Dan Frechtling: An Educator with Peace Corps Liberia

Dan knows everybody. When we were in college together, whenever we went anywhere on campus, people would stop us every few minutes to say hi to him. And they usually did it very enthusiastically. You’d have thought he was a local celebrity. This all seemed so odd to me because, as one of our mutual friends likes to say, “There’s quiet, and then there’s Dan.” The guy really doesn’t say much unless he really has something to say. How on Earth did he know all these people?

After knowing him for a couple of years, things started to make sense. While we were in student government, he worked his way from assembly member to the executive board in just a year. By his junior year, he was an RA and president of a state-wide residence hall student government representing dozens of colleges and universities. Throughout that time, he became fast friends with just about everybody he met. He’s always ready with a quick smile and a kind word. In short, Dan puts himself in a position where he can make an impact on people.

He did this quite literally in June of 2012, when he arrived in Liberia as a Peace Corps volunteer. His assignment was to teach high school science at a small public high school. While I knew he was undertaking an incredible commitment, I wasn’t surprised by his desire to do so. He’s all about making meaningful commitments and seeing them through.

Dan has gotten to meet some fascinating people in the last couple of years (yes, that’s Bono above, along with a US Congressional delegation and some fellow volunteers) but knowing him, I suspect that his favorite part of his volunteerism has been building relationships with his students and colleagues.

You can read a fascinating account of Dan’s work and travels through the Peace Corps in his blog The Winding Road: Twenty-seven Months as a Member of Peace Corps Liberia. Anyone interested in education, especially international education, should take some time to read his writings.

Please give us a little background about your educational experience, including any social identities that impacted you as a student or educator.

I grew up between the small towns of Williamston and Perry, in Michigan. I attended school in the Perry Public Schools system from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. I was awarded a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Michigan by the Cook Family Foundation, and so I attended the University of. Michigan from 2007 to 2011 and completed a Bachelor of Science in Cellular and Molecular Biology.

After a year as an intern with the Michigan Department of Community Health (working on science outreach for students) I entered the Peace Corps and came to Liberia, which is an education-only program.

Volunteers in Liberia are placed in junior and senior high schools to teach math or science. My training consisted of two weeks of technical sessions followed by two weeks of model school. I taught 11th grade chemistry during the model school, during which I was observed by experienced volunteers and staff. I wrote about that experience on my blog in this post. After the remainder of Peace Corps’ training I was sent to Gorblee Central High School to teach chemistry to the 10th-12th grades. GCHS is a small, resource-poor government high school. As time went on and teacher shortages became more pronounced, I started teaching physics and math classes as well. Somewhat ironically, I never taught a single biology class in Liberia.

After one year I became a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader and was put in the role of training new volunteers to be teachers. I worked in the training of 38 new volunteers during July-August 2013.

In my role as a teacher I was definitely helped by the social identities of being white and male (I’m actually half Vietnamese but am generally perceived as white in Liberia). I was afforded respect for those identities that was greater than the respect given to a host country national of the same age.

What about your personal experience inspired you to pursue this career? If this doesn’t apply, why has a career in education been the right choice for you?

You know, I didn’t choose to pursue a career in education; I applied to the Peace Corps and it was decided that my educational profile fit what was desired to help with Liberia’s shortage of trained teachers. I enjoyed a lot about my time as a teacher – I got the opportunity to work with classes of up to 45 students (that’s small for Liberia) of very different ability. It definitely gave me a different perspective on education and the challenges that teachers can come up against. My time as a teacher and my subsequent job as volunteer leader have given me a glimpse of how the overall health of a system can impact the quality of education.

Please share a time when you were working in education and you were strongly reminded of being a student yourself. This can include memories of instructional techniques your former teachers used, teaching a favorite subject, interacting with educational institutions, etc.

The differences in ability level between the students at the high school that I attended and the one I taught at in Liberia is so vast that as a teacher I often thought back to how my favorite teachers had approached topics and wondered how they would approach a topic. Teaching physics, chemistry, and math is very different when you can be reasonably certain that the students know how to multiply and divide. I remember my friends and I breezing through assignments because foundational skills from earlier grades allowed us to focus on the concept at hand.

Tony Danza (yes, that Tony Danza) recently wrote a book entitled I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had. In it, he details working as a first-year English teacher in a Philadelphia High School. Time and time again, he experiences a great deal of remorse for his behavior as a student now that he finally understands just how difficult teaching is. As an educator, have you ever experienced this sort of remorse and empathy toward your former teachers, counselors, coaches, or administrators? Please explain.

I won’t say that I ever experienced this sort of remorse, no. I like to think that I didn’t make life too tough on teachers, and I certainly spent enough time making copies for teachers! But you do definitely gain a deeper appreciation for how difficult the job is – coming up with lessons that hit different parts of the experiential learning cycle, assessing students fairly, differentiating lessons for different ability levels, and so on—so I would say that I probably never thanked the faculty at Perry Public Schools enough.

You may contact Dan with any questions or comments at dfrechtling@gmail.com.

Dan would like you to please note that the views expressed here and the contents of his web site are his personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

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