Changing the World One Pencil at a Time


In the summer of 2000, I willingly departed the comforts of Nova Scotia in exchange for an eye-opening, life-changing opportunity to participate in an educational development project in Guyana, South America, on behalf of the Canadian Teacher’s Federation. The assignment was called “Project Overseas.”

The name Guyana is an Amerindian word meaning “Land Of Many Waters.” It is the only country in South America with English as its official language. Not surprisingly, it is famous for its Kaieteur Falls, measuring five times as high as Niagara Falls. I highly suggest you pay Guyana a visit—it’s a beautiful country.

Our six-week assignment was to help improve the teaching methods of Guyanese teachers. Specifically, we were responsible for helping them prepare for their upcoming teacher certification examination. Passing this exam meant a pay increase, and since so many lived in poverty, passing was a major priority.

As I sit here and reminisce about my incredible learning experience in Guyana, I find it hard to believe it was so many years ago. I can still vividly recall the day I was eating lunch with the other Canadian teachers when a convoy of large, military looking trucks pulled into the schoolyard. We all stopped eating and rushed to witness what was happening.

Once parked, the drivers pulled up the worn, dust-covered tarps at the back of the trucks. We could not believe our eyes. Hundreds of people exited from each of those trucks. “Who are these tired, sick looking people?” I asked. Our supervisor pointed out that they were the Guyanese teachers. They were the teachers who had traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles to be our students.

I was amazed and impressed with the tireless dedication of these teachers towards life-long learning. Many of them made the long journey with their entire families, had not eaten in days, were cramped beyond endurance, and had undergone the journey through physical illness. They truly understood and appreciated the value of an education. Now that’s dedication.

Soon all the teachers were unpacked, showered, fed, settled into their quarters and ready to begin classes. The first two weeks were full of lectures, notes and assignments, which I had planned in advance in the comfort of my own home. I really felt as though I was making a world of a difference in the lives of these less fortunate, less educated Guyanese teachers. Then suddenly all that changed.

One rainy afternoon, I was packing up my teaching supplies when I was distracted by the voice of a woman. As I turned around to identify the soft-spoken voice, I saw the face of an older woman. In fact, I was certain she was young in age, but she looked much older. Maybe it was due to life’s burdens and hardships, I wondered. She politely approached me, her eyes staring at the floor as if she were ashamed. I stood there silently and waited as she walked towards me. Finally, she stopped in front of me and asked one simple question, a question which would forever change my core beliefs.

“Do you have one spare pencil so that I may break it in half and give it to two of my students?” Not five, not ten, but one pencil is all she asked for. Those words brought tears to my eyes. Not having a pencil to offer, and not knowing exactly what to do, I absently searched inside my wallet and gave her a “Hug Someone You Love Today” card. She smiled, looked at the card, gently took it from my hand, hugged me lightly and slowly walked away.

As I watched her leave the classroom, I realized something very important. It struck me how materialistically rich we are in North America, but often spiritually poor. I realized that although we North Americans may have far more money to spend on our educational system, those so called less fortunate teachers had one very important resource to offer their children—their love. This and other incidents of kindness and sincerity in Guyana left me convinced that these teachers truly love their students and they truly love to teach. I promised myself that I would take this experience back to my teaching, back to my students. I had to do something. In the words of Helen Keller, “I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but I still can do something. I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

There is no doubt in my mind that the Guyanese teachers did learn from us that summer, that we did increase their pedagogical knowledge and improve their teaching skills. Fortunately for me, I learned just as much, if not more from them. I left all my teaching materials there and I proudly returned to Canada with so much more to offer my students—more love and hope.

I would like to conclude with a story of the Chinese bamboo tree, which I read in a book from my favourite author and speaker, Zig Ziglar.

When the Chinese plant bamboo, they seed, they water and fertilize the plant, but the first year nothing happens. The second year they water and fertilize it, and nothing happens. The third and fourth years they water and fertilize it, and still, nothing happens. The fifth year they water and fertilize it, and sometime during the fifth year, in a period of approximately six weeks, the Chinese bamboo tree grows roughly ninety feet.

“Did the tree grow ninety feet in six weeks or did it grow ninety feet in five years?” Of course, it grew ninety feet in five years with the constant nourishment and the unfaltering devotion of the farmer. Now imagine your students as the bamboo seed and you, the teacher, as their water and fertilizer. In your hands, you hold the seeds of failure or the potential for growth. What a huge responsibility, but what a great privilege as well.

Personally, there is nothing else that I would rather be doing with my precious time than offering hope, self-improvement, motivation and re-energizing both myself and others in life. I hope that reading this story was as entertaining and educational for you as it was for me to write.

However, this writing was not simply meant to educate or entertain you, but to offer you inspiration. Life is meant to be lived. So go out there and challenge yourself. Make mistakes, travel, read, inspire others, learn a new language, and live life to the fullest. Just don’t forget to be kind to yourself, your family and friends, and to the environment along the way.

Until our paths cross again, remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “What lies behind you and what lies before you are tiny compared to what lies within you.” The next time you feel like giving up, think about the Chinese bamboo tree or think about those dedicated, persistent Guyanese teachers… and don’t forget to carry a few EXTRA PENCILS!


Michael Pickles
Michael Pickles has been teaching for 23 years from K to 12 and at the college level in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. He has also taught in Africa and South America. He is the author of Hug Someone You Love Today: And How to Leave Your Personal Signature and Hug Someone You Love Today: And the Simple Certainties of Life. Mike also runs his own motivational, public speaking business called “New Beginnings Consultant.” If you require an enthusiastic, high energy speaker for your next conference, you may contact him directly at

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Sept/Oct 2017 issue.

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