Staff Spotlight: Kim West

Kim spent 15 years managing adult and higher education programs in New York City before packing up, putting everything in storage, and heading to Rwanda with WorldTeach in 2010. She spent a year teaching English to female secondary students and adults in northern Rwanda and then spent an additional year living in the capital, Kigali, working at a private post-secondary school. When the opportunity arose, Kim jumped to return to WorldTeach in a staff capacity. She served as the Field Director in Colombia for a year and half before moving back to East Africa where she is currently the Field Director in Tanzania. Kim holds a master’s degree in Adult Education and Human Resource Development from Fordham University in New York City.

Interview with Kim West, Field Director for WorldTeach in Tanzania

What makes teaching in Tanzania with WorldTeach so special and unique?

Kim: Teaching in Tanzania with WorldTeach gives volunteers an unparalleled opportunity to live in a rural Tanzanian village or town and make a real impact on the lives of students here. Volunteers teach English, math or science in government secondary schools, all of which are under-resourced and some of the lowest performing schools in the country. Given Tanzania's vast size and diversity, volunteers might find themselves teaching atop beautiful mountains near the Rwanda or Zambia borders, in the dry, desert-like highlands of northern Tanzania, or remote villages in the lush hills of central Tanzania. Regardless of their location, volunteers serve to alleviate the country's severe teaching shortage while they become members of their communities and immersed in the local culture, learning a completely new way of life.

Did YOU teach abroad?! If so, where and what inspired you to go?

Kim: I taught in Rwanda as a WorldTeach volunteer in 2010. I was a mid-career professional and had worked for 15 years in education management and administration. I loved the field and still do, but I wanted some experience teaching so I could better understand what I was managing. Because I had always dreamed of volunteering overseas, I started a Peace Corps application hoping to teach in a developing country. However, I wanted to be able to choose the country where I would serve and I wasn't sure I could commit to over two years. All of this led me to WorldTeach, which was the perfect fit for me.

What should teachers know about the classroom and workplace culture in Tanzania (e.g. student-teacher relations, staff relations, etc.)?

Kim: Teaching in Tanzania comes with many highs and lows everyday – some of which are typical of teaching anywhere in the world, and many of which are unique to Tanzania. Tanzanian students tend to be respectful and well behaved in the classroom; standing and greeting the teacher in unison when he or she enters, diligently taking notes, and following instructions are all school norms. Fellow teachers and administrators are warm and welcoming, creating a family atmosphere.

At the same time, teachers usually face problems like overcrowded classrooms of up to 60 students, schools with no textbooks, and frequent, unannounced changes and cancellations. The education system fosters a culture of acquiring and memorizing information rather than critical thinking or problem solving. This makes a volunteer’s work more challenging but not impossible, and some creativity and resourcefulness can produce real results! Most days, the rewards of teaching these enthusiastic, appreciative students far outweigh the challenges.

What can you tell us about the current state of education in Tanzania? How do you see this changing in the next 10 years?

Kim: The Ministry of Education and Vocational Training is looking closely at how to better prepare Tanzania’s students for success. In 2012, only 40% of Form 4 students passed the National Exam that enables them to continue onto the last two years of secondary school. Part of students’ struggle is their grasp of English in all subjects. Although English is one of the official languages of Tanzania, students receive minimal instruction in it before starting secondary school, when suddenly all subjects are taught and tested in English.

In addition, Tanzania suffers from a critical shortage of teachers. Some schools lack instructors for entire subjects, such as math or science, while other schools have teachers that aren’t proficient in English. WorldTeach was invited to Tanzania in 2010 in order to alleviate these strains in the schools and districts where we serve, and we continue to expand geographically as the Ministry identifies where we are needed most.

What is one piece of advice you would offer someone considering teaching abroad in Tanzania?

Kim: The most important piece of advice that I can give to anyone considering teaching abroad in *any* country is to go with no expectations. Note that this is very different than having low expectations! I encourage applicants and incoming volunteers to do the best they can to wipe out any mental images they might have of the year ahead, or any ideas they have about how things will be. No matter what they imagine about their school, their students, their house, or their neighbors -- they are probably wrong in some way and that usually leads to an unpleasant shock. If a volunteer comes in as a blank slate and remains open to whatever this amazing country and experience is going to write on that slate, he or she is more likely to adapt, appreciate differences, and truly thrive.