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Variations | American teachers in the TT

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IN the 1960s, recruiting American teachers was a problem for the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands which had been under direct U.S. rule since the end of the war. The TT had six districts: the Marianas (except Guam), Palau, the Marshall Islands, Ponape (Pohnpei), Truk (Chuuk) and Yap. (Kosrae was a municipality of Ponape that became a separate district in 1977.)

The pay for U.S. teachers was generous and included a 20% “hardship bonus,” E.J. Kahn Jr. wrote in his 1966 book, “A Reporter in Micronesia.” But not a lot of statesiders had heard about the TT, Kahn said, and so its administrators had to access the Department of Defense’s list of applicants for jobs in overseas schools for U.S. military dependents, and others from a similar list that the Department of the Interior had in its own Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The TT headquarters on Saipan — the capital of the Trust Territory — also sent packets of literature to 900 American colleges and universities. Kahn said the literature was “remarkably candid, and designedly so.” The TT’s director of education, John R. Trace of Ohio, told Kahn that his goal was “to exclude those who shouldn’t come out.” Life was hard in the TT, especially for someone from the U.S, and a teacher’s job in the islands required “a broader and more flexible mental outlook than is normally expected of teachers in more conventional schools.” Trace informed applicants that in the TT, “English is the only language you will have available for communication with the students, and thus all school work will have to be done in this language so new to them…. This sounds like a big order, and it is.”

Applicants were asked questions such as, “Can you stand being around harmless bugs and lizards? You don’t have to like them, and we don’t care how much you stomp on or spray them, but you must be able to live where they are.”

Applicants were also “invited to assess carefully their ability, and that also of all members of their families, to ‘climb into and out of small outboard motorboats and outrigger canoes when in water as much as waist deep on the reef or in the surf, and ride up to 30 or 40 miles in such boats in major (deep) lagoons in all kinds of weather.”

After a “long recital of other hazards, inconveniences and challenges,” the TT recruitment literature concluded with a final warning: “We want no teachers to come into the Territory who do not have a full realization of what they are doing.”

An American teacher interviewed by Kahn said, “They really lay it on thick with the discouragement angle…. Their idea seems to be to make the teachers say, ‘It can’t be that bad.’ ”

This teacher, Kahn added, had not long been at his post in Truk “when he was stricken simultaneously with a virus, amoebic dysentery, sunstroke and worms. His temperature rose to one hundred and six. He had a radio with which he was supposed to call in to district headquarters — where there is a hospital — in just such emergencies, but he couldn’t rouse anyone there. Finally some native neighbors carried him to the hospital by motorboat; there was a chilly breeze in the lagoon, which may have saved his life, for it knocked his temperature down to a hundred and four.”

There were 150 American teachers in the TT at the time, Kahn said. “They have agreed to stay for at least two years; if they don’t, they have to pay their own fare home. Less than half the group that arrived in 1963 signed up for another two years — a rate of turnover not too much more discouraging than that in the American public-school system.”

Kahn said the TT government was partial to married teachers, especially those whose spouses were also teachers. But housing was limited, and domestic spats could be awkward, Kahn said. “When an American and his wife formally separated several months ago, there was no place for either of them to move out to, so they went on occupying the same quarters, not to mention sharing the same motor scooter.”

The pay was good. Kahn said a couple could earn $12,000 to $14,000 a year — worth 98,000 to 114,000 in today’s U.S. dollars — and could save a good deal of it because there was little to spend money on in the islands. “Some young teachers embarking on married life and looking for a quick nest egg come to [the islands] in reasonable expectation of being able to return home after their two years with five or six thousand dollars [about $40,900 to $49,000 today] tucked away. There have been enough couples so far for a categorical name to be applied to them. They are called mercenaries.”

Kahn said the better teachers had loftier motivations. “One twenty-three-year-old single girl from the southwest, while somewhat disappointed to discover that there was only one American bachelor in the district, was pleased to discover how eager and alert her third-grade students were (they ranged in age from eight to twelve), and was flattered when they took to dropping in at her home after school hours for informal chats. ‘In the States, I never cared to see my students after school,’ she said.”

When Kahn was in the TT, there were new classrooms, and most were cement-block boxes, 30 feet square, usually put up in clusters of seven or eight, he said. These classrooms were termite-proof and typhoon-resistant, but they were also “aesthetically drab and so austere that in the United Stated they would be unacceptable.” Kahn said there were “no teachers’ lounges or offices, and the storerooms were designed — presumably to foil pilferers — without any windows. As a result, books and other equipment locked up in them rapidly succumb to mildew. Each school had a flagpole, but few have electricity. Only one, in Koror [Palau], has plumbing. The rest have been built without running water or indoor toilets on the theory that what native children don’t enjoy at home they won’t miss at school.”

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November 2020 pssnewsletter

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