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I want to write about what it feels like to be a volunteer at Pukllasunchis. Today I led an experiment for two 6th grade classes about comparing the nitrogen and phosphorous concentrations in water samples collected from 3 sources: a nearby river, the tap used for hand washing, and filtered water. I wasn’t attempting to explain what nitrgoen and phosphorous actually do, but rather than they are minerals that come from organic sources and so should be found in greater concentrations in water that has yet to be filtered rigorously (a.k.a the river). Pukllasunchis had all the materials necessary in their laboratory. So I tested each sample a couple days before to ensure I’d get distinguishable results, and wrote a ficha (‘worksheet’) that outlined the purpose of the experiment and reinforced some basic concepts about water.

I’m still convinced that my prep was sufficient. But when I went to perform the experiment  for the kids, it was utterly overwhelming to control the room. That simple truth undermined the preparation I had done for the lesson. There were students drawing on slips of paper on their chairs rather than listening, and others who simply turned their back to me to talk to a neighbor. I would mispronounce a word and the entire room would burst out laughing. When I asked a question, everyone blurted out answers without bothering to raise a hand, think, analyze, reflect, etc. (all those good things we’re supposed to do in school). I attempted the experiment, and sludged through the questions I wanted to ask them during class. We finished, but what was clear to me was that I lacked authority, and as a result I consistently lost control of the room.

What I struggle with at Pukllasunchis is how to volunteer without any sort of authority. The professors at the school are granted some authority because they are the ‘graders’, or the measuring stick. They will also ultimately relay everything the kids do (or don’t do) to their parents. But, the professors at the school have also worked to earn a sense of authority. Authority isn’t just handed to professors. Pukllasunchis is a school that actively strays from the traditional classroom approach. Professors rarely ask students to leave the classroom, or punish them by removing priveledges. Rather, they want the students to respect the teacher for the sake of respect; or to work for the sake of learning.

Although I’m called Profe. by the kids, I haven’t earned that respect. It’s pretty obvious when half of a class refuses to listen to me for more than 2 minutes at a time. Relationship between teacher and student at Pukllasunchis is based on respect, rather than a heirarchy. It takes a lot of time and effort to earn respect. I have to show them that I not only know what I’m talking about, but prove that I care about them, and prove that I care about their learning. AND on top of that, they’ve got to feel that all on their own. I can’t just tell them to respect me.

So back to my original question: what does it feel like to be a volunteer? I feel that my experiments are taking infintely too much time because I have to yell: ‘escuchenme’ (listen to me) 3 times a minute, I feel that only a handful of kids understand the purpose of the experiment by the time I complete it, and I feel self-concious at times as I bumble through my explanations in a foreign language. I also feel that I’m taking away time from the other professors who might be more efficient with their lesson. So because of a lack of authority, I struggle to feel effective even when I’ve spent hours planning an experiment.

What is kind of crazy about this entire experience is that I feel inneffective almost all of the time. It’s demoralizing, but I don’t think it means that I (or we) have failed. I want to feel effective by teaching. I want to feel effective by showing these students something that without my presence they wouldn’t see. But to feel entirely effective in doing that, I have to earn their respect first; that, unfortunately, is much harder than prepping an experiment.

So maybe I won’t ever feel effective here. But maybe that doesn’t really matter. Maybe one of the students who was paying attention to my experiment will be googling about Phosphorous tonight, and some random web-page will spark an interest in biology, or DNA, or ecology, or something. And who knows, that same kid could be the single Pukllasunchis alum who studies biology in University. Or perhaps, one student that I individually helped in clarifying a math problem will feel a sense of accomplishment that makes them more confident and perform better on the next test that will happen after I leave. Those are 2 successes I will never see.

My expectation of success is extremely high. We’re supposed to be “Changing our world.” So, I should be teaching, right? I should be imparting knowledge? In reality, I’m just trying to control 30 kids and make sure no one knocks the table over and spills acid all over the room. Or make sure that a student doesn’t sit mindlessly while the rest of the class is working on math problems. That doesn’t feel effective…at least in the context of DukeEngage.

But I guess what I’m saying is that I’m putting a lot of emphasis on feeling effective, and perhaps that’s misplaced. Or, at least, I hope it’s a bit misplaced. I don’t have to feel succesful to be succesful.