My Own “Trip to Bountiful” Written by Laury Binney Friend, Educator, and Long-Time Donor
In my retired years from education prior to 2016, one of my more pleasurable pastimes was to play golf here on Marthas Vineyard with my pals Don Leopold, Elliot Kronstein, and Gil Williams. Gil was a frequent provider of tales of a school in Tanzania christened Precious, that he and his wife Susie had essentially “adopted” on one of her junkets to Africa when she worked for the Clinton Foundation. As a fellow educator, Gil (who once worked as a school principal in New Hampshire) would regale me with his descriptions of the burgeoning state of growth at the school, as well as the enormous professional needs that the teachers (then numbering around 10-12 staff) bore.
It was in these conversations, typically conducted while riding in his golf cart, that Gil lobbied for, and eventually succeeded in advancing, my agreement to come and visit the school personally. As a former KG-8th school principal myself of 21 years, I told him I would come to visit on the condition that my trip include a hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro, as well as a trip to the Serengeti, each unique in their exclusive ability to wrap one’s mind and body in wonder.
My intentions, determined after many discussions with Gil and Susie, were straightforward; I would spend time observing teachers in their craft, determine where their most substantial and essential needs lay, and then provide some professional development workshops to help them better respond more effectively to the academic needs of their students. The challenge comes in trying to infuse Precious teachers in contemporary instructional ideas for them to then practice and become adept in. Their country’s system of teacher preparation is primarily certifying prospective teachers by first, and only, giving them a test. Given the vast cultural and educational differences between the US and Tanzanian systems, my two weeks of training the Precious staff on various models of classroom instruction felt, to me, to be an iffy proposition.
But despite my skeptical assumptions that the staff would absorb and practice the models I showed them, by the time I was ready to head home, I saw enough positive signs from the teachers that, not only offered hope for their potential to shift their understandings on how effective instruction could be bolstered in their classrooms, but caused me to boldly initiate a pledge to return the following year. And then the following years as well.
Instructionally speaking, the changes I had them practice involved understanding a common mantra that I maintain, that says that “students learn and retain information more readily from each other than they do from adults”. The general model of working cooperatively encourages teachers to present information and tasks in their lessons in their initial presentation for no more than 5-8 minutes, and to then arrange student groupings in such a way as to advocate for discussions amongst students that strive to have them work to find solutions, engage in new ideas, and discover and realize advanced and novel concepts that should assist them in future instruction. Thus, groups of 3-6 students would work together to eventually present their understandings to the class at large. Crucial to this approach is the understanding that every child participates in the problem-solving and the sharing.
In the seven years that I have spent working with staff at Precious, I have been astonished at the growth that many teachers have made in their teaching practice. This observation has been affirmed in the government’s national tests given to 4th and 7th graders each spring. In the last two school calendar years the Precious students in both these grades scored # 1 in their district, which encompasses around 100 schools in the area. Truly a remarkable statistic.
Precious School continues to grow dramatically (currently over 600 students), which has led to many additional teacher hirings, as well as an expansion of class sizes that average around 30 students. Though that is a number that gives me with pause, I must say that our Precious staff manage these high numbers with confidence, effectiveness, and assurance. I so applaud their efforts.
Precious Project Inc. has been awarded the Guidestar's Platinum Seal of Transparency and Charity Navigator 100 out of 100, both the highest rating for nonprofits awarded by these independent charity evaluators.