WHAT YOU DO MATTERS
By Andrew Beiter
It heartened me to hear President Obama refer to educators last year as “nation builders.” The comment made me proud to have chosen the career we all share.
In August last year, I witnessed his words come to life through the courageous efforts of more than 30 Rwandan educators who attended a teacher conference I co-organized with my friend and fellow teacher, Mark Gudgel of Nebraska. It was an effort we had planned for more than two years after visiting the country in 2009 — one that was supported by NYSUT, the American Federation of Teachers, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where Mark and I met as Teacher Fellows. Several human rights organizations from around the world co-sponsored the conference, which featured internationally known educators from Africa, Europe, and North America, including the United Nations.
The conference — “Educators’ Institute for Human Rights,” which later became the name of the not-for-profit organization we run today — was held for three days in the nation’s capital at the Kigali Memorial Centre.
Participants listened to speakers, received books and materials on the Holocaust and the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, as well as methods and best practices for teaching about these difficult topics.
Eighteen years removed from the 1994 genocide that killed more than 800,000 people, the good news is that Rwanda is now one of the safest, cleanest countries on the continent, and is striving to be the business hub of east Africa. Cell phone towers are proliferating, with English recently required to be the language of instruction. Likewise, secondary schools support “Never Again” clubs, run by student leaders with a mission to educate their peers and community about the dangers of genocide.
Even with all of this promising news, I was nonetheless struck by the extreme challenges Rwandan teachers face.
For starters, most of them earn approximately $50 a month — or the equivalent of the cost of one of the books we gave them at the conference. Their schools are lucky to have a handful of functioning computers for dozens of students. A copier machine is a luxury very few schools can afford. Many educators had very little classroom technology other than their blackboard — making for what they jokingly referred to as “chalk and talk” lectures.
Teaching about the 1994 genocide, however, constitutes the biggest issue Rwandan educators face. Many suffer from the loss of family and friends, and must work with classes comprised of the children of survivors — as well as those of perpetrators. In creating the conference, we sought to provide the tools to help make this job easier, and to honor them as professionals.
By teaching and learning about the Holocaust and other human rights issues, we also hoped to provide a safer lens through which they could examine the causes of their own genocide.
Through comparing 1944 with 1994, they were empowered to recognize the common warning signs of mass murder and pass this knowledge on to their students. Many had never even heard about what had happened in Nazi-controlled Europe, and were relieved to know that genocide was not something specific to Rwanda — but a problem of the world.
To be sure, organizing a conference like this wasn’t easy. It was hard being away from my wife, Mary, and our two children, Mitchell and Margaret, whose support and love made the workshop possible. Likewise, it was an event that, like any, had its ups and downs, some of which were very stressful. In the end, what happened in Rwanda made these sacrifices worthwhile, and gave me a unique appreciation for the role teachers play in the growth of a society.
Recently, we learned that three of the Rwandan educators have decided to organize their own professional organization called the “Rwandan Genocide Teachers Association,” designed to train others around the country on similar topics.
Their resolve reinforces our own efforts to organize future teacher conferences both in Rwanda and in other recovering societies around the world. Likewise, their work demonstrates the importance of teaching and the power of social justice education — ideas at the heart of who we are as a union.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a saying that “What you do matters.” In an age where we as teachers face increasing assaults to our profession, the commitment of our fellow Rwandan teachers reminded me about the reasons I entered the classroom, and about the potential we all have as educators to repair the world.
About the author: Andrew Beiter teaches eighth grade social studies at Springville Middle School and is a member of the Springville Faculty Association. In addition to being Co-Director of the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights with Mark Gudgel, he also is a member of NYSUT’s Civil and Human Rights Committee, and has helped write the NYSUT/Speak Truth to Power curriculum. To learn how you, your students, or local can support their efforts for future teacher conferences around the world, please go to www.eihr.org. To learn more about the educational opportunities offered by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, visit www.ushmm.org