It began with a request for sneakers. That was the easy part. It ended with a day of substitute teaching in a kindergarten “classroom.” That was the hard part.

This summer I traveled with my school leader and a team of other Americans to rural Kenya. I learned many life lessons and the experience changed me in both predictable and surprising ways.

I learned that being “unplugged” for two weeks is easy when surrounded by a community that embraces you (figuratively and literally) into their daily lives. I learned that despite abject poverty and minimal material possessions, love, joy and resiliency abound. I learned that women work really, really hard in the developing world. I learned that children have an innate desire to learn, to question, to touch and to understand others.

And I learned that kindergarten teachers (in any society) make all the difference in the world.

Helen is a kindergarten teacher at the Shangilia Children’s Home in the Vihiga district outside of Kisumu, Kenya. In addition to caring for her own three children and tailoring on the side, Helen teaches kindergarten to a fluctuating group of orphans and village children.

Each morning, Helen begins her day at dawn, working to transform the primitive and cramped space that serves as a boys’ dormitory by night, into kindergarten and preschool classrooms by day. She hangs the hand-made picture alphabet and a range of other wall supports in English and Swahili. She grades each child’s writing journal by hand. She cleans the large chalkboard and sets out a small box of supplies.

We witnessed Helen at work. Through songs, movement, choral response and recitation, the mix of five to eight-year-olds follow her every move. She differentiates during the writing block. She celebrates individual and group successes publicly. She takes classroom management to a new level.

And she makes it look easy.

The day after my principal and I visited the kindergarten, we returned the next morning with picture books, crayons and other basic supplies donated by the team.  We also brought a pair of tennis shoes for Helen, (the only personal supply she requested) to help her run after the little legs that play endless games of “Duck, Duck Goose,” and “Simba,” (Swahili tag) during break times and recess.

Helen’s husband, John, a youth pastor at the orphanage, was watching the class. He explained that Helen was sick. A bout of malaria had infiltrated the village after recent rains surfaced swarms of mosquitos. John spoke quickly and began stepping backwards, ending with, “She was hoping you two could teach the kids today?”

Why not? We thought…how hard could it be? My principal has extensive primary experience and I’ve taught middle school in Colorado for almost a decade. We didn’t have sub plans, big books, a colorful carpet or other first world kindergarten staples, but we brought a passion for teaching and classroom experience. So, we rolled up our sleeves and started the day’s lesson, reviewing the alphabet and borrowing some “moves” we’d seen Helen use the day before.

And then something really fascinating happened. Chaos ensued.

Students began giggling and switching names when we called on them. Samuel, the youngest and most rambunctious in the class, pinched the girl sitting next to him. Three boys sitting in the back led by Beulah, one of Helen’s sons (who was usually a model student) pushed their writing journals away and began playing and chatting in Swahili in what we can only assume was about anything but academics.

We exchanged a look of panic. This anarchy in no way resembled the dedicated learning we had seen the day before.

We abandoned the lesson and pulled out the picture books. We broke for recess early and let them play for a few extra minutes. We breathed a sigh of relief at snack time and an even bigger sigh when we’d made it to the afternoon “nap time,” the only part of the day that went according to schedule. We bribed the students with lollipops and put Samuel in a “time- out” when the pinching escalated to kicking and punching. And when it was time to dismiss the group for the day, we retreated to our hut and collapsed into bed before dinner.

Kids are kids. In Kenya or Colorado, the Helens of the world make the complex look effortless. But there is nothing “elementary” about teaching kindergarten. It requires patience, energy and an endless supply of chants, educational games and task juggling. Kindergarten teachers make learning irresistible, accessible and most importantly, enjoyable.

Supplying Helen with a pair of shoes was simple. Spending a day in her shoes taught me that kindergarten teachers, no matter where they work, are our world’s uncelebrated heroes.

Nap time at last! The only part of our day that went according to schedule.Snack time at Shangilia - our day was anything but this orderly!Teacher Helen leads the kinders in calisthenics -- and makes it look easy! In addition to teaching all-day kindergarten at Shangilia, Helen cares for three children of her own and tailors on the side. Here she is pictured with her youngest child, baby Prudence.

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