Teaching beyond the U.S.

For more than five years she has traveled across the world to countries, such as Azerbaijan, Estonia, Hungary and, most recently, Northern Thailand. She has worked in the jungles of Northern Thailand with neither electricity nor water.

Yet, for USF researcher and professor Janet Richards, traveling hundreds of miles to teach with no water or electricity is worth it. Teaching young refugees in Burma, which is located in Northern Thailand, is an inspiration, she says.

“These young refugees (in Burma) are very courteous, patient and accept their fate for the moment,” Richards said.

Richards is a volunteer scholar, who is one of 70 educators selected by the International Reading Association. These scholars travel to about 22 former communist countries to bring the Association’s Reading Writing and Critical Thinking program to their teachers.

“I am very excited (to be a part of the program),” Richards said. “I love every second of it.”

Richards said in order to be selected for the program those interested in becoming involved have to go through a rigorous screening. First comes a critical screening test, then traveling to Hungary for training, and then traveling back to the United States to Washington D.C. for more training.

Richards said the whole process took one summer of her time before being fully admitted into the program.

“I heard about the program, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” Richards said.

Arriving at USF 10 months ago, Richards came to the Tampa area from the University of Southern Mississippi. She, along with her colleagues in the Association’s program, come from the United States, Great Britain, Canada and Australia to help K-12 students think reflectively, understand the logic of debate and how to become independent learners in the former communist countries.

Richards said teaching in the jungles of Northern Thailand is not easy. There are few books, no power or water and about 50 to 60 students — many that are orphans because their parents were killed in fleeing their homeland.

“In these countries, the students are taught to memorize and organize facts,” Richards said.

“I try to teach the students not to just look at one source for information, (but) how reading comprehension and debate can help each other learn and how to write.”

On Sept. 29, Richards will return to Northern Thailand as part of the Association’s program to lecture educators at a university in the Chiang Mai province for 10 days.

“I wish it was longer,” she said. “I miss them very much. I learn more from them, and I am happy to go back.”

Richards added that she thinks the Association’s funding, which is funded by the World Bank and US AID may be coming to a close due to lack of funding. She said she still wants to continue her travels to Northern Thailand, even if she has to pay her own way or has to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship to not only be able to teach but also to conduct research as well.

Marcia Mann, chairwoman and professor in the College of Education, Mann oversees the childhood education department in which Richards works. Mann said in an e-mail that funding is a problem everywhere, but the department will assist Richards in trying to find grants or foundations that would fund her work. However, neither the department nor the College of Education has the funds to give to Richards directly.

“By Dr. Richards traveling to Thailand, it has enhanced the departments international perspective,” Mann said.

Mann added that Richard’s students have learned about her experience in Thailand and that they have been quite interested to hear about her travels.

“Dr. Richards has shared her experiences with her students at both the undergraduate and graduate level,” Mann said.

“She is able to present actual information from her journey, Thai students, and the environment in which they live and work.”