It’s that time of year again. The summer has come to a close, the kids are heading back to school, and for the first time in a long time, I won’t be heading back with them. Having completed the final requirements for my Masters in Public Health two weeks ago, school’s out for me. And though I may be finished with classrooms, course readers, and case studies for the time being, my (informal) education continues here at my new position here in Malawi.
From the moment I set foot in my new office, those first-day-of-school jitters came rushing back: Would my professor (supervisor) like me? Would my classmates (coworkers) like me?Would I be able to handle the coursework (job description)?Would I be able to get good grades (performance reviews)? Of course, this time around, the situation is complicated further by the fact that classes are being conducted in an entirely different language (Chichewa), by professors from backgrounds very different from mine, at an organization with it’s own unique culture, value system, and set of challenges for me to deal with.
Which leaves me with just one more question – will we be graded on a curve?
Of course, this is how I’m supposed to feel. During orientation for my current job, I was told to sit back, observe, absorb, and take the time to learn the organizational culture for at least the first six weeks. I was given overt permission to assume the role of a student. And though I’ve embraced that – and often felt like a scared little freshman because of it – I also feel (perhaps mistakenly) an expectation from my Malawian coworkers to assume the role of teacher. It’s hard to say whether this expectation is really there or if it’s just a personal projection of my own white guilt. How many stories have we heard about expat program managers and consultants coming into a community guns blazing, thinking they have all the answers, telling the local staff it’s their way or the highway? That stereotype is always lurking in the back of my mind, influencing how I conduct myself and present my ideas to my coworkers. And I can’t help but wonder how much and to what degreethat stereotype colors their perception of my actions and motivations.
So there is this underlying tension. A tension between wanting to learn and wanting to teach; of wanting to respect the status quo and wanting to upend it; of wanting to appear humble and wanting your ideas to be taken seriously. Finding that delicate balance between the role of student and teacher may be the biggest lesson I learn this year. Let’s hope I pass the test…and that it’s graded on a curve.