Not your average school…

There are ten empty pizza boxes stacked up in the kitchen. Every cup is dirty and in the kitchen sink, and the living room is littered with crumbs and pizza crust. There is no more water, soda, or even mango juice left in the fridge. It’s obvious: teenagers have been here.

For months, my 11th grade female students have wanted to have a movie night and sleepover at my apartment. Somehow the boys also got invited (for the movie part), and last night I ended up with a living room full of 11th graders, spending their Friday night at their English teacher’s apartment.

Our beautiful school campus.
Our beautiful school campus.

It’s something that never in a million years would happen at a public school in America. But this isn’t a public school. And it’s not in America. I teach at an international school in Uganda. The differences in atmosphere and relationships are astronomical.

In December, a co-worker of mine posted this on Facebook: “I went to a birthday dinner this evening. The birthday girl was turning fifteen, and seemed completely unfazed that most of her guests were her teachers. International schools have a different dynamic, that’s for sure!

It’s so true- the dynamics of an international school are unique beyond compare.

The high school I teach at is small. There are 17 freshmen, 14 sophomores, 8 juniors and 10 seniors. Our relationships with these kids are anything but ordinary. Teachers don’t just see students Monday through Friday between the hours of 8 and 3. We hang out together after school, we go to the zoo over Christmas break, we plan trips to Jinja over Easter weekend, we have kids over for dinner, they get ready for school banquets at our homes. That’s just how it is here.

One of my girls said last night at the sleepover, “I would never hang out with my teachers in my home country, but it’s different here. We’re like a family.”

Most of my students are international, so their parents here are very busy doing mission work or working for NGOs. It’s why our roles as teachers are that much more important in their lives. We’re the ones at their ball games, school performances, and spending time with them outside of school. It’s where we fit in to God’s plan.

I think a lot of my elementary-teacher friends think I’m crazy. They see the amount of time secondary teachers spend with their students and just don’t get it. But the things our kids go through in this stage of life are so intense. It’s impossible not to get close to kids when classes are so small and especially at a Christian school, where your discussions often involve matters of faith and spirituality.

IMG_20130814_142112I don’t mind if people look at me funny  because I’d rather spend time with my students than some adults. God didn’t send me here to spend all my time with people my own age. He sent me here to be a light for Him for my students. He sent me here to give advice to my girls who are crying over boys or problems at home. He sent me here to talk to the boys about their future plans and how to properly treat a girl. God sent my secondary-teacher co-workers to do the same things. It’s really a beautiful thing we have going here!

In less than two months I’ll leave this beautiful country and head back to America, but I’ll never forget what I’ve experienced here. I’m leaving this place with what I feel like are now dozens of little brothers and sisters from all over the world. They’ve certainly changed my life. I pray that by the time I leave, I’ll have done the same for at least one of them.

Shining where I’m placed…

I never really understood how youth pastors did their jobs. How in the world did they spend day after day, weekend after weekend with a bunch of teenagers? How can they possibly enjoy spending so much time with kids?

Sure I realized my passion for working with kids when I was a sports writer in Georgia, especially after one I knew and loved was fatally shot and it turned everyone’s world upside down. I knew then that the times I felt most alive where when I was with teenagers.

The hot sun shines down on Kyampisi, Uganda and all its beautiful trees.
The hot sun shines down on Kyampisi, Uganda and all its beautiful trees.

Things changed. I moved to Indiana, and while I still had my share of amazing students, it wasn’t like it was in Georgia. I ended up leaving teaching, only to realize a year and half later that it really was where I belong.

Here I am now, back teaching high school English, only this time at a Christian school in Uganda. Working with these kids here has made me realize something… I get it now. I get how the youth pastor’s do their jobs. They work with simply amazing kids.

Overall, so far my experience here has been a great one, but there are some issues that are hurting my heart. Issues that are bringing out insecurities in me that I haven’t felt since high school. And it has nothing to do with my students. My students have actually become my escape. I enjoy being with them.

I think some people find it odd. I was told it’s encouraged that we sit with students in the cafeteria, and since I’ve started doing so, my days have been better. Some find that strange, I’m sure, and I almost questioned myself a few times about why on earth I would rather spend my lunchtime with a bunch of teenagers than adults?

We are to shine like a sun over this calm, Indiana lake.
We are to shine like a sun over this calm, Indiana lake.

God gave me my answer when I was reading the book of Matthew the other day:

“You’re here to  be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve kept you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine! Keep open house, be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”
Matthew 5:14-16 (The Message)

God sent me to Uganda to be a light. I will do that in whatever way He wants me to shine, and I honestly feel like the number one way I am to do that is with my students. If people think it’s strange, then so be it. I’m here to be light, to “bring out the God-colors in the world.” And I couldn’t be happier.

I said I’d never teach again…

In December of 2011, I packed up my belongings at North Side High School and left the profession of teaching for what I thought would be “forever.” I gave away nearly all of my teaching materials. After all, I was never going to teach again. Why hold on to all those things?

Fast forward to today: I am not only a teacher again, but I am a teacher at an international school in Uganda. God certainly has funny plans for us sometimes!

It’s been a year and a half since I’ve been a high school English teacher. I’ve had a year and half of teenage-free life. It’s been great, and it’s been sad. I miss “my kids,” as I so often call them.

Today was the first day of school at Heritage International School in Kampala, Uganda. All six years I taught in the US, I was nervous on the first day of school. But this, for so many reasons, was pretty horrifying for me. With God’s help, I survived.

5:00 a.m. I awoke to a mosquito buzzing in my ear. So much for that mosquito net around my bed. I could go back to sleep for another hour or just get up. I tried to go back to sleep, but the mosquito wouldn’t leave me alone, and my mind began to race with the typical first-day jitters.

6:30 a.m. I left the house and walked to school by myself. The sun was slowly rising, it was cool outside, and I had wonderful prayer time as I made the trek to Heritage. It was so serene as I thanked God for the simple things like palm trees and sunrises.

7:30 a.m. From the teeny kindergarteners to the towering seniors, Heritage was flooded with students of all sizes, ages, and nationalities. Many of my high school students greeted their teachers they were familiar with. It made me think of when I was at North Side and Troup, and students would greet me with hugs and high fives. Now, once again, no one knew me. I was just “that new English teacher.”

8:30 a.m. The morning assembly was well underway! We sang a few worship songs, prayed, and new teachers were introduced. After the primary grades were released, the middle and high schoolers stayed for additional information. I gave the presentation on the school’s “Honesty Policy” and had to talk about my Journalism class so kids knew what they were signing up for!

IMG_20130815_1048289:45 a.m. These kids already impress me. The high school was divided into four teams for “team building” out on the basketball courts. I experienced something I never once saw in the US from teenagers- encouragement and support. If someone messed up, someone else would say, “Nice try. You’ll get it next time!” It was clear that they look out for each other. They have a bond that students at large high schools will never understand.

10:50 a.m. The cool and dreary day turned into a wet one. Rain fell from the sky as I prepared my classroom for the 12th graders that would be there in 30 minutes. As if the thunder wasn’t loud enough, the pouring down rain on the tin roof of my classroom made it incredibly loud. Nerves started to come back as I anticipated the seniors walking into my classroom. There were only eight of them, but before they came in I started to feel like the little kindergartners coming to school for the first time.

11:20 a.m. The seniors naturally sat in the desks in the very back of the classroom. No problem- I just moved closer to them. What a group! They come from India, South Korea, UK, Germany, Uganda and Massachusetts! They certainly made me smile a lot with their questions and comments. One student and I especially hit it off. He is the one from the US, and he loves the NFL and NBA. The students got a chuckle when I high-fived him for liking “real” football.

12:45 p.m. Five students. You might think it’s a dream come true, but teaching that small of a class can actually be quite a challenge. The good thing is, they are great kids and have a great sense of humor. They come from the U.S., Canada, South Korea and Uganda. They asked lots of questions about Journalism, so I’m hoping lots of them sign up!

1:40 p.m. I sat at my desk in an empty classroom as yet another gecko scurried by my desk. My day was done. While I have to stay at school until after 3 p.m., my day of teaching was finished!IMG_20130815_104900

Now, after a long walk home in the rain, I am home with just our dog, Simba, and Domalee, our househelp. I am more than satisfied with my first day at Heritage. I know I said I’d never teach again, but I’m so glad that God’s plans for me were different!

Such pride and disappointment…

That's me- cheering for the Troup Tigers at a football game in Georgia in 2007.
That’s me- cheering for the Troup Tigers at a football game in Georgia in 2007.

Having taught high school English for five and a half years, I had the pleasure of attempting to educate nearly 800 students. While I didn’t succeed at educating some of them, I certainly did succeed at getting to know my students and loving them with all my heart.

When I was teaching, I didn’t allow students to be my friends on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, for obvious reasons. But now that I’m not teaching, I’ll allow it (unless the kid was super creepy). Social media has given me the opportunity to see what my former students are up to.

Some make me smile.

Others devastate me.

I smile when I see the class clown as a Marine. So serious, so important, so driven.

I smile when I see that students who struggled to pass my English class are now graduating from college.

I smile when I see the heartbreaker has found the love of his life and is getting married.

I smile when I see the jock getting ready to open his own barber shop.

I smile when I see the yearbook editor doing mission work overseas.

Then there are the others.

I am sad when I see they’re doing drugs.

I am sad when I see them have kid, after kid, after kid.

I am sad when I see they pride themselves in being “thugs.”

I am sad when I see they love to advertise the fact that they have guns- and aren’t afraid to use them.

I am sad when I see that they clearly think that’s what life has to be like.

And then there’s the one you invested so much time in, only to see him a complete disaster down the road. I’ve seen my fair share of former students in the news, and not for good reasons.

If you’re a teacher who has a heart for the “bad” kids, you know who I’m talking about. For me, there was one specific “bad” kid I cared about so much my first two years teaching in Georgia. He won my heart over the first day of school. He even eventually got the reputation of “Miss Trout’s favorite.” He was a mess, no one believed in him, no one saw the good in him, but I did. Despite the fact that he was a drug dealer and whatever else he did outside of school, I loved him like he was my little brother. And I was going to save him.

One of the hardest things I had to learn in teaching was that you can’t save them all. While that doesn’t mean you stop trying to “save” all the ones who need it, it means you have to know you tried your best to make an impact on someone’s life and how they turn out but that sometimes… you don’t.

I shed so many tears over this kid when I was his English teacher for two years. He was never rude or disrespectful to me. Well, if he was, he’d be back later that day to apologize. I didn’t let him get away with things. I wrote my fair share of office referrals for the kid. But for some reason, I never stopped caring about him. Even when I moved back to my home state of Indiana, hundreds of miles away, I prayed for him. Still do.

And then a few weeks ago I saw on his friend’s Instagram, a photo of him with the words under it, “Free Marquez” (name has been changed). My heart dropped. I knew right away it had to do with drugs. The journalist in me did my research, though. It was much more than drugs.

There were actually six charges. Two of which were armed robbery and aggravated assault.

It made me cry. Was I completely crazy to ever believe this kid had a chance? I knew his home life. I knew the people he ran with. I knew that not long after I left Georgia, he dropped out of school. So why am I so shocked?

Because my heart is broken.

One of the things America has seen recently in the wake of what happened in Newtown is the fact that teachers love their students. They would do anything for them. As crazy as they are, as out of control as they are, as completely hopeless they sometimes are, teachers love their students. No matter what.

You would think this makes me give up on Marquez. What could possibly change now? Plenty. Here’s where my spiritual gift of Mercy comes in, and my faith in God. I’m still going to pray for him. I’m still going to believe that one day he’ll fix his life. He might not, and I might never know what happens to him. But I’m not giving up. Teachers don’t give up.

I might not be a teacher anymore according to the state of Indiana, but in heart I will always be a teacher. I still refer to my former students as my “kids.” Like a mother, I’m very proud of so many of them. Words can’t express how proud I am! And like a mother, I love my “kids” unconditionally. No matter what he’s done, that includes Marquez.