Bend educators lend expertise to Rwandans

By Tyler Leeds The Bulletin
Published Mar 11, 2014 at 12:01AM / Updated Mar 11, 2014 at 06:17AM

A cadre of Bend-La Pine Schools administrators and teachers will make what has become an annual trip to the central African nation of Rwanda for spring break.

The self-funded teacher training mission is led by Assistant Superintendent Jay Mathisen, who first went to Rwanda in 2010 while still a George Fox University School of Education doctoral student. At the time, his goal was to help some professors with a master’s program they were developing, but in the end, Mathisen said he only made it to the school’s campus once. On his first night in Rwanda, he had dinner with another American who was training local teachers in instructional techniques to help mentor other teachers.

“I invited myself to hang out with them for the rest of the trip, and found myself on the back of motorbikes going to schools for a lot of the time,” Mathisen said. “I just really loved it.”

The trip sparked Mathisen’s dissertation, which examined the 1994 Rwandan genocide’s impact on three education reform movements. Near the end of the document, Mathisen concludes, “The impact the slaughter had on the education systems was immense, and continues on in some regards today.” He offers recommendations, but acknowledged they “do not include simple answers to the complex nature of those challenges.”

Despite these challenges, Mathisen has stayed committed to helping ameliorate some of the issues faced by Rwandan educators, in particular the lack of access to research on the latest teaching techniques. Since his first trip to Rwanda, Mathisen has become the organizer of American assistance for the organization he helped in 2010, the International Education Exchange (IEE), a Rwandan-led group that provides professional development to teachers. While there this year, Mathisen’s goal is to help train the roughly 40 Rwandan instructional coaches whom IEE sends to 80 schools serving more than 80,000 students.

“Because of Jay’s vision, we have been able to help hundreds, maybe thousands of teachers,” said Karen Stiner, a High Desert Middle School teacher who went on last year’s trip. “It’s changed me profoundly to have gone.”

Stiner describes the trips as a chance to put “research into action.” But she also noted that even the best pedagogical techniques can’t overcome some of the disadvantages faced by Rwandan educators.

“They have class sizes into the 70s, very little to no resources, and from third grade on, English is the only language taught, so there’s a high need for second language (instruction),” Stiner said, referencing the great linguistic diversity in the country.

Nonetheless, Mathisen said, “You can still work with teachers to get kids to think and talk in groups about a task even in a room with that many kids.”

“When I went in 2010, it was chalk-and-talk education,” Mathisen added. “And the lectures were in English, which plenty of kids couldn’t understand. They would copy the symbols and try to memorize them, but they didn’t grasp the content. By now the teachers who work with IEE are thinking about how to get students to think about tasks and engage in problems. You can tell the difference right when you walk in between an IEE school and one without that help.”

Going on this year’s trip are Bend High School Principal H.D. Weddel, Weddel’s wife Patty, a kindergarten teacher, and their two children; Highland Magnet School Principal Paul Dean and his wife Mary; Executive Director for Curriculum and Instructional Technology Shay Mikalson; Bend High science teacher Kathleen Yaeger; and Mathisen’s wife Shannon and the couple’s two children.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com

Submitted photo Kathleen Yaeger, science teacher from Bend High, went to Rwanda last spring break to help with education programs and will return this year. A group of Bend-La Pine Schools administrators and educators will again be headed to Rwanda for this spring break.
Submitted photo Kathleen Yaeger, science teacher from Bend High, went to Rwanda last spring break to help with education programs and will return this year.