Teaching in the Marshall Islands: A Post-Decision Narrative

by Nola Lee Kelsey / Jun 05, 2010 / 0 comments

Teaching in the Marshall Islands: A Post-Decision Narrative

By Jeremy Douglas

An excerpt from The Voluntary Traveler: Adventures from the Road Best Traveled

It’s 7:30am.  I’m awake.  I didn’t need the alarm today.  I didn’t need the alarm yesterday.  I haven’t needed the alarm in a long time.  It’s easy to get up at 7:30am when you sleep for ten hours every night.  Instant oatmeal for breakfast – yeah, that sounds good.  And instant coffee – always a coffee.  Soon it will be time for school.  I hope the students listen today.

I hear people outside talking about me.  I don’t understand everything they’re saying. In fact, I understand very little of what they’re saying, but I know it’s about me.  Seems like they’re always talking about me.  It was novel at first.  And understandable.  I was the new émigré, and an interesting topic for discussion, no doubt.  But after eight months?  Come on, enough is enough – let me just be another face in the community.  I don’t want to stand out anymore.

Time for school.  I have finally found the semblance of an effective teaching plan and routine.  However, I am the student of trial and error experiences more than I am the teacher of concrete and flowing ideas and concepts.  Despite people’s reactions, I am nothing special – I have just come to do my inexperienced best at teaching English to elementary school children.  Ultimately, I will not single-handedly save the childrens’ futures and raze the plagues of inadequate education.  I may take a step in that direction, but it’s a long-term goal that needs commitment from the community, other teachers and the Ministry of Education.

My one-minute commute to school commences amidst the aromas of cooking pancakes and rice, mixed with the smoky smell of burning coconut husks.  People are coming and going down the only dirt road, preparing for what may result in a day of copra making and general chores.  But no matter what work may be done today, the ambiance will be dominated by the central theme of outer island life here in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI):  food.  Mõňā (mung-i) is easily the most discussed topic (even more so than me!) and – literally – the life blood of the community.

I finally reach the school – the only area not among the sanctuary of coconut trees.  There is even a makeshift baseball field, albeit a small one.  I turn the key to open the rusty lock on my classroom door, and the eager children (most of whom are not even in my class the first period) rush through the open door like water breeching a levee.  I open the windows, write the date on the board, ring the bell, and thus begins another day.

I am not sure exactly why I decided to come to the RMI.  Perhaps Sartre was right:  we are never really sure why we make the decisions we do, but only create a post-decision narrative, or story.  In either case, I was unsatisfied with my job in Canada, I wanted to live abroad for a while, I wanted to be in a warm climate, I didn’t want to (rather, couldn’t) spend a lot of money while abroad, and I wanted to visit somewhere esoteric.  But the RMI is one of dozens of such places, so why here?  Perhaps it was a chance click of the mouse – a click that led me to the World Teach website http://www.worldteach.org  and opened my eyes to the RMI program.  Alas, a perfect opportunity.  I applied.  I was accepted.  I had a plan - albeit a haphazard one – for the next year.

Before arriving in the RMI, and even at the beginning of my time here, I remember thinking, “A year…what’s a year? That’s nothing.”  How quickly the notion of ‘a year’ took on an entirely new significance.  A year of eating rice, pancakes, donuts, and canned meat; a year of these impossible students; a year of isolation.  This isn’t a year I’m dealing with, but an eternity.  At least, those were my thoughts at the beginning of my time on the outer island of Arno – certainly the most difficult in the adjustment phase.  Soon afterwards I stopped counting the days and started making the best of my experience.  Too often I’ve been guilty of a “the grass is greener…” mentality by constantly thinking about where I’ll go and what I’ll be doing in the future. That thinking is one of the things that drove me here in the first place.

Before coming to the RMI, I was told by a former volunteer that “you can put as much or as little into the experience as you want.”  This has rung true on every level, including teaching, the host family arrangement, cultural inclusion, and relationships with other volunteers and Marshallese people.  As the cliché goes, you get out of it what you put into it.  The year begins as a tabula rasa; the questions are, How are you going to create your experience?  Will it be minimal effort teaching? Or, will you put more than expected into it by doing extracurricular activities and community involvement?  I’d like to think that my time in the RMI has been richly coloured by my integration and involvement in a unique and wonderful culture in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  It has been, in a word, unforgettable.

About the Author

Jeremy Douglas, originally from London, Canada, lived in the Marshall Islands as a volunteer elementary school teaching during the 2005-06 school year.  He was on an outer island called Arno, which has no running water or electricity.  After leaving the Marshall Islands, Jeremy moved to London, UK, to complete a master’s degree in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London.  He then worked in fundraising at a UK children’s charity called Action for Children. 

The Voluntary Traveler: Adventures from the Road Best Traveled is published by Dog’s Eye View Media and is available at Borders Bookstore or your favorite online shop. Join the Volunteer Before You Die™ Network