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Equity Work on the Other Side of the International Date Line

Date 

April 9, 2015

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Yvonne Ryans holding a painting with other educators in Guam

Hafa Adai roughly translated means hello in the Chamorro language. As the director of Education Northwest’s Equity Assistance Center, I recently journeyed to the beautiful island of Guam to provide technical assistance to public and private school teachers, counselors, administrators, and other educators about federal compliance requirements and culturally responsive strategies. All I can say is what a trip!

I start out leaving green, busy, rainy and sometimes sunny Portland for a 10-hour flight to Narita, Japan to make a connecting flight. By now, my internal clock has blown up, and I start looking for English signage to direct me. It has been more than 40 years since I lived on a military base in Japan. No sense asking directions because all I can remember to say in Japanese is konnichiwa (good afternoon) and sayonara (goodbye). I finally spot a sign for the connecting flight area, and a bathroom. Such relief! I experience how non-English speakers and writers feel when they get to the states. As I walk along to the gate, I recognize a familiar logo. Could it be, why yet it is. It’s McDonald’s, and the entire menu is written in Japanese. A little bit of home.

I make my way to the seating area for my three-hour flight to Guam. A smooth ride, no problems, and I meet a wonderful family who invite me out to dinner once I get settled into my hotel since I will be here for 10 days. We did have dinner together, and it was an exchange of friendship for the future.

Once I arrive and pick up my baggage (free baggage carts), I process through customs and ask for a passport stamp. Not necessary, but I want one. I go outside to get a taxi and the humidity hits you like a wet tissue stuck to your face. It’s now almost 10:30 p.m. on Monday night. I have been traveling since 8 a.m. Sunday and crossed the International Date Line. I arrive at my hotel after a 20-minute ride and ask the taxi driver if he takes credit cards. Why didn’t I think of that before I got in the taxi? The answer is no, and I dig through my bag to find cash. Mind you, my bag has a laptop, charger, cell phone that does not work, travel papers, magazine, passport and other somewhat essential items. After paying, I request a receipt and get a handwritten receipt like the kind you get from a receipt book—you know the kind with the carbon paper in it. I exit the taxi, check in, and head to my room to unpack and prepare for the coming week’s meetings.

Driving in Guam is definitely very different than the driving I’m used to. First of all, there are few (and I mean very few) street signs after you leave the main road that encircles the island. When you ask for directions, you are told to go x number of traffic lights and turn right or left, or go to the x landmark and turn right or left. The beautiful North Pacific Ocean and the Philippine Sea surround you, so water is either to your right or to your left. People drew maps for me that were more like diagrams, so I would be able to find my way around. The hospitality in Guam cannot be beat. People are generous and friendly and more than willing to introduce you the cultural aspects of their lives, and I was invited to attend a family gathering.

My responsibilities, while in Guam, were to provide technical assistance to different groups of educators on the topics of federal compliance and culturally responsive classroom strategies. My biggest surprise was to have a Chamorro language teacher report out his groups table work in his native language. What a perfect opportunity to demonstrate how a student might feel if he or she does not understand English. For sure, I did not understand and did not have access to a translator. However, I could pick up from his hand gestures a few of the thoughts he was expressing, and as I scanned the room, those who understood him were translating those who did not. At the break, I spoke to him to find out if I had caught the gist of what he had said and he assured me that I had and gave me a warm hug.

Working with educators in Guam is a humbling and rewarding experience. I began to build a relationship with the participants, and relationships are the cornerstone of equity work. I look forward to returning to continue to be taught by those who live there and build an educational partnership. What I take away from this exciting experience is that no matter how many hours you spend preparing for the work, how much research you do, how much knowledge you think you have, and how much support your receive from your colleagues, it is essential to be prepared for the unexpected, be respectful of all cultures, accept new learnings with great gratitude that personal interactions are of the utmost importance when laying the foundation for equity work. What you know does not make a difference until people know you care—the same is true when working with students.

What cultural experiences have you had that have shaped your thinking and approach in working with students?