08 September 2012

A Conversation

photo from acsiafrica.org

Wednesday was the day. My opportunity to talk with a local group of teachers' and school directors about special education here in Niger had arrived...

...and I was terribly nervous. In reality, terrified more accurately describes my emotional and mental state. I remembered feeling that way before - it was one of the last times I actually remember throwing up. I seriously didn't need to start down that path.

I think there were two key contributors to my terror factor: 
  1. I was not feeling as prepared as I had planned, prepared, wanted and hoped to feel (My computer crashed about 48 hours before I was scheduled to talk and I lost all my notes and plans and had to redevelop almost everything.);
  2. Speaking in French before this group was very much more than a little intimidating. I’m very comfortable with the folks at church and speaking French that then goes through my translator friend… but all of these folks were highly educated educational professionals, including a missionary who's a little bit like a legend to me (a story for another day).
It did not help when I got there and they were going praying through specific needs of each of the different Christian schools represented – and I was thrown right into the midst of that. It sounds awful to say, right? Prayer should calm, center and comfort my heart. And I am a missionary, for goodness sake! But I'm not an at ease, out-loud, public prayer, at least not usually. Most of the time, I love prayer meetings and corporate prayer - but praying aloud with others in English stretches me… In French? Yikes! 

Needless to say, God had me feeling pretty unsure of myself and very desperately asking Him to accomplish something... anything... because I felt about as comfortable as I would have walking out on a stage naked.

As I redeveloped my notes early on Wednesday morning (I'd waited as long as possible, hoping we'd recover my initial document.), I totally rewrote my first ideas and decided that instead of a presentation on special education, I would try to guide a round table discussion. That must have been a God-thing...

Wednesday afternoon, I asked that group of educators several questions:
  1. What types of disabilities do you see most often here in Niger?
  2. What is life like for handicapped individuals?
  3. How are children with disabilities educated in this country?
  4. What is the official government position? 
  5. What actually happens, in real life and practice?
  6. Is that right? How do you feel about what happens?
Essentially, I asked them to start talking to me about individuals with handicaps and disabilities - their lives and their educational opportunities here in Niger. Then I simply listened, learned, asked a few questions for clarification and listened some more as they talked and shared. 

What was very evident was that this group recognized a clear need, knew that the Niger Ministry of Education says all children are entitled to a public education, and they really seemed to have a burden and a desire to help children with disabilities learn. They shared how physical disabilities were easier to wrap their minds around... how parents belittling and berating unsuccessful students is a huge part of the problem... how some students have learning difficulties that come from social/cultural issues (i.e. an oldest daughter so busy being the family “donkey” – that was the expression used – doing all of the work that she never has time to study because of exhaustion). They iterated the difficulty and frustrations of attempting to address individual student needs in classes numbering 50, 60 or even more students. A total lack of awareness training, no available tools to help identify students with different genres of learning problems, and no idea of  even a few simple strategies to help struggling students to succeed left teachers feeling helpless and totally unprepared to try anything. The national curriculum is built and structured completely around the memorization of large chunks of material which are then recited to the teacher. But what about those students who were smart - yet couldn't demonstrate their intelligence or what they'd learned in that format? And how were they supposed to fight a system where out of desperation and a total lack of either parental or administrative support resulted in struggling students failing to move forward or pass to the next grade and after 3 successive years of failure, schools could legally, legitimately deny those students continued admittance.

I was both delighted and heart-broken as I listened. 

After that initial, eye-opening discussion, I followed up by asking them if they truly believed that each person was created in the image of God. 

"Of course!" resounded rather emphatically!

So I continued, asking,"What implications, then, does that biblical truth have regarding our responsibility as followers of Jesus and educators to teach all children, regardless of how difficult any particular child might be to teach?" We read the first part of Romans 12.

I asked them to talk about what that meant… and I loved hearing their insights!

I heard them say that even those with disabilities have a gift, one that God not only created them to use, but also desires for them to use to minister to others. They recognized that a child with a handicap had something to offer - anyone willing to accept their gift. They expressed belief that when one part of the “body” struggled with a disability ignored or swept under the rug, then the entire body would feel the effects and be "disabled." 

It was such a special time...

From that point on, I basically just listened as they led additional discussion - talking about what they wanted, how they could share resources between schools, needing to find and encourage people with a burden for students with disabilities to seek additional training, where to get their hands on or develop identification tools or checklists, and noting the critical need to seek help from resources God has already provided. To close, right before we prayed, I quickly summarized what they’d already said, reminded them to prioritize and approach this strategically with baby steps, and tried to encourage that group of pioneers in the field of Christian education that little by little they’d begin making progress in this particular educational domain, that all of their teachers would become better teachers by learning to address the individual needs of specific students who struggle, and that their communities as a whole could not help but notice this difference of loving and meeting the needs of the "least of these" in their respective educational settings. 

And then I had to duck out, missing the final praye,r because my phone was vibrating and I was afraid it was my kids....

Thankfully it wasn't.

But I WAS thankful... overjoyed in fact, that God had allowed me to play a very tiny part in what I hope and pray will become a God-directed ministry to exceptional students in Niger, students who are presently ignored and almost completely over-looked.

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