Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Teaching English in Belarus...

The subject of teaching English in Belarus has come up several times in letters over the last couple of days. I also got a request to write something about the subject for the Norwood Language School news letter. The following essay was what I came up with and that I didn't have tiome to make anything else, I am also posting it here today.

Roses for Stalin
Boris Eremeevich Vladimirski
Of course all students are different; some have more talents in particular places and others have higher or lower aptitudes. But one should never underestimate the cultural issues which are at play in the classroom and how they affect the internal and external learning situations. The world in which the student comes from plays a huge part in his or her development and social and political attitudes can push and pull a student's ability to learn. It can also affect the student's image of whom or even what their teacher is in the hierarchy of their imbedded value system. In the case of teaching English in Belarus, this is in fact one of the most important factors which a foreign teacher of English should be aware of before coming in.

Back when I was in Poland I taught English for a while in a town about 100km from Warsaw. Anyone who knows me from the internet knows that I was not by choice in Poland. But while working for a private teaching firm, I did my best not to let my personal issues get in the way of trying to be a good teacher. However, whether or not I successfully hid any ill feelings turned out to be completely meaningless because the students themselves had already made two distinct cultural decisions about both Poland and learning the English language: Firstly, Poland was a corrupt and terrible place with no future and secondly, any English speaking country was a golden panacea. My presence was seen as simply a blessing from both students and their parents. To them, I represented a brighter future, a second chance at life. The year I was there was in 2002, just before Poland joined the EU. And of course you know what has happened since.

It shouldn’t be said though that what I had was any sort of perfect teaching situation. True the students came with confidence, enthusiasm and energy. But on the other hand it was not always the case where they had the aptitude to pick things up as fast as they thought they needed to. This aptitude problem mixed with the social pressures to achieve English fluency quickly and led to many, many cases of cheating to achieve grade results rather than learning things thoroughly. Cheating by the way had exactly zero connection immorality: "Getting a good cheat off of a teacher is a thing to be proud of." was an exact quote from one of my better students. Also, when the slower students would start to fall away from the group, they would experience enormous feelings of social unacceptability which would only add to the pressure on them and decrease their ability to learn. And worse, students who had fallen back were less willing to accept extra tutoring because the extra attention also added to the stigma of failure and isolation.

But coming to Belarus was a completely different situation. Belarus did not have any particular aspirations to join with the EU and in fact had as an ingrained part of their culture a real distaste for what was seen as western frivolity. Belarus did not take the attitude that being a native speaker was anything special; in fact, I was actually told that my being American would interfere with the student's established learning programs. This was certainly the case for the school faculties which were made up of teachers who had come up through the communist system, but it was inevitably seconded by the students who had grown up being taught by old school methodologies. When I did get opportunities to teach, though students seemed to like me and enjoy my classes, for sure they saw my attempts at humor or calls to have a more relaxed atmosphere as being very unserious. Trying to build individual rapport was also difficult because it also went against local practices of learning as a group. In fact, anything I tried other than direct pedagogical authoritarianism was not seen as being useful. There is a wall between student and teacher and both are expected simply to play their rolls.

The Soviet teaching style could basically be summed up as learning by rote and pure discipline. Teaching English meant that a grammatical idea should be presented quickly, thoroughly. After, a few variations on the theme would be offered and then the students would drill and drill and drill until they could repeat the example perfectly. The pace was brisk and bureaucratic. The idea was that learning in school was a simply a part of a students inevitable future employment and therefore should be done in the same workmanlike style. Organization and preparedness came first; adherence to the system was the goal. And if a student could not function within the prescribed boundaries, it simply meant that they were funneled into different system which would help find for them useful skills for more appropriate work.

Teacher with students
This is not to say that the system didn't have its results. The students were remarkably polite and attentive. Classroom manners were easily better than almost any level of education anywhere. The students would stand when the teacher entered the class, would raise their hands for questions at a starched 45 degree angle. They dressed well, acted orderly at all times and took it as a mater of course to learn all class material thoroughly. A solid work ethic was and is the backbone of the culture. To be a useful person is and was a national theme.

But the truth is that the level of English in Belarus has been rather awful. Children from the lower forms, though having studied English for several years, never seem to have advanced beyond "What is your name?" If you would try to speak to them about things beyond that, they would laugh at you as if you were speaking from the planet Mars. Even students at the university level who had studied for up to a decade and have reasonable vocabularies and can name all of the tenses, still have never mastered the basic principles of sentence structure; they can understand what you say, but they cannot respond in kind. And teachers who have come through University certificate programs, though having a thorough understanding of the principals of English grammar, might never have even had contact with a native speaker and therefore have almost no feeling at all for actual conversation. Due to cultural differences and isolationism, there simply is no foundation to build upon. Because of isolation, English in Belarus had been an almost completely "theoretical" practice rather than an acquisition of a second language.

So most certainly, teaching English in Belarus has its problems. But over the last couple of years things have been slowly changing. The mild increase in living standards has afforded many with access to computers and satellite dishes and there has been a bit more "integration" with the outside world. You can see this influence in a new attitude amongst the students; classroom behavior is no longer so regimented and they are not so polite and disciplined any more. Perhaps to western eyes, this would only appear as being more normal but I assure you it is a matter of consternation for the locals. Possibly though, the economic and political events of the last few months will encourage even more change. This is not to say that Belarus will ever embrace English as its eventual savior as Poland did, but most probably it will be seen more and more as a real and useful tool for dealing with a changing world. As this happens, I think there will be more and more an acceptance of the need for native speakers to come in and teach and that a more western style, student-based methodology of teaching will enter the classrooms. Most probably this has long been an inevitable thing and perhaps it even would have been here already had not Belarus been so determined to stave it off. And that is exactly what they have been doing for a long, long time.