Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Teaching. What an amazing, impactful, frustrating, inspiring, exhausting, uplifting profession. If someone had told me a year ago that I would learn to love teaching, and my students in Kazakhstan would learn to love me as their teacher, I would have been skeptical. I entered Pre-Service Training last March with an open mind about teaching because I love kids and I love school, but I had no idea of the skills I would develop as a teacher, and whether I would be good at running a classroom, being responsible for my students and what they learn, and making English interesting for a class full of village students who may never want or need to use English as long as they live.

I gained confidence during my student teaching practicum in PST, but when the time came for me to run my own classes with my counterpart at site (in my village in North Kazakhstan Oblast, Saumalkol), I was skeptical, nervous, and downright scared. Despite my anxieties about teaching, I went into my classes with energy, enthusiasm, and care for my students. My main goal was not to teach English, but to create a safe space for my kids to ask questions, be wrong, be right, be supported, be understood, feel important, and feel smart, regardless of grades, learning styles, or social status. I had whole classes of bright students who could sit in their desks and learn so quickly that I had to adjust my lesson plans to incorporate more information for them. I also had whole classes of students who learned best through action, through working with their hands and bodies, and it was these classes who had previously been known as the “slow students” because there was a lack of understanding among local teachers about different learning styles and different ways of teaching introverted or shy students.

It was in one of these classes that I had my most memorable teaching moment. A moment where all of a sudden it struck me that something I did had made a real difference to my students, that my students and I were learning something new together and we were all benefiting from what we had learned.

We were playing a game in one of my 5th grade classes called Running Dictation. In this game, the students work in pairs and one partner is the reader/speaker while the other partner is the listener/writer. The teacher puts a poster on the wall with 5-10 English sentences and the reader/speaker runs to the poster, memorizes a sentence, then runs back to the listener/writer and relays the sentence to them. The listener/writer then writes the sentence down as correctly as they can, and the reader/speaker runs to memorize the next sentence. The first pair to relay all the sentences with the fewest mistakes is the winner. Students love this game because they can be up out of their seats, running around the classroom, and working with their friends while competing against their other friends. It’s also a great game to practice reading, writing, speaking, and listening all at once. One day we were playing this game in 5th grade and my students were running amuck, shouting and laughing and racing one another. One pair of students, however, Yerbol and Kanat, were sitting in their seats, looking around in vague dismay.

I ran over to the boys and asked, “не болда?” (What’s wrong?), to which a defeated Yerbol replied, “Miss Michele, I can’t read.”

“What?!” I said, “Of course you can read! We’ll do it together.” With that, Yerbol, Kanat, and I went to the poster on the wall, filled with 10 short yet intimidating English sentences, and sound by sound, letter by letter, we worked out the first line.

With a sudden light of trust and comprehension in his brown eyes, Yerbol looked up at me and I could tell by the joy in his little round face that for the first time, maybe ever, he got it. He and Kanat ran back to their seats and wrote down the sentence, painstakingly slow and careful, and proceeded to play the game with as much enthusiasm and vigor as the rest of the class until the winning pair had finished. From that day onward, Yerbol was no longer one of the quiet students who sat in the back, uncomprehending and indifferent. He still needed extra time and one-on-one attention, but he cared and he tried.

In Kazakhstan, a student who has an unique learning style or who needs extra help in order to learn, like Yerbol, is told by teachers his whole life that he is stupid, that he can’t do things, and that he isn’t worth slowing the rest of the class down. This is not the fault of local teachers; this is the result of a lack of understanding of learning styles, interactive teaching methods, and one-on-one mentoring and guidance between teachers and students. These methodologies were all important pieces of information that Peace Corps Volunteers brought to Kazakhstani classrooms and encouraged local teachers to implement.

For Yerbol, I believe that that day in class was perhaps the first time a teacher has ever told him, “You can,” and then helped him to realize his own potential. “You are smart.” “You can do this.” “I will help you learn.” “You are important.” “I want you to succeed.” These are the messages I hoped to leave my students with during my short service in Kazakhstan. That was my biggest goal, what I strived to do.

That day with Yerbol, and countless other days with countless other students, I attempted to leave my kids with the knowledge of their own importance and worth. Despite the frustrations of teaching, the days when it just didn’t seem like my kids cared, when my classroom management was at an all-time low, when I came away from school feeling utterly exhausted and even defeated, it was worth every bit of spent energy to know that my students felt capable and smart when they were in English class. Knowing that I accomplished that much, in only 8 short months of service, was more than I ever could have imagined I would take away from my time as a teacher.

No comments:

Post a Comment