A View From Ecuador
GSE’s Dean and faculty members recently invested months of time and thought into overhauling MAT program content and field experiences in order to improve and more meaningfully integrate course work into a hands-on teaching experiences. An exciting outcome of that process was the birth of “Exploration Week.”
This past October, candidates spent a week away from typical coursework and student teaching activities in an array of alternate settings, gaining new insights into how context affects learning. Through local service learning projects, contact with independent or parochial schools, and with non-profit services to youth, the homeless and hungry, and with two “distant” experiences in Chicago and Ecuador, MAT candidates were able to reflect on and integrate their new awareness.
MAT candidate Steve Baxter and seven other adventurous classmates chose an immersion experience in Quito, Ecuador through ACLAS (Andean Center for Latin American Studies).
Steve recently talked to us about his experience. As a “non-traditional” student with 30 years in the military as a decorated US Navy Captain, Steve brings and shares with classmates a full spectrum of life experiences and relationships to his studies and into the classroom and teaching profession.
GSE: Why did you choose the Ecuador experience for Exploration Week?
SB: I love to travel, especially overseas, so the opportunity to go to South America as part of the MAT program was awesome. Plus, I want to learn Spanish, and I saw this as a great first step because of the classes offered at ACLAS (Andean Center for Latin American Studies).
During my undergraduate program at Providence College, I did a major thesis paper about Liberation Theology in the Catholic Church, an issue and political movement that was going on in Latin America during the early 1980’s, yet I had never been to South America. This was my opportunity, 30 years after I finished my paper to bring full circle an interest I had as an undergraduate.
GSE: Was there something that surprised you?
SB: I knew that South America was both similar to and different from North America. I was surprised, though, just how different Ecuador is with respect to standards of living. I stayed with a very nice family, but even given the status of the breadwinner (medical doctor) the standard of living is not what it might be in the United States or Canada.
Also surprising to me is the political climate of Ecuador. There seems to be some concern about the future of the country, particularly with respect to private education. Granted, my experience was limited (one week!) but I learned that the Ecuadorian government has made great strides recently toward improving education, but it has also closed 40 universities in the country.
GSE: What differences did you notice between the Ecuadorian culture or education system and our own?
SB: We were only able to see private education in Ecuador, so that colors my comments. In my experience in the 4-7th grade classroom, I found Ecuadorian students bright, engaged, and enthusiastic about school and their studies. I noticed that education in Ecuador is closely tied to government…the latter dictates the path of the former, to include clearly spelled out objectives for the students (first through tenth grade). Objectives include a focus on nationalism and cultural identity, practical logic and creative problem solving, appreciation and involvement in the arts, and valuing and preserving personal and environmental health.
GSE: Was there something you experienced that will influence your future teaching practice?
SB: There were actually quite a few points of similarity between classroom management in Ecuador and the U.S. I did observe one new technique that worked well. A teacher in the 7th grade calmed students by having them all close their eyes and repeat a mantra of sorts…kind of like transcendental meditation. Another science teacher impressed me by reevaluating a course of instruction “on the fly” so that she would teach the subject in a different manner. That showed me the importance of self-evaluation and reflection on one’s teaching techniques and practices.
GSE: Is there anything else you’d like to add?SB: Easily, the best part of the Ecuador experience was in the camaraderie of the Willamette University students who took the voyage with me. It was not always easy…there was work to be done and often little sleep (especially on the travel days at the beginning and end of the week). Everyone had a “can-do” spirit, was enthusiastic, and was fully engaged in the activities we participated in. It was an experience I will never forget and I’m very lucky to have been able to participate. I will treasure the memories of that week in Ecuador with my friends and classmates from Willamette University!
MAT students during Exploration Week in Ecuador