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Is it a school, a ship, a hospital – or all of the above? The Mercy Ship is home to an international crew of 480 including surgeons, nurses, deck officers, engineers – and around 50 children of all ages. This unique environment is both life and work for Auckland primary teacher Karin Kitshoff, on a two-year tour-of-duty with the hospital ship charity that provides free surgery for West Africa’s poor and marginalised.

Karin describes teaching the crew’s children on board the Mercy Ship as, ‘A blend of some of my life’s pipe dreams; working in a cross cultural context, teaching and living in community.  I found the prospect both hilarious and too good to pass up’.

The Africa Mercy is seven stories high and the length of two football fields. The vessel’s hospital deck contains five operating theatres, five hospital wards and all the auxiliary services required to provide assessment for rehabilitation for West African patients receiving free essential surgery.

Imagine a small town where the main industry is a surgical hospital. There’s a post office, a bank, a corner store, a café – and of course a school. The children of long-term crew members attend the Mercy Ships Academy, an accredited international Christian school catering for students from preschool to high school graduation.

The benefits of living with people from more than 40 nations with a wide range of skills and experience is already evident for Karin.  ‘My class was recently invited to view the fire drill by the emergency teams. We ‘set the fire’ in the laundry room, alerted the bridge, watched as the fire crew came in to ‘extinguish the fire’ and haul out the ‘body’. We observed the Emergency Medical Team perform CPR on the mannequin as well as use the defibrillators – all a few days after learning about the circulatory and respiratory systems in science.

‘Hearing the students relate their own experiences with Mercy Ships has been inspiring. I have heard some of the parents share their stories; decisions to sell houses, leave families, friends and jobs to take the risk and join this crazy experience called Mercy Ships. But hearing the students’ process their own journeys is something else. I’ve listened as they’ve started to recognise the courage their parents mustered to make the decision to join, and listened as the children process the reasons for making this decision. It’s a truly unique position to be in.’

Since the Northern Hemisphere academic year kicked off in August, Karin’s blended Year 4 and 5 class has been on field trips in the Canary Islands, sailed 1,600 km across the Atlantic, and participated in the hospital ship’s ‘Open House’ before surgeries began for the current 10-month field service in Senegal, West Africa.

‘The Academy has two divisions; the primary team of preschool to Year 6, and intermediate and college up to Year 12.  Divisions meet for

daily devotions, and we come together as a whole school on Friday mornings. Primary teachers take their year level for the core subjects, and intermediate and college teachers teach their individual subject plus Bible and Life Skills, to their mentor class. The children all learn French, with many opportunities to practise the language when they step ashore or even venture into the dining room.’

The on-board school consists of nine classrooms and a central multi-purposed computer centre. Students have access to playgrounds on decks 7 and 8, as well as lap pool for recreation and sports activities. Technology is a priority, and classrooms are outfitted with interactive touchscreen boards. Wireless internet is provided, and intermediate and college students are issued a personal Netbook each year.

‘We use an international standards-based curriculum, following the educational standards of the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) and Middle States Association. The Academy is well equipped with resources, including an extensive library and all the set course books for the subjects we teach. While the content and teaching approach is quite different to what I’m used to, there are many added resources I might not have access to at a primary school back home. For example, I can raid the high school science cupboard for equipment for investigations. There are also many opportunities that living as part of a community on a hospital ship provides, including visiting with the hospital patients as a class.’

There have been some challenging times for the 29-year-old too. ‘I’ve had to learn a very different curriculum and approach to assessment. Where previously I taught in a collaborative team of five teachers with 142 students, the Year 5/6 team is now me and three boys. The small sample size can make it hard to know whether you’re doing it right, but the other teachers are very supportive and there is a high level of interaction between us.’

The interface between students across the grades is uniquely fluid outside of their classes; after all, they are all in the same boat. It is common for children to have close friends a few years older or younger than themselves. Of course, the little ones idolise the senior high school students who seem to take both pride and responsibility in having a joke and encouraging the younger ones.

‘It is amazing to see how comfortable students have become interacting with their community of doctors, nurses, deck crew, surgeons, directors, chaplains, engineers, plumbers… the list goes on.’

‘Recently the school hosted our Academy Open House where crew members toured through the classes, seeing where we ‘live’ Monday to Friday. Our students were able to showcase their learning and lead some activities in each class. The children had the chance to see not only their parents but other adults from their community struggle with some of the challenges we had set up for them (after battling with them ourselves). They also had the chance to teach and learn from the crew too – who better to demonstrate viewing slides through a microscope, than the technicians who work directly below us in the lab?

Some of my favourite moments so far have been points of genuine connection with the students; sharing the highs, lows and utter peculiarity of this journey. Living in the same community I see sides of my students that I would never usually glimpse. I’ve seen the students at breakfast in their pyjamas and bee-lining for the ice-cream line after the ship’s Thursday night community meeting. They’ve seen me hot and sweaty rollerblading on dock, in the mornings before I’m caffeinated, and singing heartily (not always tunefully) during church services. With a sideways glance and twinkle in our eyes, we manage to pretend that this is totally normal.

‘Living and working in close community does take a bit of getting used to, and it often shows sides of yourself (and others) that can be oblivious in normal life. I had been anticipating and inwardly psyching myself up for conflict resolution conversations for months, but as yet I’ve left my Crucial Conversations book gathering dust on the shelf.  Strangely, it doesn’t seem strange; it works surprisingly well to live where I work.’

VIDEO LINK: School on a ship https://vimeo.com/294703905

Be part of something amazing! Small classes, motivated and well-behaved kids, travel while you work. Teaching with Mercy Ships could be the answer to your prayers. 2020/21 volunteer opportunities and more information about teaching on board at www.mercyships.org.nz/teachers-all-at-sea


Mercy Ships is a faith-based charity using hospital ships to deliver free, world-class healthcare services, capacity-building and sustainable development aid to those without access in the developing world. Founded in 1978, Mercy Ships has performed more than 100,000 life-changing or life-saving surgical procedures such as orthopaedic procedures, benign tumour removal, obstetric fistula repairs, cleft lip and palate repairs, and cataract removal. Services and materials valued at more than NZ$2.33 billion have directly benefitted more than 2.71 million people in 70 nations. Each year, around 1,000 volunteers from up to 40 nations, including New Zealand, serve with Mercy Ships. Professionals like teachers, surgeons, dentists, nurses, healthcare trainers, teachers, cooks, mariners and engineers donate their time and skills to the effort.  Mercy Ships New Zealand, one of 16 international support offices, is based in Auckland. For more information visit www.mercyships.org.nz




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