The Lessons I Learned in Kenya, by Debbie Pepper

The Lessons I Learned in Kenya, by Debbie Pepper


Wichita Falls High School ESL teacher Debbie Pepper has visited other countries before. She helped build an orphanage in Haiti, cleaned wells in Sri Lanka after a tsunami, and taught English in Thailand. This past summer, she visited Nairobi, Kenya. She did what she always does: She combined her love for helping others with the opportunity to travel and learn about a new culture. This summer, Nairobi had several lessons to teach her.



Summer time for teachers means relaxation, freedom, and not having to hold our bladders until lunch. It also means professional development. This year I actually got to the opportunity to learn from an educator on another continent. I know what you’re thinking, and no, the district did not pay for it.


I went to Nairobi, Kenya, for one week with a team of 11 people, including a doctor and a nurse, to provide free medical care for people living in its slums. As a part of Jacaranda Ministries, we set up clinics in churches and schools where we saw hundreds of the most beautiful children, most of whom came with their classes led by their teachers.  Each child received an exam. Then my team, who worked in the pharmacy, put medicines in bags for all the students. 


During one of our clinics, we had some downtime.  I went outside and walked a few yards to the school. I struck up a conversation with the headmaster. Boy, did he talk my ear off! I think he was as excited as I was to converse with an educator from another country.


The headmaster introduced me to a young lady who has autism and told me that when she first came to the school she was nonverbal and facing a heartbreaking problem at home. Autism is a condition that is not well understood in Kenya and therefore she was not accepted by many people. Even her family treated her like an outcast.  


The headmaster said he thought the school saved this young girl’s life. After listening to his story, I wholeheartedly agreed.  Her teachers worked tirelessly to help her learn to talk and communicate in her own way. Their most crucial work, though, was working with the family to help them understand their child’s uniqueness and how to support her and help her blossom.  


While this was a remarkable, heartwarming story, I was touched by three important truths.


First, I was impressed by the passion and pride I heard in the headmaster’s voice as he talked about the girl with autism and all of his other students, too.  At times he was nearly moved to tears as he shared his stories. I couldn’t help but feel an immediate connection to this man whom I had just met, who lives on the other side of the world from me. He is a reminder that no matter where we live, no matter how rich or poor we are, no matter what we teach, educators are all connected in our devotion and unending love for our students.


Second, I believe that everyone in the education field, like this headmaster, is a lifesaver. 


Sometimes technology fails. Sometimes we lack the materials we need. Sometimes students’ home lives create seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Sometimes our class sizes are not what we’d like them to be.


But we always have what it takes inside us to shape the lives entrusted to us each year. We always have the opportunity to apply wisdom and do what’s best for our diverse learners. We always have a heart that loves and cares for each child as if he or she were our own flesh and blood. We always can make a difference, even if we don’t see it right away.


Third, our days our long, but the short time we have with our students is truly a blessing. Our wallets are empty (but not as empty since we got such a nice raise!) from decorating our classrooms and taking care of kids in need, but we are rich because we have the opportunity to touch lives. The paperwork seems endless, but our love for students really knows no end either.



To fuel your passion for students, I strongly encourage you to take the opportunity to go on mission trips. The more you learn about others and their cultures, the better you will understand your students and be able to keep an open mind concerning them. It will help you accept and nurture the unique kinds of kids we get in our classes.


Some practical advice: Go with a group that is experienced and well-established so that you stay safe and everything runs smoothly.


Also, before you go, learn about the country you will visit. Then invite others – family, friends, co-workers – to be part of the trip by donating money or materials that can help people in need. For this trip, WFHS administrators, several teachers and a campus police officer donated medicine that I took along to give to children in Kenya.


I count it an honor to be a part of a district that has chosen to be bold for our students and to do whatever it takes to help them.