Most PCVs are thrown into classrooms as teachers to learn on the job, and surprisingly some Volunteers are very good. In my years as an Associate Peace Corps director (APCD) in Ethiopia I saw more than a few PCVs become great teachers. But there were also those who were painful to watch from the back of the room.
Still, you never know how they might influence kids. We had a PCV teacher in Ethiopia who was stationed in a village called Debark. It was a one-man town on the Gondar road, isolated from other Volunteers and up high at the foothills of the rough Simian Mountains, north of Lake Tana, north of Gondar.
What this PCV liked to do most was roam these hills above the village and often, when I arrived for a staff visit, I would find him gone off camping in the mountains. And when he was teaching, he wasn’t very good. Once our Contractor Overseas Representative (COR) [remember them?] said that sitting in his classroom watching him teach was the second worst example of teaching he had seen. Asked by the Country Director, Dave Berlew, who was the worse example, the COR replied, “Watching this guy teach last year.”
Nevertheless, he finished his tour, never complaining or troubling the staff, (which, as we know, can get you a long way in the Peace Corps) and then disappeared into the world. For years later, Volunteers from his era would ask at Ethiopian RPCV reunions, “Whatever happened to Steve Foehr?”
About ten years ago, Steve checked in with me and I found out that after Ethiopia he went off to be a crewmember on a sailboat in the Mediterranean, a construction worker in Sweden, a movie extra in Japan, a copywriter in Hong Kong, a witness in Vietnam, a smuggler in India, a layabout in Malaysia, and a police reporter and journalist in the United States. He has lived and worked in some 88 countries and written a half-dozen books.
But that’s not the point of this blog item. The point is that the Peace Corps staff in Ethiopia always thought Steve was a terrible teacher. And we had proof; we had been in his classroom!
A few years back the Ethiopian community in Washington, D.C. contacted Marian Haley Beil, the architect of our RPCV Ethiopian & Eritrean group, and the webmaster of this site, and asked if she could arrange to have a panel of early PCVs talk at a conference that they were planning in D.C. to be held at Howard University. This panel discussion for many of us was a moving experience, as we recalled Ethiopia in the early years of the Peace Corps. We even got a standing ovation from the Ethiopians who crowded the room, but the highlight for me was meeting an Ethiopian college professor before our panel was held.
I fell into a conversation with a man who had a PhD in geography and taught at a university in southern Virginia. He told me how he had attended several first rate colleges in the United States working his way to his PhD. It is a familiar story of how successful Ethiopians make it in America. I asked him where he was from in Ethiopia, and he was vague at first about the town, saying only that it was small village north of Gondar.
Now, Gondar and the Gondar Road I knew at one time and I pressed him about the name. Again he waved off my question saying I would never have heard of it.
“Was it Debark?” I asked.
The surprise on his face was priceless.
“You know of Debark?” he asked.
“I’ve been to Debark,” I told him.
Then I told him about being an APCD and having Peace Corps teachers in the town. He smiled and said he had a Peace Corps teacher. A great teacher, he said. Really, I asked. Yes, he said, Mr. Steve.
The legendary Stephen Foehr, the worst teacher in the Peace Corps, was his favorite teacher. He went onto tell me how Foehr got him interested in geography, how he would take the boys on hikes into the hills above Debark, teaching them about wildlife and wild flowers. Because of Stephen Foehr, his long ago middle school teacher, he had become a geographer and a college professor.
And then he asked, “Whatever happened to Mr. Steve?”