Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How I Learned to Promote World Peace in a Tinderbox for WWIII, or, Two Weeks of Practice School

One might observe the slight gap in postings.  While rumors of my demise were generally overstated, I was, in fact, enduring what is normally described as the most trying part of Pre-Service Training (PST) for Health Volunteers in Moldova: Practice School. (Imagine that’s written in a scary Halloween font and is accompanied by a far-off scream of terror…)

In short, practice school brings our future partner teachers to our training site, where we spend the final two weeks teaching real children real health lessons in a real classroom setting using real Romanian for two really long weeks.

PST is largely oriented around the technical skills volunteers will need to succeed at work.  And indeed, in daily life, volunteers tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how we can best accomplish the technical component of our mandate.  So during life in general, and practice school in particular, it’s easy to forget that “helping the people of developing countries meet their basic needs” is only one of what are actually Peace Corps’ three goals, all of which are subsumed under a larger guiding mission of promoting world peace.

Our Country Director, Jeffrey, is a remarkable leader, and has a knack for succinct empathy.  He put it well when acknowledging that Peace Corps takes a pretty strange approach to building world peace.  And indeed, pausing to consider the specific dynamics of practice school, this does seem to be a very strange way to build peace:
  • A bunch of unpaid volunteers, most of whom have never been teachers, but do have experience in health education, and who have been through an intensive summer teacher training program and come from a country that promotes engaging educational environments.
Thrown together with:
  • A bunch of professional teachers from a very rigid system, none of whom have any experience in health.
In the midst of all of this, there are:
  • Two radically different work cultures colliding.
  • The hottest week of summer,
  • A foreign language that the volunteers only began learning 8 weeks prior,
  • An open-ended and abstract subject matter, including concepts like self esteem and behavior-induced chronic diseases,
  • A complete lack of sufficient preparation time,
  • Different forms of stress on all parties involved, making empathy all the more difficult.
And that’s a rough approximation of the final two weeks of training.

Nevertheless, even in these circumstances Jeffrey has reminded us that “If we’re not building peace in our every action, we’re not doing our job.”  Regardless of how much technical assistance we’re providing.

Figuring out how to promote peace in such circumstances is a process, but already in two weeks of practice school there were no wars, only a few tears, and afterwards, the beginnings of some new friendships.  Certainly, it quickly made me value the meditation retreat I took time for before coming, for that was also an exercise in cultivating the patience and compassion necessary to pursue any large goal.  And perhaps this will become my most enduring lesson here: to not lose sight of the fundamental goal that motivates not just Peace Corps, but all development work.

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