Staging and Let Girls Learn

Hi friends!

As I write this I’m staying in one of the cities[1] for in-country orientation, but by the time it posts I will have settled in with my PST host family. We don’t know for sure what the internet situation will be like. I’m taking advantage of jetlag to sketch out a post before my cohort wakes up and clogs the hotel internet connection.

Usually, Staging is a four-hour prefix to the long flight overseas — brief overview sessions on safety and security, Peace Corps goals and expectations, and cultural sensitivity (?) before we’re all packed like sardines to find out who objects to having their shoulder slept on and whether our overexcited sociability will aggravate the flight attendants to drastic action.

Our staging event was two days long. Peace Corps Mongolia is a pilot country for the Let Girls Learn initiative, which provides training and resources to Peace Corps volunteers (and USAID employees) so that they can actively work toward the empowerment of girls and young women through access to education. This year, eleven Peace Corps programs will host an extended staging event and extra PST sessions as made possible by the initiative.

So our staging event had a series of sessions on gender: an intro to the program and to the benefits of women’s education, followed by presentations and discussion on the definition of gender, gender identity, and how the concept/presentation of gender changes between cultures. Most of it was very familiar to me (hooray feminist theory and gender studies!), but I was glad for the extra two nights’ sleep — and there was one session in particular that I found fascinating for methodology reasons. But I can’t describe it here, as that would spoil the fun for future trainees 😉

Mongolia is…an extremely weird country to pilot the Let Girls Learn program, at least at first glance. Women’s education is the norm here rather than the exception.

It was explained to me like this: Men in Mongolia are expected to be the leaders, the decision-makers, the heads of their families and the breadwinners, whereas women are expected to work hard to further themselves, their homes, and their families in absence of the burden of leadership[2]. As a result of this, a very high value is placed on girls’ education, whereas boys are torn between education and early employment.

This is affected in turn by Mongolia’s economic landscape. Some of the most lucrative jobs are in herding and mining — hard labor work usually performed by younger men. Boys disengage in class or leave school early because higher education is not required for these jobs, but later in life they have few options if they choose (or must for health or economic reasons) to change professions. Women fill the majority of education-prerequisite positions and are often the primary breadwinner in the house, while men with less education struggle to find employment. However, those men who do pursue their education are almost always placed in the highest available role, because, again, men are expected to be decision-makers — so while employment and education are not a problem for women, their leadership opportunities are limited.

(All of this was told to me in the States by Americans, but it seems to hold true in-country: almost all of the PST staff are women, with the exception of a handful of people and all of our truck/bus drivers. I can’t speak to the men-in-leadership point, though, because (a) there aren’t enough leadership positions OR men for a decent sample size, and (b) this is a U.S. government program and the hiring was approved if not performed by the Peace Corps, so it’s skewed toward U.S. norms, and many leadership positions are filled by Americans or other highly qualified international citizens.)

So I suppose it’s “Let Boys Learn, Let Women Lead” for our initiative — or so our presenter indicated at Staging. But, well, that’s a much messier slogan than Let Girls Learn, and I guess the White House likes its titles clear and concise.


[1] Note that it’s a Peace Corps policy not to share my exact location publicly, because I’m highly visible as the only/one of few Americans in a relatively small community. I mean, in the current case it’s more like a huge group of loud and boisterous Americans flooded a relatively large city, but it’s still best practice not to share.
[2] If you are familiar with Mongolian gender roles and can correct or add nuance to my understanding of them, please do comment! I am yet a novice and an outsider.

Community, karate, PST

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons…

–“Desiderata,” Max Ehrmann

Apologies if this post is a little scattered: I wrote it during spare moments during Staging (about which I intend to blog, eventually) and didn’t have time for a proper revision before I lost internet connection. I probably won’t post again for a couple of months, since internet access is limited during the initial training.

This week is an orientation in Ulaanbaatar (Улаанваатар), the capital city; next week we begin our training, which is located around a city a few hours away. My Pre-Service Training will last eleven weeks (counting orientation) and the majority of it will take place in a small rural community; I will be studying with a half-dozen or dozen other TEFL volunteers.

But before I get into what (little) I know about that training, I want to talk karate.

In October, I signed up for a self defense workshop at an isshinryu karate dojo near my house. It was something I owed myself, I figured, if I was going to make choices that put me in risky situations. I wasn’t looking forward to it; I’ve spent my brief adult life rehabilitating from childhood abhorrence of physical activity, and I still wasn’t comfortable working out in front of people.

Turns out it doesn’t much matter how comfortable you are when somebody grabs you from behind and says you’re not getting off the mat until you get free. Sometime in the middle of the session, when the endorphins had worn my anxiety away, I realized I was enjoying myself.

I can pin down the moment enjoyment changed to I want to do that. The head sensei was working with a woman from another dojo (I have no idea if she was a student or a blackbelt — they were wearing sweats for this class). He had her pinned on her back on the ground. She rolled over onto her stomach, and he got her in a headlock and said, “You’re dead. You were dead as soon as you rolled over.”

I waited for her to deny it, to take offense, to defend herself against the peremptory end to the demonstration. Instead, when he released her, she looked at him and asked, “How did you do that?”

I realized in that moment that this was a group that I could learn from: a community that valued learning and mutual respect over competition.

Six months is not long on a karateka’s timeline. It takes a couple of years to work up to the middle of the kyu (colored belt) ranks; longer than that to achieve a first-rank black belt. I told myself, when I started class, that this would be a low-commitment hobby, something I’d keep up with only as long as I enjoyed it and it didn’t increase my stress level.

I don’t do low-commitment very well.

The instructors knew that I was busy (at this point, I was working full-time, tutoring 3 evenings a week, writing every day, making intermittent Peace Corps preparations, and trying very hard to get adequate sleep and maintain some semblance of a healthy social life). They encouraged me to show up regularly, since it was the only way I could make consistent improvement, but didn’t criticize me or look askance when I missed a week or two. They welcomed me as part of the class and the community built around it, despite that I did not know a single person in the dojo when I walked in. They pushed me to learn as much as I could and perform to the best of my ability, and they made sure I left each class exhausted and armed with new techniques and strategies. I found myself looking forward to the classes I could attend as I looked forward to very few things in my day-to-day.

After a few weeks, I was given a sign-off sheet of items to learn as I progressed through the belt ranks. The list consisted of demonstrable techniques and historical/contextual knowledge specific to isshinryu, with around five items to learn per belt rank. The dojo was pretty small — the adult classes averaged around 3:1 student:sensei — so the class structure was fluid; what we worked on depended on which sensei was leading and how the students ranked. I was the only adult with a white (and, later, yellow) belt. In the younger classes, siblings and friends who had started at the same time tended to test together, but beyond that we worked at our own pace. The tests were not on a schedule or a set order within the belt rank. Whenever you practiced an item in class at an acceptable level, a sensei would ask for an official demonstration before signing off. Sometimes they were very informal: a sensei would sign off one of the major items, glance through the list, and ask, “Do you know the dojo rules and procedures?”

My interest did not wane. I began to practice at home — was frustrated, in fact, that it wasn’t logistically possible to work more than twenty or thirty minutes of practice into my day. I earned my first (and thus far only) belt. A new class opened that I could actually fit in my schedule.

The instructors knew I was busy, but they didn’t know I was leaving.

I hadn’t mentioned it when I started attending: it wasn’t relevant, because I wasn’t even sure I would stick around. I continued to not mention it as the months passed. This was partly because, working a steady-as-clockwork day job in the middle of the coldest February on record, I just couldn’t envision going somewhere even colder to do challenging and unusual things. But it was also because I valued this community I had half-accidentally wandered into, this group whose values I had adopted, and I was more than a little bit afraid that announcing my departure would ostracize me before I absolutely had to leave.

But, well, I quit my job in April and ran out of excuses to put off the announcement. I told just a few people — the head sensei, another that I’d worked with very closely. Word trickled down from one member of the dojo to another.

They were unanimously supportive of me taking a calculated risk to grow personally and professionally, and congratulated me at least as often as they expressed regret that I was leaving. Several senseis assured me that they would support my continued practice in whatever limited way they could — and that it was perfectly reasonable for me to set karate aside and return to it later. For the past few months, I had been struggling to explain my motives and to justify the risk I was taking to people whose goals and values did not overlap so neatly with mine. I couldn’t even begin to articulate the relief I felt at having my motivation so immediately comprehended and supported, and it made me sadder than ever to leave.

While I’m happy to wax eloquent about the dojo for pages unending, I do actually have a point here. There were two major reasons (among many) that this brief period of study was so meaningful to me: I was accepted into a tight-knit and supportive community, and the class curriculum was structured in a way that allowed me to progress at my own pace through in-context, varied practice.

Pre-Service Training in Mongolia takes what’s called a community based, competency based approach. “Community based” means that, instead of sitting in a classroom learning theory and practicing drills, I will be developing my language and technical skills in context; I will have to go out into the community and interact with my hosts in order to complete my class assignments. That way, I receive a multitude of opportunities to bond with community members, and I develop a context that will allow me to make more effective use of my skills. “Competency based” means that, instead of being measured by my ability to restate information in a final exam, I will be evaluated on individual “competencies” (concrete, specific skills) whenever I am able to demonstrate my practical ability to make use of them.

A couple of weeks ago I was changing after karate class, mulling over the best way to explain the training process. I was geeking out a little bit over it, because I LOVE non-traditional teaching methodologies, but I couldn’t think of a way to describe it that would interest people who aren’t invested in education. I pulled on my street clothes and started to put my checkoff sheet at the bottom of the bag, where it lived — and I stopped and looked at the handful of lines my sensei had just signed. I thought: That’s a perfect example of a competency-based system, right there.

I rather doubt that, practically speaking, PST will have much in common with my karate classes. But they’ve got the same spirit behind them, and it’s one that’s already had a huge impact on my personal growth.