An Education in Oceania
Instructing ninth- and tenth-graders in English and reading on the Pacific island of Kosrae, Jesse Speth ’13 is learning as much as he is teaching.
It is a long way from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia—somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 miles and a day or so, since you have to cross the International Dateline to get there. Yet Jesse Speth ’13 can draw a direct line from Washington College to his new job as an English teacher on the Pacific island. It was a journey that began as soon as he arrived in Chestertown.
“I went to Washington College as a biology major and lacrosse player,” Speth says. “I got cut from the lacrosse team, restarted the lacrosse club with my best friend, and turned into an English teacher.” Speth became an English major with a minor in secondary education. Now, a year after graduating, he’s accepted an 11-month commitment as a reading teacher for ninth- and tenth-graders in Kosrae through the World Teach organization.
Part of the Caroline Islands group, Kosrae (pronounced koh-shy) comprises about 42 square miles with a population of about 6,500 people. About 370 miles north of the equator, it sits roughly between Guam and Hawaii. In his blog, Speth describes it as spectacular. And hot: “Once your body gets acclimated (and you learn that sweat and body odor are just a part of life here) things get much better… I learned the hard way yesterday that one needs to wear more sunscreen than initially thought (thank god for aloe.)”
In his first weeks on the island this summer, Speth reveled in new sports (surfing, snorkeling, and hiking barefoot to ruins dating to 1200 BC), new foods (“a myriad of American and Chinese supplies that are prepared in some of the most unique ways I’ve ever seen—ever had rice, Spaghetti Os, and canned corn beef? In the same bowl???), and a new culture.
“One of the coolest things I’ve experienced on Kosrae so far is the friendliness of the people. Everyone is so welcoming, so gracious, and so willing to talk to me! Learning Kosraean (somewhat) is also a big plus, because they totally appreciate it even if you just make an attempt to speak their language. What comes along with the crazy friendliness is people’s willingness to give you a ride. I’ve been walking down the road numerous times and have had someone stop and give me a lift to wherever I’m going. As long as they’re going in the same direction, why not? They appreciate the company, and I’m meeting new people because of it.”
Speth says the students’ supplies are better than he’d expected, but he still has to figure out how to bring a traditional classroom experience into a very non-traditional classroom on a Pacific island. He credits what he learned at WAC in the secondary education program, particularly the “education block” of his certification, with giving him the tools and creativity to embrace the challenge.
“We were going through teacher boot camp,” Speth says. “When you’re faced with this, what do you do? You learn strategies. You get incredibly tight with your cohort. We learned so much. The professors really taught us human nature, how to interact with other people, and in a nutshell that’s what teaching is.”
Speth says he’s not sure what will come after his stint on Kosrae; for now, it’s all about teaching—and learning—in the moment.
“I’m going to see what kind of journey I can forge myself here,” he says. “I’m kind of flying by the seat of my pants right now. It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time.”