Monday, March 23, 2009

A little teaching...

I had a bit of a victory today. I don't get many of these, or so it seems. But today I won a couple of battles and this feels good, as such a thing should. But of course it is tainted by the weight of the audacious ugliness that surrounds me. I know that this last was a bit dramatic and believe me, I am the last one to be in search of any extra drama. But it has been a difficult road and the war which seems to want to exist around me, though fought without a single shred of reason or wisdom or logic or moral right, does seem to be in want of an opponent and I, in all of my glory and ineptitude, seem to have been chosen here to represent all of the dreaded US of A in the minds of our post communist, Pinsk proletariat. And again, pardon the drama but this is about what I get here at the moment and in any case, I thought I would write a bit about today's victory as a means of leaving a reminder that there at least was supposed to be something nice and real and interesting going on here.

The victory was simply the momentary success of a pair of students. I teach English here and though I do like to claim a reasonable ability at the craft, actually having students advance and learn and grow and perhaps more specifically, have an exceptional day, is of course what it is supposed to be about. For any teacher, I would think that a victory for our students is our victory as well and so this is the game. But today, or actually yesterday as I didn't finish this last night, I proved a point to a pair of students, one a grown man and the other a girl of 10, that they could understand and actually use the language of Shakespeare, Steinbeck, London and Hemingway and that having this ability might help forge perhaps a brighter future. Or, in the case of the girl, to simply understand that great things are possible if one only is willing to try a bit.

But why it is even necessary to write about something like two students having a plateau is another part of this. This business of mine, and I am speaking about my private teaching here in Pinsk, is in the doldrums at the moment. I am not really willing to place the blame on the economic crisis though obviously, this is a part of it. But a much bigger reason has been both my decision to only try and work with more advanced students and the political pressure which has always been placed on me by the Ministry of Education and the local Bolshevics from the middle schools and universities.

That first limitation was set up as a reasonable response to the second. If the educational authorities were against me, their official reasoning was that they only wished to use their own locally trained teachers (This is not the real reason, Poland and corruption were, but anyway...) and they didn't wish to take jobs away from their own underpaid products of post soviet language education: nepotism before talent as Losha would say. But in any case, this seemed to be enough to justify their continued suppression. My decision then was, if I couldn't be recomended as effective and helpful, which I am, then I would agree that I didn't even want the common denominator, the student who sat passively staring at their cell phone and wondering where their next block of sexual stimulation would be coming from. Of course I wanted to be helpful (and to have more students), but if they were going to sit there throwing eggs at me, it did seem to add insult to injury to take responsibility for those students who weren't even willing to put pen to paper or allow for some reasonable study time to try and figure out that having a verb in every sentence might actually mean something. And of course there was the moral issue of actually taking money from people who only have $200-300 a month to work with. Yes, it is noble for a parent to try and help their children but if the children themselves won't even put up a fight to try and honor that 10-20% investment every month, I just couldn't agree to take their potato and bread money.

So over the course of this school year, when I did have a number of students who thought to do something other than read their books and work on their sentence structure, I made some cuts. Now, I try to run a kind table and I always have coffee, tea, cookies and crackers available. I don't ask for any extra money for materials and have pens and paper and a copier available. I also allow for extra time, e-mail communications, unlimited questions via telephone and even hand out my own books and movies when it is helpful, all at no extra charge. But in my mind all of this pleasantness is simply there to create a comfortable atmosphere for learning. But if the students aren't learning, or aren't even willing to try and learn, then you have a situation where you have children who only come for the free food and access to friends and to me, this means that someone is stealing the money. And so after some reasonable time for them to get the point, they are asked not to come back.

I believe by doing this that am being fair to their parent's pocketbooks. And it is not like I am such a hard ass; if the parents would agree that they don't care if there aren't any results and that their money is basically being spent on their children pleasuring themselves, and if the children would agree not to be a disruption to other students who might actually want to learn a little English, then hey, what the hell: As long as we understand each other, right? But this isn't how it goes because straight away the lazy ones go about slandering me as being a crap teacher. Of course it is my fault that the information didn't go across the table and it all had nothing to do with how much time was spend drawing, passing notes and waiting for messages from their friends on their cell phones.

This is where the problem has been. I get bad press from crap students trying to save face for having wasted their parent's investment and from the teaching authority who are defending the perpetual use of wrote teaching techniques from the time when keeping students well behind the iron curtain was of more important than allowing for the opportunity to speak to a larger section of the general population. And because I am George Bush. In any case, this has limited the amount of students who come to me and this is bad for business.

But that this is the situation makes victories like yesterday all the more sweet. That 10 year-old girl never studied English in her life. She has been taking German in school, so the letters and sounds were not a problem, but other than this she had never experienced a word before coming to me exactly 3 months ago. Now I explained to her parents when she did come what was required of her. I told them that though I did not ask for more than say, 30-45 minutes a day of study, I did require that time and that the student be prepared for every class. I also recommended one book to help with practicing grammar and started her off straight away translating Dr. Seuss into Russian using a dictionary. Both her parents were in the beginning a pain both to me and the girl, doing her homework for her, trying to explain grammar points and asking me why I wasn't doing this or that- but I held my ground and advised that she was the one who was learning here and she was the one who needed to be doing the work. After some little time, they stepped back a little and the girl started to learn.

My promise to them was that she would have something like reasonable competence in about six months to a year and that it would take her about 3 months to master the basic grammar. Yesterday, all the girl did was successfully, and without practice or preparation, do a grammar exercise that several adult students never mastered. To do the exercise, four decisions need to be made in each sentence concerning the wording of the verb in two separate forms. I did work with her on this, and explained it several times, and she even missed a class, her mother calling me saying that what I was doing was too intense for her. But she showed up yesterday on time and in a good mood and a bit ahead of schedule, I simply asked her to try the fabled student killing #174 and she got it right the first time. After this, I asked her to try simply reading her book, rather than worrying about the words she didn't know, this time reading a bit more quickly and adding emphasis on the story telling. And where until this moment, she had managed only six chapters over perhaps three weeks, yesterday in about 45 minutes we managed three whole chapters, the action so intense that even Anya was enthralled at the story telling. I guess the information had made its way across the table and needless to say the girl went home with something good to say to her parents.

The story was basically the same for the adult student. He is a businessman who wished to find a way to have a better relationship with foreign partners. His initial few months were often stormy. He put in his time in studying, more than I had asked for, but he never felt he could get a hold of the basic grammar and several times literally pounded my computer demanding that I show him why there were not several possible meanings to the sentences he was reading. "Why am I studying so much but actually getting worse?" he raged. The answer of course was to focus on the English and not the translation into Russian, an absolute imperative of western language teaching but completely antagonistic to the Russian style which basically treats learning a second language the same as studying mathematics or biology; everything stays on the page in front of you and is analyzed, dissected and discussed in Russian. And of course yesterday, after agreeing to progress without using Russian (at least out loud) the words finally started to come in and go out at something more resembling a conversational pace. Now, he still never gets my jokes, but he's getting there and also left the table feeling a bit more talented had he had before coming.

So that's the story. I'm heading into the last two months of this year extremely proud of the students who are with me. I have no failures this year and all are already conversational and able to read and write and speak and understand. The middle school students who have been with me have mastered their school English classes, several have had changes of heart regarding professions and all have chosen to allow themselves to think a bit more upward and to be a bit higher in their aspirations. The adults all have chances to be better connected to the world and even the children are aware of what they are doing and have become better students over all. I would have liked to have done more but I worked with who I had to work with and I think that my record speaks for itself.

But in the end, I chose to come to this town and I chose to try and be an English teacher here. There is nobody to complain to about any politics or under-the-table games which seem to be such a part of the fabric of the world I live in. It is of course all just part of the show. But yesterday… yea, yesterday was a very, very cool day. Yesterday, I very good teached English Language.