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Kentlake High graduate finds perspective in Ghana
Kathy Taylor had a plan — go to Whitworth, play volleyball, earn a degree in education then go to graduate school.
Taylor, a 2008 graduate of Kentlake High, realized recently her plans for life after college have changed thanks to a longtime friend who encouraged her to spend some time teaching in Ghana.
“I went into college knowing I wanted to do special education,” Taylor said. “I have a brother who went through the special ed program in Kent. By the time I was a junior in high school, I knew what I wanted to do. I got lucky in happening to figure out what I wanted to do early.”
So, she went to Whitworth in Spokane, played volleyball and earned a degree in elementary education and special education. During her time studying, she spent 300 hours in public school classrooms learning the ins and outs of special education, an endorsement which qualifies such teachers to work with children and adults up to age 21.
Because the classroom time required for the program, which then rolled into student teaching, took up so much of her life, Taylor chose to leave the volleyball team her final year at Whitworth.
Her plan had always been to take the summer between graduation from Whitworth and graduate school to spend in Africa. Well, at least that was the plan from sophomore year at Kentlake on.
A friend of Taylor’s whom she went to school with from Pine Tree Elementary through Kentlake went to New York University. While a student at NYU, this friend chose to spend a semester studying abroad, and she went to Ghana where the university has a campus.
“She came to me in April (2011) and said, ‘I’m here, I’m working for this organization, I love them and you would love them and you have to come,” Taylor said. “She just happened to get placed with City of Refuge as part of one of her classes. She had name dropped me to them while she was there. That was really when Ghana came into the picture.”
Still, though, the position Taylor considered with City of Refuge was a volunteer teaching job and it would be a one-year commitment.
“I spent a year wondering why would I spend a year doing something for free that I could get paid for (in the United States),” Taylor said. “I spent a year trying to talk myself out of it.”
Then in January she was in San Francisco where she was able to meet the founders of the program as well as the principal of the school where she was considering working.
“I went there and met them on a whim and was so excited about it,” she said. “Then I got on the train and was like, ‘This is for a year, what am I thinking,’ and I tried to talk myself out of it.”
But as graduation approached in May, Taylor knew she didn’t want to work in a public school just yet.
“I figured there was no time better than now,” she said.
She came back to Western Washington and lived in the University District while she worked for Seattle Parks during the summer.
A week before she left for Ghana, her friend who connected her with City of Refuge got married and Taylor served as her friend’s maid of honor.
“That week before I left was pretty emotional,” Taylor said.
In early September she flew to Ghana, a country of about 23 million people in West Africa. School there was about to start after a month-long break in the year-round schedule.
“I got to Ghana Sept. 5 and staff training had started a week and a half before,” she said. “I got there on a Thursday and we were starting school the next Tuesday.”
The day before she was to start teaching at the school the principal went to Taylor and told her the second grade teacher couldn’t come to school because of a family emergency.
With about 24 hours notice, Taylor was asked to teach second grade, when she had expected to work in a resource room with special needs students or children who were behind and needed additional support to catch up.
For three weeks she taught second grade, but Taylor said she had a co-teacher who was tremendously helpful especially as she learned to decipher the accents of the children.
After the second grade teacher returned, Taylor moved into the resource room which was still used as a carpentry room at that point, so she taught around library shelves waiting to be mounted. For a while lessons were conducted in the hallway or on the basketball court, Taylor said, wherever it made the most sense that day.
There are 185 students who attend the school, 35 of whom live there full time because they were orphaned, abandoned or sold into slavery by their parents.
Despite some of the traumatic backgrounds the children have and the corporal system of punishment that is commonplace in the culture — Taylor explained caning is the traditional way parents and teachers at other schools get kids to behave — the youngsters are full of joy and are eager to learn.
Plus, they see so few white people, Taylor is fascinating to her students.
After adapting to the different food, the heat and sleeping with a mosquito net over her bed nightly, Taylor saw the joy of life there. She was surprised at how easy it became for her to feel at home there outside of the country’s capital, Accra.
“Their culture is a very hospitable culture,” she said. “They are very communal in that they will share things.”
Taylor says part of what keeps her going when she feels challenged is her faith.
“Part of it, if I’m being honest, is God,” she said. “I feel like that has been a huge part, finding joy in Him and in kids.”
When she walks to the school, the children will sprint toward her and ask if they can carry her books, with an exuberance which can be contagious.
“The kids, they love being loved and they love to love,” Taylor said. “When it’s that easy to do every day, it’s hard to say no.”
In the time Taylor has worked in Ghana, she has gained perspective on many aspects of life. She said she has realized not everyone is called to serve, much less to do so in a country like Ghana, and that though it was not an easy decision to take this on, she knows it was the right one to push herself way out of her comfort zone.
“The thing that I had to come to terms with was that college community that I loved was gone, no matter where I went,” she said. “I could have easily stayed there and figured out things but I knew that wasn’t where I was supposed to be. Perspective, more than anything, is what I can gain from this. Hopefully I can give more than I can gain.”
Part of that perspective has been learning how to deal with living off the grid, so to speak. She has Internet access, but it is slow and somewhat frustrating. Taylor communicates primarily via email. She has a cell phone but because of the time difference it can be challenging to chat with folks.
There has been something freeing about that, though, Taylor said. Now that she’s home until mid-January for a break, she has realized just how much American culture relies on technology, while in Ghana her tablet and computer are something of a novelty, especially for the children who live at the school.
When she goes back to Ghana, Taylor will teach until early June, at which point she plans to return to Washington state and find a job. Her plans no longer include going to graduate school right now, though eventually she would like to earn her master’s degree at the University of Washington. Her hope is at some point to work in the private sector with autistic children.
For the rest of the school year at City of Refuge in Ghana, Taylor will continue to work with children out of the resource room, pulling out students for one-on-one work or groups of up to six. She will help them improve their skills and catch up to their peers.
When she’s done in Ghana she’d like to work in her own classroom in a public school. The plan is to do that for five years to take care of her student loans.
While her plans changed, so has her view of the world. She doesn’t want anyone to think that because life is different in Ghana that it’s a life of despair.
“The kids that I’m working with are happy,” Taylor said. “They live the life they know how to live and do what they can with it.”
In the meantime, she’s learned to see her own culture differently.
“It’s perspective, more than anything, and an understanding of what it means to find something you’re excited about,” she said. “Just seeing how much success that brings when you’re doing something that you love, no matter where it is, and an understanding of a global lens and how important that is because it is so easy to get caught up in everything that’s happening here, the good and the bad.”
Taylor’s plans may have changed but she is exactly where she needs to be.