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From herding goats to shepherding students

Saturday, August 3rd 2013 As a boy, BROTHER PAULOS MESMER tended his family’s livestock in Eritrea, since his parents had no intention of letting him go to school. But he was determined to be literate, even

Saturday, August 3rd 2013
As a boy, BROTHER PAULOS MESMER tended his family’s livestock in Eritrea, since his parents had no intention of letting him go to school. But he was determined to be literate, even if it meant studying by moonlight. Later, he gave up the chance to study any course he wanted, to become a priest and a ‘humble teacher’, writes JECKONIA OTIENO.

“Sorry, but I cannot allow you to continue with your studies until you have paid the full fees.”

Brother Paulos Mesmer says that these are the most painful words the head of an institution can tell a student whose desire is to be educated.

Paulos, who is the director of Christ the Teacher Institute for Education —CTIE — finds it painful to cut a student’s dream short just because of finances. It evokes memories of growing up in Eritrea, when that country was still part of Ethiopia.

When I meet him in his spacious office with neatly arranged files, he cuts a relaxed figure. It is hard to believe that he was once a herds boy whose family only saw cattle in his future.

“I was born in Ethiopia but when Eritrea seceded, I became Eritrean,” he says.

Paulos was born in Keren, a name that means ‘surrounded by mountains’. During his early life, he had to look after his father’s livestock as his elder siblings went to school.

He intimates, “I had to plead, for a long time, with my father to let me go to school because I always believed that education would open doors for me.”

The boy’s cries were finally heeded, and he was allowed to join school at the age of nine. Within a month in school, Paulos had learnt the 256-character Ge’ez alphabet used in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

It was the beginning of a passion for education that has culminated in him heading an institute at Tangaza University College, a constituent college of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa.

Growing up in a village with no electricity did not dim his dream of being a top scholar. Paulos would go out in the moonlight to study so that he could learn more, and it paid off because he is an associate professor.

In fact, the founder of the Roman Catholic religious order to which he belongs is regarded as the patron saint of teachers. Saint John Baptiste De Lasalle, who founded the De La Christian Salle Brothers in 1780 in France, was the first educator to use a blackboard to teach his many students. It is from Lasalle that Paulos draws his inspiration as an educator.
“I am still puzzled about where I got the ardent desire to go to school, but I had a strong conviction that it would make a huge difference in my life,” says Paulos.

Paulos sat the Ethiopian School Leaving Certificate Examination, which is the equivalent of KCSE, and scored impressive marks, qualifying to pursue Medicine, Engineering or any other course he fancied at the university. But he had other ideas: Paulos joined the brotherhood. In short, he would remain celibate all his life and would work as teacher — a profession that many regard as lowly and underpaid.

After foregoing a much sought after degree programme, Paulos became an untrained teacher for four years while he was being prepared to serve in the religious order of the Lasallians. This congregation of the Catholic Church is world renowned for its ministry in education.

“I was then given an opportunity to study in the United States at St Mary’s University of Minnesota, which is run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers,” he recalls.

He fondly recalls the university’s motto: “Touching hearts and teaching minds.” He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems and Psychology, before pursuing a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology, all within a span of five years.

Border war

On returning to Ethiopia, Paulos went to teach in a school owned by the De Lasalle Christian Brothers, St Joseph’s School of Addis Ababa, where he taught for two years before he became the principal.

However, a border war erupted between Ethiopia and Eritrea, making it difficult for him to continue working at the school he loved.

Had it not been for the friction between the two countries, Paulos would have continued to head the school in Addis Ababa and, probably, would not have come to Kenya, but he returned to the US to further his studies.

“I did my doctoral studies in education, with an emphasis on organisation and leadership at the University of San Francisco starting from 1999. Four years later, I joined CTIE as the director,” says Paulos.

He has headed the teacher-training institute since July 2003, translating into ten years at the helm. But this would mean nothing to him if the purpose was just to churn out graduate teachers for the sake of it.

Paulos says one of the most important lessons he learn while at St Joseph’s in Addis Ababa is that as the head of an institution, one is meant to be a catalyst for change, not just another boss passing orders to juniors. And it is a lesson he works hard to apply wherever he goes.
CTIE is an affiliate Institute of Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota in the US. Paulos’s vision is to go beyond academics and produce graduates who are interested in more than helping their students score straight A’s.

Drawing from the university’s motto, he says of the institute: “Our aim here is to touch hearts, teach minds and transform lives. This is why education exists, and if it does not do that, then it is not good enough.”

No money

Paulos says CTIE seeks to understand its students, where they are coming from and what they are going through, in keeping with one of St John Baptist De Lasalle’s most famous quotes, “Love your students so much as being ready to die for them.”

“We do not just look at students as fee-paying citizens; we tell them that we are ready to listen to them and help them solve their problems as we prepare them for life.”

In particular, Paulos remembers the case of a school principal from Maasailand who, while a student in the college, had no money and felt he was left with only one option — dropping out without graduating.

But Paulos says, “I talked to him for three days in a row, and told him that even without the money, he had to keep going. I am happy he changed his mind.”

From an institute that would train only CRE, Mathematics and English teachers ten years ago, Paulos has overseen the inclusion of Geography, Biology, Chemistry, Computer Education, Kiswahili, Business and History, both at diploma and undergraduate levels, as well as a diploma programme in Business Information Technology. A Master of Education degree with an emphasis on Educational Leadership and Administration is also in the pipeline.

These achievements aside, Paulos says there are still a lot of things that need to be tackled. One of these is greater involvement in the community, which will see the students get even more hands-on in their training and working.

His main aim at the moment is to keep the fire of Lasalle burning, even as St Mary’s University — the mother university — celebrates its centenary this year under the motto, “A Transforming Heritage.”

Twelve virtues

Paulos insists that learning is two-way traffic, “We do not just look at students as tins to be filled. Rather, we tend to use a multidirectional approach to our teaching; in fact, we do not use the term lecturer but ‘educator’.”
One of the ways educators at the institute are inducted is by letting them realise that the young people they are handling today will handle their children tomorrow; the same way they handle these students is the same way their children will be handled by these future educators.

“Twelve virtues constitute a good teacher, according to us here at CTIE; dignity, calmness, humility, prudence, wisdom, patience, self-control, gentleness, zeal, vigilance, prayerfulness and generosity,” Paulos asserts.

Source: Standard Media

Review overview
  • Kabbire August 4, 2013

    Job well done brother Paulos Mesmer. The Kerenites and East Africans are proud of you. Keep up the De La Salle Christian Brothers’ motto:
    “Touching hearts and teaching minds.”

  • Araya-11 August 5, 2013

    First of all I would like to appreciate you for talking your time to write down this interesting back ground which can represent many Eritreans who went school back to the 80s and I hope this can influence Eritreans who live on the western. I dont know why this current eritrean generation is not taking the advantage of going to school when they arrive to western countries. I am attending 6 years professional degree, I am the only Eritrean. There are many students from different countries of the world most of them they are 10 and above from one country. I feel lonely most of the time when they going in group. I motivate any Eritrean to attend school, all they say is. it is a waste of time. they mention as an example for those dont get a job after their graduation. for me it is pain-full to see all those young Eritreans not to be enthusiastic to attend school.