Gerald Kwake teaches biology, chemistry, physics and math to classes of 140 students. He has no projector, few computers and only one microscope.
Kwake is a teacher in the central African country of Cameroon, adjacent to Nigeria. He is spending six weeks observing science classes at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, part of a U.S. State Department program hosted by Winthrop University.
The classrooms in Rock Hill and Cameroon are “the difference between light and darkness,” he said.
Kwake, 30, is one of 20 teaching fellows who have been visiting Rock Hill schools from Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Central and South America through the federal Teaching Excellence and Achievement Program, or TEA.
A.J. Angulo, a Winthrop professor of curriculum and pedagogy, authored a $190,000 grant to renew the cultural and exchange program for the fifth year. About 80 U.S. universities apply for the program, he said, and Winthrop is one of just four chosen to host it.
Visiting teachers partner with a teacher in Rock Hill schools, where they observe and sometimes teach, Angulo said. This year’s visiting teachers are at Castle Heights and Sullivan middle schools and South Pointe, Northwestern and Rock Hill high schools. They arrived Jan. 29 and will leave Monday.
For Kwake and many other teachers, some of whom have never before traveled outside their countries, the exchange has been an eye-opening experience.
“It made me see we really need to do a lot to meet up with the developed countries,” said Kwake, who said he’d like to pursue advanced degrees and continue teaching.
Kwake, who earns a monthly salary of around $350, spent $189 of his own money on a rechargeable projector and $30 for 10 miniature microscopes to bring back to his students. He said he also would like to get a small whiteboard.
He said his students, in a public school of 4,000, study a lot of science theory because they don’t have the equipment to practice much of what they learn.
“I have no other choice,” he said, “and I really want to make the students get it.”
And although school resources in Cameroon are limited, Kwake said education is highly valued.
“Parents do everything possible to send their children to school,” he said.
Many students in Rock Hill are motivated to learn, Kwake said, but some are less so and want to play, which annoys him. “It seems,” he said, “they don’t appreciate what they have.”
Arturo Pinilla, 31, who teaches physics and math in a private school in Panama, was impressed with the technology and resources invested in Rock Hill schools. He noticed buildings are clean, and extracurricular activities are plentiful.
Students in Panama have fewer choices in what classes they take, he said, but they also carry from 11 to 14 subjects, with less time spent on each.
Rock Hill students “have more time for each class, and more choices,” he said.
Ana Carbonini Reyes, 47, a science teacher from Venezuela who has been at Sullivan Middle, noticed many students don’t like to read books and prefer technology, like iPads.
Reyes has similar problems in Venezuela, where students don’t have iPads, but they do have cellphones.
“The challenges with the students here in the United States are the same in my country,” she said.
Thuy Nguyen, 40, who teaches English in Vietnam, has been at Rock Hill High School. She said students in Vietnam have few functioning computers, Internet service is limited and unreliable, and teachers who want laptops must buy their own.
Her classes in Vietnam are large, some with as many as 50 students, she said, though not as large as Kwake’s classes in Cameroon. “There are a lot of students in the class,” she said, “so the teacher can’t cover it all.”
All of the teachers said they noticed a more student-centered teaching approach in Rock Hill schools, engaging students with activities instead of just lectures.
“Teachers have to encourage students to learn,” Pinilla said. “The activities have to be challenging, but also attractive to the student, so the student won’t get bored and won’t want to do the work.”
The teachers also noticed resources devoted to students with disabilities and efforts to mainstream some of those students in general education classes.
“Your education system considers everybody; it includes everybody,” said Kwake, referring to both students with disabilities and older people. “We don’t look at that so much.”
Angulo said the exchange program offers the visiting teachers Winthrop faculty workshops in math, language and science education. The teachers stay at Winthrop and attend cultural activities, such as dinners in homes and day or weekend trips to Charleston, Charlotte and Asheville. One small group took a weekend excursion to New York City.
Teachers in the program have undergone a rigorous 18-month interview and application process, Angulo said.
“We are getting some of the best teachers from around the world,” he said.
Visiting teachers aren’t the only ones who benefit, Angulo said. Students who interact with them also gain a view of the world.
“The other opportunity,” he said, “is getting a chance to globalize the experience of our students here.”
Jennifer Becknell: 803-329-4077