorized years ago. I assume they have good moral themes. There is such heavy use of memorization and group work that a student can, what, flow maybe, through the school day without being able to read and the teachers don’t even know which students don’t know how to read. (Okay maybe some do, but others do not.) What counts as teaching includes making students clean the school for the first week, for example clearing up small leaflets on the grounds using traditional brooms, for a week. Did I mention that this is all they did for the first week? When that’s done we devote a half an hour to it daily after opening assembly but before classes and another half hour to sweeping after classes and before the close of school. Another accepted practice is to impose substantial doses of discipline to get things off to a good start. I’d never seen this one before, maybe you have, two rows of boys with arms on each others’ shoulders doing the exercise with squatting and jumping up to a cadence as a punishment for skipping class. Why did they skip class? They’re upper classmen and know the drill. I speculate that it served the students’ own purposes in being identified with a certain attitude and style. I’m not unsympathetic to the matter of setting standards and gaining cooperation in the classroom. I just think that providing an education is a pretty good way to get students to cooperate. I think that showing respect for students is a good way to encourage students to be respectful of each other and of the teacher. Of course there are reasons that Thai schools are the way they are. Of course I’m not able to understand all the reasons and this is a system, it’s not possible to change one element without consequences for the other elements of the system, so change is complex and hard. We only change the parts that the teachers want to change.

So this isn’t early Peace Corps. There’s water in place. Okay, we still get drinking water by boiling or buying bottles or big carboys, but there’s water for laundry, crops are irrigated, and basic sanitation is in place (sort of). This is today’s Peace Corps where the Thai government sent folks to sit down with PC folks and find priorities where college educated Americans can help Thais make improvements. Schools are a priority. Peace Corps volunteers have to get over some culture shock, but there are plenty of opportunities to demonstrate alternative ways of teaching, assessment methods to clarify what teaching is needed (let’s pay attention to the learners, shall we?), and networking between teachers to accelerate the spread of effective practices.

It’s still Peace Corps even if I don’t hand wash my clothes and even if my home is gorgeous. It’s2011 and what would it mean to NOT use the Internet to find graphics to print for vocabulary study? It’s today’s world. It’s today’s Peace Corps. We help host country nationals try to bridge gaps between their institutions today and the institutions they can be.

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