Local educator returns from a year in the Marshall Islands
VINTON–Kendra Bush is a new teacher for Roanoke County Schools this fall, hired to teach third grade at Glenvar Elementary School. When school opens on August 21, she may not feel as nervous as many young teachers. That’s because she already has one year of teaching experience under her belt in a location as challenging as any can be and literally half way around the world.
Bush has just returned from a year of teaching on the island of Tobal, on the atoll of Aur, in the Republic of the Marshall Islands about 2000 miles southwest of Hawaii. Tobal has a population of about 150.
Bush grew up in Vinton and graduated from William Byrd High School in 2007. She received her degree in elementary education from Longwood University in 2011 and found that the job market was tight for teachers. Few school systems were hiring.
During her junior year in college, she had considered teaching abroad and did some Internet research on the topic unbeknownst to her family. She happened upon the WorldTeach website.
WorldTeach is a non-profit, non-governmental organization founded in 1986 as a response to the need for educational assistance in developing countries.
Bush grew up involved in missions through her family and church. She made a mission trip to Mexico when she was ten, and studied in Spain as a student at Longwood. Teaching in a third world country was appealing to her.
She began the application process with WorldTeach when suddenly, in July of 2011, a position opened up which required her to be ready to leave for the Marshall Islands within three weeks. The difficult part was breaking the news to her parents.
Knowing her passion for missions, her parents were “shocked, but not surprised” to hear that their youngest daughter would be leaving for the other side of the world in just days.
“Everything in her life had led her up to that point,” said Trish Bush. “We had to put her in God’s hands.”
“My first thought was that I would not be able to protect her or get there quickly if there was an emergency,” said her father, Jeff Bush.
The WorldTeach website describes an outer island assignment, such as Tobal, as one of the most difficult placements that they offer. “Volunteers literally live on a wisp of sand in the middle of the ocean. Yet life is pure and beautiful, so it can also be among the most rewarding.”
“I like a challenge,” said Bush.” Even though I prepared myself for the worst, creating different scenarios in my head, it was still different from what I expected. It was challenging for sure, learning to sleep on mats on the floor with cockroaches and spiders, getting used to never having really clean clothes, feeling isolated.”
Bush felt relatively well-prepared for teaching in Tubal since she had completed student teaching, practicums, and a teaching partnership while at Longwood.
Her WorldTeach training came once she arrived in the Marshall Islands, in their capital city of Majuro. She spent several weeks there living in an elementary school adjusting to the culture with 30 other volunteers. The main emphasis during the weeks of training was on being “flexible.”
Bush was the only WorldTeach volunteer in Tobal where she taught children in first through eighth grades, earning a small stipend of $100.00 each month. Her host family provided food and housing.
She learned to speak the Marshallese language by being submerged in the culture while she taught her students to read, write, and speak in English. Women on the island did not speak English at all; men could speak a little. Bush picked up enough Marshallese to communicate her needs with the adults and to make conversation.
Her school was almost new, the size of a double wide trailer, with seven other teachers. Her classes typically had four to eight students, in session from August until May.
She found teaching first and second graders to be the most rewarding as they knew no English when she arrived and could read at a basic level by the end of the year.
“They were like sponges, very intelligent,” said Bush.
Once children complete the 8th grade, they must leave the island to attend high school. A shipping boat picks them up at the start of the school year and they live in dorms in Majuro or the northern islands, not returning home until the end of the school year.
Bush found the culture in the Islands to be very different from American culture.
“Their way of life is the island way of life, more relaxed and laid back,” said Bush. “Things will happen tomorrow if they don’t happen today. The people are generally content with their lives.”
Her host family had volunteered to house her. They were more well-to-do and westernized than most other residents. Their concrete home had several rooms, with a table and plastic lawn chairs for seating, different from most homes in the area which had one room and no furniture. They slept on mats with mosquito netting.
Electricity on Tobal came from the solar panel that most houses possess, enough to run a DVD player and provide a few hours of electricity unless it’s a rainy day.
The islanders collect their water using catchments, with drain pipes from their tin roofs. The family who hosted Bush had a portable washing machine, which she carried water to and then drained.
Food is very basic: fish, white rice, and Bush’s favorite pandanus fruit, in addition to canned foods brought in from Majuro, like Spam and corned beef. They fry most everything and eat large amounts of sugar. Many people suffer from diabetes and tooth decay.
What cash there is on the outer islands is earned through the production of copra (from drying coconuts), or by fishing.
The people are very social, but not affectionate. Privacy is rare.
Men and women live totally separate lives in public, not speaking or walking together. They sit on separate sides in church, which is a focus of their lives.
Sunday is taken seriously in Tobal, a day of total rest. There is no cooking, no swimming. Islanders attend church, nap, eat, return to church, nap and eat again.
Bush’s typical school day involved a makeshift shower, chores, and breakfast. The bell rang for school to begin at 8:00 a.m. Students and teachers went home for lunch from 12 to 1, then returned for afternoon classes until 3:00.
The evenings passed making conversation with the children, playing games, reading, and writing letters.
While in Tobal, she communicated with her friends and family by letter. There was no phone or Internet.
Bush was fortunate to have no health problems during her placement, although there was a Dengue fever epidemic on a nearby island while she was there.
There were times of homesickness and her faith definitely grew during her year on Tobal.
“The children were my light,” said Bush. “I read my devotions and my family, friends, and church back home were very supportive.”
Bush believes she may have high expectations for her new students at Glenvar having seen what the children in Tobal can accomplish with so little in their lives.
“They are the most resilient children in the world. We are wealthy beyond measure here in America, blessed, and rather spoiled.”