Teachers have one of the most critical and challenging jobs in the world – educating young minds and laying the groundwork for children to become adults. Most teachers choose that line of work because they want to give children the knowledge and skills needed to live happily and productively in our world. It is a huge undertaking as teachers often find themselves working at local schools with minimal resources and maximum classroom capacity.
In a spin on a traditional teaching job, Ben Calvert decided to take his teaching career to the high seas. He currently volunteers as a Physical Education teacher in Africa on the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship, the Africa Mercy.
Calvert is the son of missionaries and has a heart for missions. After graduating with a degree in education, he completed a one-year internship, teaching gymnastics to students at the Sports Academy of The Hague University in The Netherlands.
At that point, Calvert was ready to make a change in his life. He was considering doing development work locally, but he came across an advertisement for a Specialist PE teacher with Mercy Ships on their ship, the Africa Mercy. This floating hospital is staffed by a 400-person volunteer crew and provides free health care to the forgotten poor of West Africa. Some volunteers have their families onboard, and approximately 55 children attend the accredited Academy onboard the ship. Calvert says stumbling upon the advertisement for the PE position “was too much of a coincidence to ignore,” so he decided to revise his plans. “It was easy for me to make the decision because I wasn't leaving a long-term teaching contract behind,” he added.
He was, however, leaving a comfortable life behind. Working on a hospital ship in Western Africa was a drastic change, but Calvert was excited about the opportunity. “I knew I would feel a real connection with the kids onboard since I am a missionary’s kid myself – not to the extremes that these kids are, but it did allow me to have some insight into their distinctive world.”
Calvert saw the job with Mercy Ships as a very unique opportunity to combine teaching and missionary work. Teachers typically do not get a chance to contribute directly to missions, but the Mercy Ships Academy allowed Calvert to play his part in supporting mission work. “I didn’t work directly for the locals in the host nation,” he says, “but I allowed the parents of my students to honor their decision to be volunteers on the ship without worrying about their children’s education.” For Calvert, the bottom line was honoring the decision and faithfulness of the parents.
One of Calvert’s most memorable moments came one day during the 2009 Field Service in Benin. It was the beginning of the high school PE class. That morning Africa Mercy Captain Tim Tretheway posted a notice in the reception area saying that there was an infant in ICU on the hospital ward who was in a life-threatening situation. As the class began, Calvert noticed an overwhelming silence from the typically rowdy teenagers. One girl broke the silence by asking if they could pray for the desperately ill infant.
“I was astounded,” Calvert said. “This was my first time to teach at a Christian school, and for the kids to start with this request humbled me to no end.”
That day confirmed Calvert’s decision to become a teacher on a hospital ship with Mercy Ships. It made him fully realize that the kids, just as much as the parents and the teachers, are an integrated part of the wider community – and the mission – that is the Africa Mercy. As the class came together in prayer to lift up the people they serve, it was a powerful moment in Calvert’s eyes.
Of course, there are notable differences in his teaching environment. Calvert identifies the biggest difference between teaching on the Africa Mercy and teaching in The Netherlands as the unique advantages of being in a small Christian School environment. He has the opportunity to know each of his students personally and to form a relationship with them as people, not just as students. The class is able to share their personal beliefs, and Calvert has the opportunity to help the students grow in their relationship with Christ. That is a luxury not allowed in public schools in other settings. The freedom to incorporate faith into education allows his students to grow in their beliefs, while strengthening Calvert’s faith at the same time.
He is also teaching in a truly international school. With volunteers on the ship representing 35 countries, his students come from a diverse background. English is the official language on the ship, but it is a second language for many of the students. He enjoys experiencing a fusion of different cultures in one classroom.
Calvert’s teaching job at a Christian Academy onboard a floating hospital is an extremely unique position. He feels blessed and thankful that he has been given this outstanding opportunity. He is one of thousands of teachers across the world who should be honored today on World Teacher’s Day. Each teacher is working diligently to shape the minds of the world’s youth. Calvert’s experience demonstrates that not all teaching environments are the same, and it takes all kinds of teachers to educate the leaders of tomorrow.
Written by Clair Bufe, photos by John Roland