Broadening a world-view
Arthella Starke witnessed a novice Samoan teacher's transformation.
The teacher earned a bachelor's degree in America before returning to Samoa but hadn't taken an education class before — let alone managed a group of spunky students.
And after experiencing the stresses of her frenetic and packed classroom in the Samoan capital of Apia, Arthella said the teacher planned to quit.
Eighteeen months later, after receiving college-level training from Arthella, implementing sophisticated teaching techniques and helping bolster her students' test scores, the teacher's perspective had flipped.
"When she got through, she said, 'I went from a job I hate to a career I love,'" Arthella said.
Arthella and Bob Starke, a Wilsonville-area couple, spent 18 months from mid-2016 to the end of 2017 in Apia instructing the next generation of Samoan teachers and students.
Arthella earned a master's degree in education at Portland State University and spent her career teaching special education as well as serving as a school administrator at high schools in the area while Bob taught collegiate level religious classes. Arthella and Bob are both retired.
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Wilsonville, they hoped to complete a service mission that would utilize their teaching expertise. And the trip to the Samoan Islands offered through the International Teachers Education program and Brigham Young University satisfied their desire to travel to a foreign land and make a difference through teaching.
"We've always felt that we've been blessed in our lives and we just wanted an opportunity to give back," Arthella said.
Arthella conducted college level classes for teachers while Bob taught religious classes to Samoan students.
As Bob put it, the Starkes assimilated into a country rich in beauty and culture but economically poor.
The school the Starkes volunteered at was owned by the LDS Church and flush with resources compared to other Samoan schools but lacking compared to the average school in the U.S.
According to the couple, many of the teachers had a rudimentary understanding of teaching concepts and often simply wrote a list of facts on the chalkboard for the students to jot down.
And, teaching between 150 and 200 students per day, their jobs would likely cause even the most educated teachers to sweat, quite literally, in part due to consistently high temperatures and lack of air conditioning. The teachers would complete their school day and then take the two-hour education course with Arthella afterward, while still managing their home life.
"They are incredibly dedicated teachers," Arthella said.
Arthella taught the teachers how to develop lesson plans, use inquiry-based techniques to encourage students to arrive at an answer independently and develop critical thinking, work together via group activities and engage discouraged students, among other skills.
One teacher taught over 10 students who were labeled "discouraged," meaning they did not want to go to school or learn. But Arthella instructed the teacher to target such students and build their confidence. And by the end of the class, Starke says the once discouraged students were leading group projects.
One of the students, who was held back the previous year, expressed his newfound enthusiasm to Arthella.
"He came to me one day and said, 'You know what, I studied for her test. It was the first time in my life I ever studied for a teacher's test,'" Arthella said. "She turned kids on for learning because her class was fun, exciting and they (the students) could see their own personal growth intellectually."
Arthella had to adjust in some ways too. For instance, her description of a raccoon and a skunk and mentioning the story of the "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" dumbfounded the Samoans.
"One of the teachers raised their hands and said 'I'm sorry, we don't know that story.' I realized, 'Yeah that's definitely an American cultural story," Arthella said. "I had to learn to go into the Samoan culture and find illustrations and examples that would be the same to illustrate the point."
And Bob struggled to explain the at-times convoluted English language to his students. Samoans grew up learning their native language but their government exams are administered in English.
"We discovered that the English language is very complicated. We have all these idioms and statements that are unusual and if you take literally make no sense," he said.
Bob said that while many of the students struggled to grasp English and varied wildly in educational acuity, they were more kind and respectful than American students.
"They are inherently pleasant people. The kids smile. The adults smile. They're outgoing and friendly. They say hi. They look you in the eyes," he said.
Bob said his engagement-oriented teaching style inspired his students.
"They responded like 'Wow.' If we could get that kind of response from students in America it would be wonderful. But they said 'I really like learning,'" Bob said.
Bob said one of the hardest challenges was keeping the kids from having too much fun. For instance, when he would kiss or wink at Arthella, they would burst into laughter. Public displays of affection are uncommon in the Samoan culture.
And the Starkes were met with googly eyes when they walked down the street holding hands.
"Walking down the street people would snicker. Finally a woman pointed to us and said 'That's so cute,'" Arthella said.
In their free time, the Starkes swam in the warm Pacific Ocean, ate fresh fish and explored the islands.
Through the trip, Arthella grew to appreciate the U.S. more, specifically hot water, vegetables and solid pane windows and other taken-for-granted luxuries.
And the trip broadened the Starkes' world-view and put them to good use in their retirement.
"It was well worth it," Bob said.