Katie Stafford, a teacher on Africa Mercy ship, shares a glimpse of her experience in a floating school. Katie answered these questions from aboard the ship, now docked in Madagascar.
What pulled you to serve as a teacher in such an unusual, mobile location?
Well, I have always had the travel adventure bug. I wanted to see the world . It’s also important that I work in a place where I feel stretched outside my comfort zone and where I feel that I am making a difference. I also have an absolute LOVE for the ocean and sailing (having grown up in land-locked Colorado, of all places), so when I heard about the opportunity to teach on a hospital ship that sails around Africa providing life-transforming medical care, it sounded like the absolute perfect fit for me. I love being part of the work of Mercy Ships; I love that my passion, teaching, fits into its ministry.
How would you describe your classroom?
My classroom is small but cosy! With a maximum class size of 6 children, we don’t need much space. But we do have so many resources. My room is full of toys, games, art supplies, books, learning support materials, and so much more. We are up on deck 7 of the ship (there are 8 decks total), and we have a lovely view of the beach in Madagascar at the present, or the rolling ocean and dolphins while sailing! Our classroom environment is warm, colourful, inviting, engaging, and very cosy! I love it!
Given the limitations of teaching on a ship, how do you offer an engaging environment?
The Academy on board does an amazing job of working together to provide an engaging environment for all of the children. Like I mentioned before, our school is absolutely brimming with resources. I was amazed when I first arrived. Almost all of the classrooms have Smart Boards, we have a computer lab, any art material you can think of, a fully-stocked science lab, musical instruments, and everything in between. I think that we offer just as engaging an environment as any school on land. We have the added bonus of going on field trips in multiple locations during a given year, and in very exciting, exotic places! This year alone, our children have visited a science museum in Spain, a penguin zoo in South Africa, and a lemur park in Madagascar!
There are challenges to teaching certain lessons aboard a ship, and for children who have lived most or all of their lives here. For instance, while studying the Olympics last year, I had a child who had never seen ice skating or skiing before! Explaining the four seasons to children who have only ever experienced Africa’s dry and rainy seasons provides an opportunity to use a lot of creative teaching. My recent unit on plants was interesting because we couldn’t just walk outside into our dusty port and find any plants to examine or study. Simple lessons in our American or European curriculum regarding money, stores or traffic all need to be creatively taught and contextualized to African experiences. These are just few examples of challenges that often arise due to the limited experiences, resources, and opportunities of living on a ship!
How do you provide your children opportunities in the natural world when you’re at sea?
This year was the exception with about one month total of sailing during school. But we take advantage of the opportunities that arise on the sea and supplement our lessons on the ocean and sea life, and watching dolphins, whales, and flying fish regularly! Admittedly, it is very hard to persevere through a school day when the ship is steeply rocking back and forth. We even had to cancel school for a day on our last sail because the seas were so rough as we rounded the cape of Africa on our way to Madagascar. We often take advantage of our sailing days to prepare units with the children on the countries to which we are sailing. It’s an opportunity to explore the history, geography, culture, and language of each country.
From where do you draw inspiration and encourage wonder in your children?
From our surroundings! We see and experience so much here. We have unique opportunities to explore, experience, and learn new things around us. We are inspired and awed by God’s amazing creation around us during the sails. We see the differences in the beauty, people, and cultures in the countries in which we dock. We witness the expressions on the faces of the patients, doctors, nurses, and caregivers in the hospital wards where lives are literally being changed forever. We hear the stories of amazing people from all over the world who come to volunteer on this ship. That is something else that I love about Mercy Ships-crew members come from literally all over the world.
Children and teachers enjoy teaching each other about their home countries languages, traditions, and cultures. We learn so much from each other, and our world views are continuously expanding.
It ‘s not surprising that Katie travels the world and invests her life in children. Her father, Wess Stafford, the former President and CEO of Compassion International, introduced her to the world through the lives of the children they sponsored while she was growing up.