An aching heart: teaching biology in South America

By Alex Park

Teaching young children after college is hard and rewarding, usually in that order.
But in the midst of hardship, it’s often not easy to see what good, if any, comes through the work one is doing.That’s one lesson learned by countless Macalester alums who, in the last decade, have chosen to enlist as teachers through Teach for America, an organization that takes soul-searching recent grads and puts them in teaching positions in rural and inner-city schools throughout the United States. But it’s also true of Cooper Rosin ’07, a biology and Spanish major who went to the tropical nation of Guyana in the northeast corner of South America after graduating to teach in a rural elementary school.

Recently, Rosin sent The Mac Weekly a letter detailing his experience in the country so far, and the program that got him there.

A biology major at Macalester, Rosin said he knew before graduating that he wanted to do work in the developing world after college. Pay was hardly a concern, and easily took a backseat to the opportunity for less tangible rewards.

Like many soon-to-be graduates with similar aspirations, the Peace Corps seemed like a natural place to look at first. But with no say in what kind of work he would do, where he would be sent to or if he would be placed in the same location as his girlfriend-who also wanted to volunteer-he decided against it.

After some research, Rosin found WorldTeach, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Center for International Development at Harvard. The organization took recent graduates and placed them in needy schools throughout the developing world. Unlike Teach for America or AmeriCorps, the organization placed its paricipants exclusively outside the United States.

Unlike the Peace Corps, it let volunteers choose which of fifteen countries they would go to for their year-long placement (an additional six countries are available for shorter-term periods).

Moreover, Rosin knew exactly what kind of work he would be doing: teaching, and to elementary school age children at that. Rosin and his girlfriend leapt at the opportunity.

So far, the experience has not been an easy one.

Rosin and his girlfriend were placed in Kwakwani, an ex-mining town located deep within the country and bordered by rainforest. There, they found the conditions at the local school to be abysmal, as classrooms were plagued by overcrowding, careless teachers and a serious lack of supplies.

Not long after their arrival, Rosin received an e-mail from one of the program’s local initiates warning him about the potential for futility in the course of his time there.

“You will no doubt be frustrated at times by a system which shows no gratitude, by a people who express no appreciation, and even by the students who lack any understanding,” it said. As Rosin tells it, the message was prophetic.

“Even the most dedicated teachers can be found teaching their students the definition of ‘dust’ or place settings for a banquet,” he said in his letter.

Apart from the spattering of teachers who are dedicated to their work, many just spend the day lounging around or sleeping while students, uninterested in learning, carouse outside and distract those who are.

According to Rosin, another problem is that while some peripheral elements of the educational system, such as dress code, are strictly enforced, basic academic subjects tend to fall short of the most basic standards.

“Every student knows what color pen must be used for which application, and they are never found without their rulers for single or double underlining their notebook readings,” Rosin said. “But while students are given a lash on their hand or backside for ever forgetting their school badge or wearing the wrong color socks, the sample fact is that many of them can’t even read.”

Rosin says that while the challenge of teaching in Guyana has been a trial, the rewards of the endeavor have proven to be bountiful as well. While not every student works hard and aspires to learn, enough do to make it worthwhile. For all of them, Rosin is one of the few college graduates they have encountered. As a biology teacher with a bachelor’s degree in biology, his comprehension of the subject of his pedagogy far exceeds generally held expectations within the Guyanese educational system. Students look up to him, allowing at least the potential to make a difference in their lives.

For more information on WorldTeach’s careers abroad, visit www.worldteach.org.