Lessons Learned as a New Teacher
- Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Kyrgyz Republic
Teaching never seemed that difficult when I was a student. My parents were teachers when I was growing up, and they always did most of their work at school—rarely bringing home lesson plans or papers to grade. So I assumed that most teachers got by on personality, and lesson planning was just something for the ones who weren't very good. I thought that I'd be able to walk into my classroom in the Kyrgyz Republic and in three weeks have my kids speaking conversational English. Boy, was I wrong.
I found out quickly that teaching isn't 99 percent personality, but 99 percent of a thousand little things that come only with hard work, patience, dedication, planning, and flexibility. My first challenge involved getting all of my students to come to class at the same time. The Kyrgyz Republic inherited the Soviet school system: As the students get older, attendance becomes less and less important. In my classes with 16- and 17-year-olds, it was not unusual to have five students come to class on Tuesday and have five different students come to class on Thursday. It took me weeks just to learn who all my students were. With the younger classes, I had the exact opposite problem. The younger students, 11- and 12-year-olds, were so excited about taking a class with me that many of them would skip their other classes just to sit in the room. When we ran out of chairs, they would squeeze themselves two to a chair—35 students in a room meant for a class of 18.
After my first week of teaching as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had to admit to myself that I needed to be strict. I realized that I would never get anywhere if half of my students were attending only every other lesson, and the other half were jostling for chair space. By my second week, I was taking head counts at the door and reporting tardy students to the director of my school. I felt so much like … my parents.
The attendance problem settled soon after that, as both my students and I realized that no one was going to learn English by simply sitting in the same room with me. The school where I teach has four other English teachers, and all teach English in Russian and Kyrgyz, not in English. But since my language skills were limited at the time, my students would have to learn English in English.
Right now that makes a lot of sense. How else would you teach a language but in the language? In practice it's somewhat more complicated. In my first months as a Volunteer, I stayed up nights looking up terms like "noun," "verb," and "past tense" in my Russian dictionary, then copying them onto the board the next day and showing the students how to use them. I was surprised to find that the languages my students speak are worlds away from English, so I had to teach them not only a new language, but also a new way of thinking about communication.
Here's an example. To express possession in English we have a single verb that does it all—"to have." "To have" is a great phrase because it makes possession seem like an action, like other verbs—we run, we eat, we have. It never occurred to me that possession could be expressed in any other way; but that was before I learned the Russian and Kyrgyz languages. In Russian, the way to say, "I have something" is "U menya yest": By me there is. In Kyrgyz, it's much the same —"Mende bar": On me there is. It took my students weeks to understand that when you own something, it isn't by you and it isn't on you—you are the subject, and it is the object. You have it.
Teaching English to my students and observing their progress taught me how challenging the language is to master. I became adept at planning lessons and understanding the abilities of my students. By the end of the year, my students were understanding and applying the lessons I taught and speaking in basic sentences. They weren't as fluent in English as I had expected them to be, but at least we had found a good middle ground. The students' interest in learning English, combined with my own convictions as their teacher, created a common bond between us. Teaching transformed from a job I wasn't sure I could do to a job with daily rewards.