Meet Josh Spencer, a native of Huntsville and son of Casey and Colleen Spencer. In 2011, Josh began serving a three-year stint with the Peace Corps in Warrenton, South Africa. It proved to be three years packed with struggles, surprises, problem-solving and the satisfaction of seeing lives changed.
Josh, when and by whom were you inspired to enter the Peace Corps?
I’ve always loved studying other cultures, and this was encouraged by my high school German teacher, Scott Bumbaugh. He constantly tried to expose us to other cultures. at and the fact that I had studied abroad during college, spent a summer in Europe, and backpacked in Argentina all factored into my decision.
Was the application process lengthy, and did you have a choice as to your destination and duties?
I had heard it would take at least a year to be approved, but after applying in January of 2011, I found myself in South Africa six months later. Although the process has now changed to give choices, at that time you were assigned a place where they felt your skills could best serve. Upon arriving, I began teaching English in a primary school and economics in the 9th-12th twelfth grades. ere were no curriculums to speak of, and the entire school system was disorganized. is put a tremendous burden to plan out courses and generate lesson plans for each class while also trying to bridge the language gap.
Please tell us about your teaching experience.
English is not their first language, even though their tests are in English. e majority of South Africans speak a native tribal language. I found myself serving as an ESL teacher as well. I would start every lesson correcting mistakes made due to translations from their language, Setswana, to English, and only after this process took place could I teach the lesson. After learning Setswana, I found you can’t translate word for word between the two. Once we worked on language issues, we started cutting out errors.
After six months, I resigned as the primary school English teacher and concentrated my time and efforts on the high school students, or “learners” as they are called. I felt this would be a far more effective use of my time. During my last two years, I concentrated solely on the twelfth-grade economics course, learners since they were about to graduate.
Were your teaching methods well received?
I was hated at first. the education system there was very lax from the top down. ere was little motivation to learn. the schools were wracked with other problems, from corruption, to drugs, to rampant teenage pregnancies. Also, with the HIV epidemic, many kids were being raised by either one parent or a grandparent. And many learners had been promoted year after year with little effort toward their studies. But that’s not my style! Jaime Escalante, a calculus teacher in California from 1974-1991, portrayed in the movie Stand and Deliver, was a great role model for me. He was compassionate about teaching and accepted nothing less than a total effort from his students. I felt that to combat the apathy at my school, I would have to do the same. I insisted on afterschool study periods on Wednesdays and Fridays, and two hours every Saturday morning. One Saturday morning, a certain young man did not show up for study time. I bicycled to his home and knocked at the door, but he would not answer. About that time an elderly woman came walking by, and upon learning of the situation, rousted him out, telling him to “never disrespect Mr. Spencer again,” made him apologize, and sent him o to school. As I said, the learners initially hated me, but over time, they grew to love me. ey knew I cared, and they craved the disciplined lifestyle I was demanding from them. In fact, I became a father figure to many of them. At my departure, my learners gave me an award which included a nameplate stating, “Josh Lesego Spencer.” Lesego means “blessing.”
With so poor an educational foundation, did they have a basis for understanding business practices?
I started a “Young Entrepreneurs Society” to teach business principles. It took some thought, but I came up with an idea that worked. Tuck shops are local “convenience stores” that sell items in small amounts such as an egg, milk, candies, and such. Many of these are run by foreigners from Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan, and the locals resent that these businesses are successful. ey don’t understand it takes discipline and smart economics to run a successful business, attributes not a part of their daily practices. I got permission to start a tuck shop for our students to run. My first step was to make sure the campus gate was closed at lunchtime, so the learners could not go to the tuck shop across the street. A little monopolizing never hurts business! We stocked our shelves with candies from a local wholesaler. en, one of the learners asked about selling “walkie talkies.” Walkie talkies are battered and fried chicken feet and chicken heads, and locals love them! We outsourced the cooking to a neighbor woman and we sold them in our tuck shop at lunchtime. It was a fantastic idea that made us a lot of money…for one week! After that first week, the neighbor woman came to the school and asked for a raise! In fact, she wanted to be paid for Saturdays and Sundays, too! As the learners listened, I explained that she couldn’t be paid for the days she didn’t work, and we couldn’t pay her the amount she insisted on, because it was more than we made on the product! at was the end of our walkie talkie business. But the students learned a huge lesson on economics which helped them understand the system. they got it! You can’t run a successful business when you pay out more than you take in.
Do you have some success stories to share?
I did see some positive changes and had a few success stories for my efforts. Upon arriving, the pass rate for the 12th graders was 26%. After three years of teaching, my students achieved a 100% pass rate, and several of them went on to higher education. Another huge reason for my success came from Mr. Moremi, a principal who was new to my school. Under his excellent leadership, the school was guided onto a positive path of success and achievement, and he gave me hope for change. He was always supportive of my ideas and efforts.
What cultural elements did you experience and find different from life in America?
I quickly found out, when entering a room, everyone is to be greeted personally; a “hello everyone” will not do! e same goes when leaving. Personal goodbyes are expected to each one present. Even when I went to the local McDonald’s and placed my order, I was soundly chastised with the statement, “First, Hello. How are you? en, you order!” ey are big on hospitality. Another thing I learned was they don’t get in a rush on emergencies. I started a fire while cooking and called 911. I was put on hold for the re department, which I later learned was non-existent. The police arrived thirty minutes later, by which time the fire had self-extinguished. Asking why they didn’t arrive sooner because the house could have burned down, I was told, “Sir, there are lots of emergencies, not just yours. You are not in America anymore.” I realized at that moment that I was on my own! at experience gave me a great appreciation for our emergency services in the United States.
How did your experience in the Peace Corps change you, and what advice do you have for others who are considering this same avenue of service?
The Peace Corps makes good Americans. I may have made a small impact where I served, but I learned to appreciate America in a much more substantial way. It also taught me problem-solving and the ability to work with people who are very different than me. In fact, I now work at Shell in Houston alongside people from all over the globe. Serving in the Peace Corps is not the glamorous life most expect, but it will mold you into a stronger, more resilient, and caring person than before. It was a hard adventure, but worth every step of the journey. e Serenity prayer sums it up nicely: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”