English teacher retires early, brings educator skills to Africa
Mary Higbee always wanted to teach but didn’t earn her credential until she was in her 40s. She made up for lost time by heading to Africa after retirement where she and her husband helped open Hope and Resurrection Secondary School in South Sudan and trained teachers in Kenya and Tanzania.
How did you end up teaching in Africa after retirement?
I’ve always felt the need to give back. When I turned 60, I thought well, this window of opportunity isn’t going to be here forever. It was a hard decision to retire early because I still loved teaching.
My husband Jim and I worked with Hope for Humanity, an American nongovernmental organization. This organization built a school in South Sudan in a rural village with no electricity three years after Sudan’s 20-year civil war. The vision was to make it a church school or turn it over to the new government of South Sudan. Neither the church nor government were strong enough to take on the school or pay teachers, so Hope for Humanity kept it and somebody suggested using missionaries.
My husband and I volunteered to go to South Sudan for the secondary school’s first school year, which started with a freshman class of 60. Our oldest student was a 34-year-old married father of two children. Because of their civil war, he hadn’t gone to school. We had a lot of older students that first year—it was kind of their second chance to go to school. Only three students were girls. Twelve years later, about 40% of the school’s enrollment is girls. One of our first girls is now a co-administrator at the school. She was sponsored to university and has a business degree. To have a secondary education in South Sudan is to be one of the best educated people around because the illiteracy rate is still incredibly high.
After spending a school year at Hope and Resurrection Secondary, we were invited to do teacher training in Kenya. The teachers in Kenya had huge classes, hardly any resources and only a blackboard and chalk. We showed them things like how you could take one storybook and do a language arts lesson for a week with it, including vocabulary, because often the kids had a tribal language, a national language and were learning English. I also was asked to be a consultant to a nursery school in Tanzania. I visited a lot of local nursery schools and read a lot of books so I could be helpful when I got there.
Tell us about your fundraising efforts for the school in South Sudan
I’ve made jewelry from paper for 10 years now and donate sales to the school. And sometimes my husband does the same thing with his woodworking. I also wrote and self-published a book called Lessons from Afar about our time in South Sudan because it was such a profound experience, and I’ve used it in leading faith-based women’s retreats.
What is something that you’re most proud of in your teaching career?
We left the school in South Sudan in the hands of a competent African staff. The school is 12 years old and about 250 kids a year attend. As a classroom teacher in California, I was provided with excellent staff development in my school districts where I taught, and the fact I could pass that on and make a difference was extraordinarily satisfying. What I gave up when I retired early has been more than compensated by my experiences in Africa.
Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email Communications@CalSTRS.com, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.
This profile also appears in Retired Educator Winter 2020, as part of the “How Are You Spending Your Retirement” series. To share the exciting and interesting things you have done since retiring, email RetiredEducator@CalSTRS.com.