Joseph Campbell, author and expert on myths and their structure, discovered many common patterns running through hero myths and stories from around the world. His research led Campbell to conclude there are fundamental stages that almost every hero goes through (no matter what culture the myth or story is a part of). Perhaps the most well-known of these story archetypes is the Journey of the Hero, a pattern evident in The Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz, and more recently The Lion King.
This heroic journey lens can be applied to real life experiences as well, whether in looking at Sierra Leonean author and human rights activist Ishmael Beah’s memoir,
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier; Vernon Jordan’s autobiography Vernon Can Read: A Memoir; or by reflecting on my own experience as a participant in the Panama Teacher Match Program this summer.
With that perspective as a starting point, here are the stages on my own Hero’s Journey.
1. Call to Adventure – Raymond leaves his wife and home in Florida for the summer to travel to the land of the Grand Canal in order to help Panamanian public school teachers improve their teaching of English.
2. Crossing the Threshold – Raymond touches down in the Panama of the tourist guidebooks and takes in some of the country’s most famous landmarks before departing on a regional bus for the crossroads town of Santiago in Veraguas.
3. Challenges – Raymond arrives on a Monday at his host school to find that the school has been closed for the day because of school-wide fair the day before. His observations of instruction in the first week reveal few examples of “best practices.” For the most part, instruction in the classes he visits is very traditional and non-researched based. Teacher-Talk-Time percentages are extremely high in classes, and Student-Talk-Time is dominated, when present, by a few students. Time-on-Task for students in the classes is about equal to time off task in classrooms. Raymond presents his findings and recommendation for addressing some of these issues to teachers in the morning and afternoon sessions at school.
4. Abyss – After a week of trying to get by on a few hours of sleep a night as a result of the crowing by roosters housed a few feet from his bedroom window, Raymond carries his exhaustion to work with him as if it were a lunch box. Raymond’s spirits hit a low point when only two of the 20 English teachers sign up to plan with him in order to try to bring an element of transformation into their teaching.
5. Revelation – Raymond comes to see that teachers often want to change, but are reluctant to accept that changing their long-standing views and experiences with teaching and learning is the essential first step toward changing their current educational practice. Furthermore, in many instances the teachers don’t really know what kind of things would bring about the changes they want even when they are willing to move past their long-established views of teaching and learning. Raymond is invited by English department leaders to present a series of workshops related to improving teaching at the school. He decides to focus on a few core areas to address and try to implement in helping teachers re-define their approach to teaching.
6. Transformation - In an exasperated FaceTime call to his wife, she suggests he buy and take some Benadryl. He does, and bangs out ten relatively uninterrupted hours of sleep. Having been restored to the land of the living as a result of a good night’s rest, Raymond heads back to work with the notion of seeking out individual teachers who might want to work with him on planning. He does, and gets a cadre of teachers to meet with him to plan and then be observed by Raymond in class in their attempt to implement these planned changes in their practice. Raymond first finds cause for optimism when one of the teachers implements changes to his classroom seating arrangements after the teacher attends the first workshop and discusses cooperative and strategic grouping with Raymond.
Another teacher arrives at the second workshop and raves to his colleagues about the success his class had in working with a graphic organizer he and Raymond developed to frame a conversation topic in his class. The students were able to gather information in pairs, share out with the whole class, exhibit critical thinking in their responses, and make a plan for a writing task to follow up on the speaking lesson.
7. Atonement – At his second school placement, Raymond does not have to make or present any critical observations about teaching practice at the school because his PTM colleague has already made these observations and passed on her findings to the teachers at the second school. As he transitions toward leaving Panama, he tries to address issues stemming out of his PTM colleague’s observations. He focuses on some positive steps toward changing core beliefs about teaching and learning and offers workshops geared toward improving the teaching practices for the entire department. Raymond finds the second school teachers eager to follow up on ideas for improving teaching suggested by his PTM colleague in her stint at the school, and he praises the quality of discussion that takes place in the workshops for both morning and afternoon teachers.
Raymond conducts seven workshops/seminars on language teaching at the second school: cooperative and strategic grouping, expanding teaching using the language and content framework, expanding teaching using genres, lesson planning, using a common framework for annual language proficiency assessment, introducing a teacher observation protocol, and creating a set of norms for the school’s English Department.
Raymond notices a Mission Statement and Vision Statement at the second school which are outstanding, and he tries to show how all of the things in the observations and presentations are absolutely in line with the goals of the school’s own mission and vision.
His PTM work takes Raymond and his PTM partners out of their individual schools and into the wider local community. He gets to meet and interact with students and teachers in the U.S. State Department-supported ACCESS program, return to his first placement to attend an English Day event at the school, and kick off the college’s language teaching seminar week by conducting an evening workshop for thirty teachers at the University of Panama, Veraguas. After his initial struggle to find his footing with the schools and teachers in Panama, Raymond comes to be viewed by his Panamanian counterparts as a person who has been a teacher all his adult life, as someone who is in the country because he wants to share what he knows to help fellow teachers - not as an outsider from a different place who is there to evaluate or criticize.
Before leaving, Raymond tries to impress upon teachers a point he has made in all of his interactions with teachers and presentations at both of his placement sites: schools get better because teachers in the school come to work as a team, not as separate individuals. He tries to reiterate over and over that the future of teaching, not just in Panama but all over the world, lies in teamwork, cooperation, and collegiality among teachers. Schools improve when teachers share assumptions about teaching and learning, plan together, use common strategies and structures to teach from lesson to lesson and year to year, observe each other in class and give feedback to peers about their teaching, and commit to a set of norms that will define and guide teaching and learning in the school. Raymond copies all of the presentations and supporting materials from the workshops for the teachers, and he leaves thinking of ways to keep alive despite the distance what was started in Panama between him and his new set of Panamanian teaching colleagues.
8. Return (with a gift) – Raymond returns home and is glad to be there. But he takes with him an enduring admiration for those educators he met in Panama for whom teaching is a calling, teachers who work long hours for little pay in difficult situations yet who strive to improve as teachers so that their students will have a chance to embark on their own heroic journeys.
Author’s note - Another artifice of the Heroic Journey is that the hero is assisted on his quest by helpers. Without a doubt, the easiest element of this archetype for me to identify would be my helpers - my fellow members of the Santiago Crew: Ida, Michelle (and Chris), Anna, Rachel, Caitlin, Katarina, and James. Without their daily help, my PTM journey would have been much less successful and certainly far less rewarding.