A Transformative Journey: My Experience Teaching in Rwanda
Katherine Mosher Rwanda Trip

As a teacher, I want my students to have agency over their learning. I want them to be open-minded to new ideas, cultures, viewpoints, etc. As soon as I heard about our Round Square opportunities, I realized that I could also live that vision by traveling across the world to Rwanda. I had never been to Africa, and here in the United States, that continent is depicted in certain ways when you watch TV shows and movies. The reality is that every country in Africa is completely different, and I wanted to experience one of the countries for myself. I definitely travel a lot, but this experience was so unique because not only would I learn about the culture and lifestyle, I would also walk in the daily life of a teacher at Green Hills Academy.

When I first walked onto campus, I immediately felt at home. The campus is beautiful and filled with stone walkways, plenty of green space, and a view of Kigali. Known as the city of hills, Kigali has incredible views at all different points throughout the city. On my first day, the students came into the classroom as they normally would, but quickly noticed there was someone new in the room. The kids were so excited to learn about me, our school, and my daily life in Tampa, Florida. Little did they know, I feel like I learned the most from the students in that classroom. After the first day, I realized it was going to be tough to learn all of their names, but I knew I needed to have them all memorized by day two. There were about 28 kids in the classroom and some had names I was not sure how to pronounce, so I wrote all of their names down in my little notebook based on where they sat in the classroom. The next day, I was able to call each child by his or her name, and I could tell that meant a lot to them. Throughout my week at the school, I spent every moment with the kids in my class and my host teacher. I greeted them, sat and talked with them, went to their specials classes, and played on the playground during recess. I learned about their lives, where their families are from, what they do after school and on weekends, what they love to eat, etc. I had quickly formed a bond with the students and I knew it was going to be tough to leave them at the end of the week. Among the hundreds of questions the kids asked me throughout the week, one that most stood out to me was: “Ms. Katharine, do you prefer to be alone or with people? Which makes you feel good?” We then had a talk about how we both need a good mix. Sometimes we need to be alone to relax and center ourselves, but we also love being around the people we are closest to. In her mind, that question told her a lot about me and who I am as a person, and it was one of the most thoughtful questions a child has ever asked me. Of course they all asked me if I like Taylor Swift, how I feel about Flamin Hot Cheetos, if I have pets, and how many kids are in my class, but they also wanted to know me as a human being. Kigali and Tampa are vastly different places, but at our core, we all want to be understood and feel a connection to those around us. I then realized my class at CDS needed to meet my class in Kigali, so I set up a zoom call. Being able to see my own class at home on the projector screen was an amazing experience. The kids asked each other questions, had great conversations, and realized they have so many things in common. I watched in awe because all of the kids on both sides of the world were bursting with joy from making those connections. Already, my second graders are able to see that yes we are different but we are also similar in very meaningful ways. 

I truly could not have done this trip without my host, Pertunia. Upon arrival at her house, she showed me my room and bathroom that I would have all to myself. At first, I let myself ease into living somewhere new, but quickly, Pertunia and I became close friends. Each day, we would come home from school and she would make me a delicious dinner. We would sit and talk for a while in the living room, and then we would go to sleep early because we were always exhausted. She also introduced me to many foods and fruits that I had never eaten before. At school, I loved to watch her teach the class, but I quickly took over some lessons too. I spent time in their school library looking for read-aloud books, and read many books to the class that I also read to my class at CDS. Pertunia and I would bounce ideas off of each other for various lessons and we were both able to try new lessons and strategies with the students. Even though their school has only been an IB school for about 3 years, I learned how she embeds IB into all of her lessons and I already use some of her ideas in my own classroom. Sometimes teachers wish they could look at another adult when something funny or ridiculous happens in the classroom, and that’s exactly what we were able to do. We made a strong connection and I still continue to talk to her as often as I can. Pertunia is one of the main reasons why I loved this opportunity so much. 

For my second week in Rwanda, Monique and I decided to do a safari! This is something I have dreamed about doing for a long time, so I knew I needed to take the opportunity while I was there. We were able to explore two different incredible national parks where we saw hippos, lions, crocodiles, an elephant, a giraffe, baboons, and more. As we drove around in the safari vehicle each day, I could not believe that I was actually there. I felt so lucky! Towards the end of our safari, we trekked up an inactive volcano to visit a gorilla family in the wild. For this trip, you have to get a permit, but I was happy to give my money to an organization whose main priority is to protect the gorillas. Each family is only visited once per day and at a very safe distance so that the gorillas do not feel disturbed. It took us about two and a half hours to get to the family in the pouring rain, but once we arrived, I was speechless. One of the guides told us that when we get to the family, he would make a noise and if they made it back, we could proceed forward. I thought he was kidding, but sure enough, I heard him make the noise, and one of the gorillas made it right back. It was one of the coolest moments I have ever experienced. The baby was rolling around and playing, most of the others were eating or sleeping, and the silverback was a little bit further away, eating the entire time. We spent an hour observing them and when the hour was over, I felt like we had been there for five minutes. We were in a group of strangers for this part of the trip, but that experience immediately bonded us and we spent the hike down laughing and talking about what had just happened. The entire hike was covered in mud and was pretty much straight down, so all of our porters had to hold our hands to make sure we made it safely. It was exhilarating and something I will absolutely never forget. 

When I checked in for my flight home, I couldn’t believe I only had 24 hours left in Rwanda. I did not want to leave the city, my host teacher, or the kids in my class. I then decided that I would surprise the class and spend my last day back at Green Hills Academy. When I walked into the classroom, the kids jumped out of their seats and a giant group hug formed. I was already in tears and it wasn’t even time to say bye to them yet. Rwanda is amazing and there are so many sights to see, but Green Hills Academy is where I wanted to be. Even as I’m writing this, I’m tearing up because of the impact the school, my host, and the students had on me. I learned that no matter where you are in the world, we all want connection and happiness. I learned that if you are open-minded to those around you, that mind-set will be returned. I learned that my love for teaching extends beyond the four walls in my classroom, and is even deeper than I thought. 

One significant learning experience I developed for my students is based on thinking of the whole child in the classroom. Yes, our curriculum is incredibly important, but how our students behave as people is on the same level. My first step was having both of my classes meet on Zoom. I wanted them to be able to peak into each other's lives and gain some understanding of the world around them. Through this, I want my students to be the open-minded and caring individuals that I know them to be. As we continue to discuss various character traits as a class, my students reference the kids in my class at Green Hills. They talk about how our communities look and feel different, the funny joke a student made while they talked, the thoughtful questions the kids asked, etc. My students were able to gain perspectives and think about how others feel, which translates to them being great communicators in and outside the classroom.

Our last two IB units in second grade are based on communities and how humans impact the ecosystems of our world. When I first applied to Round Square, I included these on my application because I knew they would directly align. However, I could not have foreseen how deeply my students would want to understand these topics. Not only were we able to explore types of communities and ecosystems, but I was also able to give them real world examples with my pictures and stories from Rwanda. Like I said before, I want my students to have agency over their learning. Throughout these last two units of the year, because of my trip, I feel that I was able to make the IB experience what it truly should be. We brainstormed ideas, asked questions, researched as much as we could, shared our findings, and accomplished the goals of our units together. 

This trip was a life-changing experience for me. I mean that, and I do not say it lightly at all. When I was on the plane headed back to Tampa, I found myself crying because of all the feelings I was experiencing. I was immensely grateful for the trip, upset after saying goodbye to my students and new friends, and emotional about all of the new things I discovered about myself. If you ever have a chance like this, take it. I cannot say thank you enough to CDS for sending me on this trip, and I would not be the teacher I am right now without it.