ASPEN - Ask Ugandan teacher Drago Patrick to list the differences between Aspen High School and Gulu High School, where he teaches math, and the list is long.
The average class size in his hometown school is around 100; in Aspen, the average class size is about two dozen. Gulu High students do not have calculators, and books are a rarity; Aspen students are fortunate to have the latest technology at their fingertips. Aspen students are always plugged in - to their phones, iPads, iPods, etc.; Ugandan students are banned from bringing such distractions into the schools. Teachers in Uganda wear suits and ties and maintain a formal relationship with their students; Aspen's teachers dress sporty, if not casually, and interact readily with their charges.
"I would say the biggest difference is the level of formality," said Patrick, who taught math at Aspen High School during January as part of a teacher exchange program through the nonprofit Invisible Children. "It is just completely different, but I like it."
But ask Patrick - and his Aspen High exchange partner, English teacher Mark Benedict - what the similarities are between the two schools, and the answer is short and sweet: the kids. Kids are kids, they both agreed.
"Oh, they are all so alike," Patrick laughed. "They are excited and bright, and, well, they are just kids. It is refreshing to see that similarity."
And this is the point of the teacher exchange, which brings Ugandan teachers to schools in the United States for one month during the winter and sends teachers from the States - including Benedict, who visited Uganda this past summer - to Uganda for six weeks in the summer "to form teaching partnerships while exposing their students to a world outside their borders," according to the Invisible Children website.
In real terms, what the Invisible Children exchange does is effect change for both teachers and students.
Patrick said that among the things he hopes to bring back to Uganda from his experience at Aspen High are new teaching methods, "to learn new protocols," he said. More importantly, perhaps, he hopes to build new bonds with his students.
"In Uganda, maybe because we have to because of the class size, the teacher stands at the front of the class and teaches. He may never have other interactions with his students," he said. "But here, the kids come in and talk to you and hug you. It's wonderful.
"I definitely want to tell our students to get to know their teachers. To create these bonds, these relationships."
Benedict agreed that creating relationships is at the core of the exchange program - especially for teachers and students in a small community such as Aspen.
"I hope that the teachers gain perspective from having Patrick here. I hope we can better recognize what's a big deal and what's not," Benedict said, explaining that Patrick spent his month in Aspen fully integrating into the community, not just toiling away in the classroom. "For the students, I hope they were able to make some personal connections, to realize that Africa and Uganda are more than just a foreign country.
"The goal is to create understanding, and I think this exchange accomplishes that."