middle school students in classroom wearing masks

A Sense of Belonging, Thousands of Miles from Home

by Scott Blanchette

A Classroom in Another World

The wooden tables were arranged in rows. The audience members sat in pairs as they copied down the diagram written on the board in the front of the room. A few of them scrambled to find a pencil, some of them stared out the window into the courtyard beyond, and others attentively focused on their assigned task. The instructor walked up and down the rows, providing support for those in need of it.

If anyone were to walk up the dirt road and wander into this setting, they would instantly recognize the familiar environment in which they found themselves: a classroom. An environment solely dedicated to teaching and learning. A construction site for an educational foundation. A place where I, as an educator, feel a sense of belonging, even though I’m thousands of miles away from home. It was clear to me, despite the undeniable similarities, that I was no longer at Landmark School. I was no longer in America, the shining example of first-world development. I was in Mozambique, the post-colonial, poverty-stricken country in southern Africa. 

I found myself in Mozambique with two of my colleagues, Michelle Boucher and Jamaal Dixon, as part of an outreach initiative through the Sunshine Approach Foundation. We were there to work with local school teachers and visit orphanages, share our experiences as educators, and learn from them. As Americans, when you first arrive in Mozambique, it’s easy to fixate on the shocking difference compared to our way of life. However, when I left after two weeks, I found myself reflecting more on the commonalities between our cultures than the disparities. 

Education is Universal

It was the visit to the local schools and the translated conversations with the teachers that made me see the similarities. Despite the language barrier, despite the fact that we have whiteboards and Chromebooks, and they have chalkboards and lined paper, we are all teachers. We all connected through shared experiences: managing difficult students, developing engaging lessons, teaching not only academic skills, but also life skills. Most importantly, we bonded over our shared passion for education. 

It brought me great comfort to know that even in one of the poorest countries in the world, a quality education still holds value. Oftentimes in this country, we judge learning on the appearance of where it takes place. A sprawling green campus with historical brick buildings and a multi-story library? A TV in every hallway and a projector in every classroom? Looks like a great education to me! In Mozambique, none of those things matter. Don’t have electricity? Guess we’re learning in the dark today. No classroom? I guess we’ll sit underneath a tree. We’ll use the rocks to help us add and subtract. 

That may seem like a criticism of American education, but I use it only to highlight something more important. When you strip away the physical and technological facade, you realize that education, in its most basic form and environment, is universal. A state-of-the-art classroom in Massachusetts serves the same purpose as a bare-bones, brick-and-mortar classroom in Mozambique. The differences are obvious, but it’s the similarities that matter—the desks and books, pencils and pens, teachers and students. Regardless of the country you find yourself in, you see those things and know exactly where you are. People of all religions find comfort in knowing they can walk into a church, or mosque, or temple in any corner of the globe and feel a sense of belonging. I find that same comfort in the classroom, in America, Mozambique, or anywhere else.

To learn more about the Sunshine Approach Foundation: https://sunshinenuts.com/sunshine-approach/ 

Article originally published in The Lantern, Spring/Summer 2019.