Category Archives: PST

Wrap-up: TEFL and Mongolia

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In previous posts I have discussed my personal commitment to service and the advantages and pitfalls of the Peace Corps as a volunteer organization. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

#

I’m not big on secondary school TEFL as a “service” project.

For those who engage in international business or diplomacy, study abroad, or deal with tourists, English is a necessity. In countries without an English speaking environment, students usually develop their skill in a test prep or English for Special Purposes course. In a secondary school setting, though? Not much different from the Spanish you took in high school. Useful in many parts of the world, but not yours. Advantageous if you have it, but not necessary[2] unless you plan to travel abroad or work with foreigners.

And then there’s the issue of “native” speaking. The native speaker occupies a privileged space in countries that have low English fluency and/or idealize Anglophone cultures. Native speakers may be offered higher salaries and even hired in place of local teachers — even though local teachers may have greater experience and better understand the challenges of classroom English. The effortlessness of native speaking is sometimes equated with a thorough knowledge of English grammar.

The presence of a native speaker aids students in picking up the accent, intonation, and idioms of privileged dialects of English. But native speaking does not guarantee good teaching. A good teacher is a good teacher, and a fluent speaker is a fluent speaker, even if their accent marks them as non-native[1]. Native speakers should be adjunct to, not replacement for, local teachers, and only then when the local teachers have relatively low fluency and few opportunities to encounter native English.

#

The Peace Corps’ Education sector comprises 40% of total projects. There are some programs for literacy specialists and other subject teachers; but TEFL is by far the largest program in the sector[3].

In the big picture, a population that speaks fluent English — the international lingua franca — gives any nation a diplomatic and economic boost. Citizens who speak it can travel to almost any country for business, study, and cross-cultural experience. Thus there is high demand for top-notch TEFL programs — and one of the components of a good TEFL program is fluent, if not native, English speakers.

The Peace Corps provides according to host country demand. Therefore, the host country can ask for education volunteers. The Peace Corps is comprised of native and/or fluent English-speaking citizens. Therefore, TEFL volunteers can provide for one major perceived[1] insufficiency of host country teachers — fluency — regardless of their professional background.

As a result, TEFL acts as a funnel for marginally-qualified volunteers with few U.S. work prospects (read: liberal arts grads) and insufficient experience for the other sectors[4]. The qualifications listed for TEFL volunteers on many program openings? “A Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science degree in any discipline and a strong desire to teach English.” No previous teaching experience required.

Some programs do require higher qualifications. And in 2015 Peace Corps launched several pre-service training programs that end in TEFL certification. But Peace Corps Mongolia, for instance, does not certify its volunteers, and requires only 30 hours of previous (language-related) teaching or tutoring experience.

The PC/Mongolia TEFL training when I took it was adequate to orient trainees toward teaching, and helped to prepare us for Mongolian classroom norms, but did not put us on equal footing with our experienced Mongolian colleagues[5]. Nor did it have any pretensions of doing so: the goal was to get us established enough to function in a classroom co-teaching with host country professionals, stuffing as much knowledge about teaching as possible into the heads of the less-experienced while slightly underserving those with an education background. It was sufficient but did not prepare us to excel.

#

Like most development agencies, the Peace Corps is big on sustainability — establishing projects that will continue to benefit communities after the volunteers leave — and capacity-building — helping people to help themselves instead of just throwing resources at a problem.

The problem with the “native speaker” teacher is that their particular gifts — their accent and the opportunity for immersion they provide — end when they leave the room. Language is simply a vehicle for communication. The brain picks up language as it is used, and discards it when it is not useful. If teachers aren’t speaking English in the classroom, the students will not retain what they learn; if they make major errors[1] when they do speak, students will build those into their language. And just as a person who moves overseas merges their original accent with the local one, a student who studies with a volunteer for just a few years will eventually shift from the volunteer’s English to their community’s version of it.

To build in a sustainable element, then, Peace Corps Mongolia asks volunteers not simply to run speaking classes and clubs, but to improve Mongolian English teachers’ methodology through co-planning and co-teaching. There is room for improvement in Mongolian education: it is moving slowly away from the Soviet model, but the road to a greater variety of techniques is long, badly paved, and sometimes deep with potholes. The old dirt road of rote memorization did better by some students — didn’t get you as far as fast, but teachers were equipped to navigate it with fewer crash collisions. And for PCVs, with the contrast of their own educational background, the pitfalls are easy to see.

But again: It’s one matter to know a thing, and another entirely to teach it. Our PST was pretty strictly TEFL-oriented, with some introduction to the structure of the Mongolian school system, available materials, and work culture. We learned basic methodology in order to use it, not to teach it. For some PCVs (e.g. in small village schools where the whole two years are spent introducing lesson planning) this is sufficient. For me, third volunteer in a high-achieving school with twelve experienced co-teachers? They need help with curriculum building, long-range planning, and the role of consistency in a classroom, and they have to outfox their system to do it. I wasn’t equipped to help with that.

#

The Mongolian education system is tied closely to the government, which issues textbooks, curricula, and national exams. The Mongolian government operates on a party system, with the Parliament as the dominant political power and parliamentary elections every four years. When the party changes, new textbooks and curriculum guidelines are often issued. Public school teachers are expected to submit lesson plans following these guidelines to their school’s training manager (vice-principal).

A regularly changing curriculum creates redundancies and gaps in student knowledge as kids progress through the school system. If past tense lessons are moved back from 8th to 7th grade, for example, newly-minted eighth graders will be bewildered by the present perfect. And teachers scrambling to keep up with and understand the new curriculum aren’t well-placed to design extensive review, especially if they don’t obtain textbooks until after the semester begins.

Add to this the challenge of a Mongolian sense of time: you don’t worry about a thing until it needs to be done, and then you scramble to get it together immediately beforehand. I’ve been amazed by how often things come together this way (albeit hours or weeks late), but when you look at a textbook page the evening before a lesson and see it’s too challenging, or predicated on a topic students haven’t learned, or should come after a lesson that’s supposed to happen next year…well, lessons aren’t always stellar, and the gaps keep popping up.

So a student graduates high school, and her English is shaky but she does well enough to earn a spot in an English teaching program. There, she learns from teachers who face the same challenge as her: they learned to teach limited English from teachers who had limited resources and knew only traditional, rote methods. Her English remains limited, and she learns limited methodology, and she goes on to teach students with her limited English from limited resources…

PCVs are meant to intervene at the secondary school level, working within a Mongolian time framework: suggest new innovations to a lesson plan a day or two in advance; co-teach lessons, demonstrating those innovations; and work toward a feedback position as teachers incorporate the innovations into their everyday teaching. This helps teachers improve their lessons within the system — and, being that the Peace Corps is a “grassroots” organization, is perhaps the best it can manage — but it doesn’t break the cycle that caused the problem in the first place. Students who go on to university will not learn the methodology their teachers used unless their university teachers worked with foreigners, and the competitive work culture in Mongolia limits the horizontal transmission of methodology and technique.

The ideal place for development workers to be, really, is in the universities, working with future teachers on methodology, and in the government, working on curriculum and textbook development. But the Peace Corps isn’t organized to work top-down, and the Mongolian government is focused on getting PCVs into secondary schools rather than universities; so the benefit TEFL PCVs can provide may be restricted at best.

#

All this said: the Peace Corps measures its success by the individual. The individual person, the individual community, the individual Volunteer — the idea is that if you can impact one person, then you’ve done your job.

I know I’ve influenced a fair handful of people here — kids and teachers both. On the one hand, this suggests that the last two years have not been wasted; helping someone is better than helping no one, and even in adverse circumstances teaching is more beneficial to society than a desk job interchangeable with a reasonably advanced computer program. I’ve never stopped learning, I’ve built a lot of relationships, and I’ve done a fair bit of mentoring (which is far more important than subject teaching). On the other hand, there are a lot of places and a lot of ways to help people. I am content that Peace Corps TEFL seemed my best option at the time; however, my dissatisfaction with the work I’ve done and the support I’ve received from my organization suggests that it wasn’t an ideal fit for me.

For potential TEFL applicants: while the ethical questions of inexperienced “native” teachers are the same across the board, TEFL programs in the Peace Corps vary widely. If your qualifications are limited, I would recommend applying for programs that result in TEFL certification. Failing that — or if your qualifications are already more than sufficient — I would research the training structure and office climate of the programs you’re interested in, ideally by contacting current or recently returned PCVs.

For potential Mongolia applicants: the culture here is pretty cool, but it’s also really challenging for your work situation. Are you looking more for a cultural experience or more for hands-on development work? I don’t really recommend the TEFL program if you want to influence more than a handful of teachers and students or do concrete needs-based projects. There is a new education/youth development program being established, but as it’s brand-new this year I can’t comment on its design or effectiveness. There is also a lot to consider about life in Mongolia in general: travel is pretty rough, which means it could be difficult for staff to get out to where you live and understand your situation; and the Mongolian sense of time and urgency persists in the office, which means that emergency response is excellent but day-to-day problems are sometimes left in the PCV’s hands as minor or unsolvable.

But I can’t really comment, at large, on either Mongolian culture or the staff at my post — because I am one of the volunteers that ended up very far away, and in a very different cultural milieu.

#

[1] There are legions of side discussions here about language ownership, “nativeness” vs. fluency, and the status implications of being white and fluent in English in Asia. I won’t get into it here, but here are some articles for the interested.
[2] Obviously the analogy breaks down once the student does want to work or study abroad, as English is more extensive than Spanish as a lingua franca.
[3] about 30/51 of the current openings, as of the writing of this post, are TEFL-related.
[4] I fall quite neatly into this category and am criticizing myself as well as the program in general. Which is not to say I’d decide differently if I went back in time: but I do wish Peace Corps had required more of me before accepting my application.
[5] A common complaint I’ve heard from Mongolians, paralleling PCVs’ own securities, is that their volunteer’s profession is not English teaching. However, it should be noted that Mongolians have a different concept of ‘professions’ than Americans — where an American is a plumber when s/he takes up a job in plumbing, a teacher when s/he begins teaching, and an author when s/he publishes a book, a Mongolian who studied English teaching in college is an English teacher even if s/he never gets a job in the field. So the complaint is specifically about a lack of applicable university degree and the status given thereby, not about ineffectiveness at work per se. Even so I’ve heard it often enough that it seems to merit mentioning.

Wrap-up: Peace Corps and service

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In the previous post I discussed my personal commitment to ethical service, and introduced the Peace Corps for the unfamiliar. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

#

U.S. Volunteer Agency

As a companion to this section, here is a head-on-the-nail critique of some pitfalls of the Peace Corps as a development agency. It’s about six years old, but the issues persist.

The U.S. Peace Corps is authorized by Congress and funded through taxes; it is a United States government agency. This means that — while it prides itself on being apolitical at the individual level — it is established and organized through diplomatic exchanges between government employees.

Before a country hosts any Peace Corps Volunteers, its government must agree with the U.S. government to establish a new Peace Corps post. Individual sector programs (e.g. TEFL, health, agriculture) are determined upon by the country director, following advisement by a Project Advisory Council made up of PCV representatives and community counterparts, in partnership with sector representatives from the host government. Basically: the program must satisfy the expressed needs of the host country via their government, its needs and opportunities as perceived by PCVs, and the stated mission of Peace Corps.

If this can be done successfully, the post will receive funds to pay the local-level salaries of its volunteers, as well as a complete set of permanent staff — including administrative, financial, and technical program-related units; management; on-call doctors; a safety and security team; and support units such as drivers — and employees hired seasonally for language and technical training. While the resulting number is tiny in terms of the overall U.S. budget[1], it is significantly larger than what most volunteer organizations can muster.

Note that the U.S. government, as founder and funder, is hardly a disinterested party. Rather — insofar as any government is designed to protect, organize, and promote the welfare of its citizens and to manage relations with other governments — it[2] is acutely self-interested. It sends citizens overseas, rather than keep them home to benefit the U.S. economy, and provides aid to another country at its own cost. And it swears up and down that its interest is strictly humanitarian, so it cannot derive direct political benefits from the effort — although it hopes to gain indirect benefits from the positive image a volunteer program can create. It looks for instead to garner citizens better suited for its work force, materially in terms of training and work experience, intangibly in terms of the patience, flexibility, communicative ability, and widened worldview that come with adapting to a foreign environment.

A good portion of my generation falls into employment limbo after graduating from college: our Bachelors aren’t helpful, either because they’re not of a practical persuasion or because potential employers are searching for candidates with a Masters and work experience, but lower-qualification employers assume (rightly) that we’ll skip out at the first better offer. Where better for us to go than abroad in an explicitly temporary program, in which qualification requirements are defined by our government and we can earn the experience necessary to be gainfully employed when we return home?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a useful system and I’ve benefited from it. But the benefit comes at risk of undermining the program’s development value and creating an uneven balance between its roles as volunteer aid and means of cultural exchange [3]. One of the more common concerns voiced during my pre-service training? “I’ve never taught before.” In what way does someone who has no teacher training or experience, whose degree is entirely unrelated to education, qualify as a “professional” in the education sector? Three months of training is all well and good, but does it really match PCVs to the level of their host country counterparts? Sometimes it seems PCVs’ most significant contributions are ingenuity and a differing cultural lens — which, while valuable, do not a professional make, and carry uncomfortable suggestions about host country nationals’ own ingenuity and cultural integrity.

However, I can’t speak conclusively on the subject from personal experience. Another advantage of the Peace Corps is its fluidity: its members and staff transition constantly, and its programs and methods are under frequent redesign. There’s something to be said for those feedback mechanisms. I’m told that the majority of this year’s PC/Mongolia trainees have an education degree, TEFL or state teacher certification, or classroom experience. I don’t know if it’s because of the revamp of the application process — which has been shortened somewhat and made more concrete, to the benefit of those with less temporal flexibility than a fresh college graduate — or because of complaints voiced by training staff and self-identified underqualified PCVs, but it suggests to me that the Peace Corps can be made aware of and limit (if not entirely rectify) its vulnerabilities.

#

Peace Corps and Cultural Exchange

Whatever my reservations on the technical side of things, I would be hard-pressed to name a better medium of cultural exchange than the Peace Corps[4]. Fully half of our training program was oriented toward understanding the language and cultural norms of our host country, and from the beginning the expectation was set that volunteers adapt, with their community’s assistance, to life as locals live it.

The Peace Corps’ initial language and cultural training is fully immersive and structured toward rapid, practical acquisition. Trainees live with a host family, eat with them, and are taught the chores and customs they’ll need at site. Four hours a day they go to language class, which takes place almost entirely in the host language and is focused on practical tasks: introductions and small talk; shopping for food and clothes; asking for and giving directions; and so on. Trainees are taken out into the community to practice these tasks, and non-English-speaking community members are brought into class for real life conversation. Having experienced this framework, I doubt I’ll be satisfied learning a language in a more standard classroom setting; I learn more effectively through self-created tasks and immersion.

Following this training, I felt well-prepared to dive into local life. My counterpart teachers, briefed by the Peace Corps and previous experience, met me prepared to open their homes to me and show me their everyday lives. I, meanwhile, had been warned about[5] major cultural differences — both work and personal — and knew that the expectation was for me to engage with these differences, not distance myself as a foreigner. This has allowed me to build close friendships throughout my community, with people I’ll miss very much, and experience their home life and traditions.

#

The fundamental question remains, then: Should you join the Peace Corps?

As far as principles of service go: the Peace Corps does not, in its present incarnation, do harm to the communities it engages with. If its effectiveness and ethical clarity is hampered by diplomatic interests, it is also staffed by people aware of the intricacies of development service who do the best they can at their jobs. PCVs are taught the basics of ethical volunteer service and each country post does its honest best to prepare them for their work.

Is it the most effective, valuable volunteer work you could do? Probably not. As an organization it is hampered by its own hugeness and versatility; volunteers end up in sites that have no use for them, or that are actively disinterested in their stated work. Volunteers are accepted based on demand from the host government and Peace Corps post, which means that some are underqualified or would be of better fit in a different sector. The organization itself takes a generalist “grassroots” approach, putting the burden on the volunteer to determine what most needs to be done at their site. This slows down the actual work, as volunteers spend six months to a year just getting their bearings and finding projects.

But all of this is not to say the experience is without value — although I continue to question whether it is as valuable to the host country as it is to individual volunteers. Many volunteers carry out successful projects (whether a teaching stint, a summer camp, a fulfilled grant, or something more concrete) and all of them return home with cross-cultural and professional experience for their resume. It’s good training for development work, if not the most effective development work itself, and opens doors for future aid workers and teachers to do more good in the future.

Keeping in mind all of the above, and assuming you’ve laid to rest any practical or ethical qualms raised therein, I would ask you three questions.

What do you hope to achieve? If nothing else, the Peace Corps is good at implanting one reality of development work: You aren’t going to change the world in two years. Your community will not undergo a complete overhaul during your service. Your most cherished projects may be entirely unappealing to the counterparts you find, or unsuitable to your community. What, then, are you willing to settle for? What is the minimum you will be content with? And what beyond that is most important to you?

What motivates you? Peace Corps service is not easy. At some point you will — maybe rightfully — question whether it’s a valuable use of your time and skills (or, conversely, whether you are valuable to your community). You’d better know ahead of time why you’re doing it, whether that’s concrete — loan forgiveness, practical experience, the lump sum at the end of the job — or less tangible — altruism, learning about a new culture, building relationships across the world. And you’d better be sure that your motivators continue to match up to, and make worthwhile, the work you’re doing.

What are your dealbreakers? I’ve missed a wedding, a birth, two college graduations, and a whole bunch of birthday and holiday celebrations. I’ve struggled with a sense of ineffectiveness at work. I’ve had mental and physical health issues. Some people have lost family members and been unable to get permission (or finances) to attend the funeral[6]. Others have gone home due to health problems, untenable work situations, or safety issues at their site. You have a right to draw the line and leave the Peace Corps without shame when the costs mount, but it’s good to know ahead of time where that line lies.

I question aspects of my time and experiences in the Peace Corps, but I don’t regret my decision to join. I would encourage you to do your research and be certain where you stand before you apply, but I would not caution you against doing so.

#

[1] Last year $410 million out of almost $4 trillion.
[2] Note that I’m not speaking here of any particular individual or organ of the many bureaucracies that have put the Peace Corps into place: when I speak of ‘the government’, I’m talking about the aggregate of decisions made by a huge body of people who range from altruistic and highly informed to actively disinterested, whose opinions often clash, sometimes irreconcilably, and who are necessarily influenced by the people who vote for them, or pay them, or fire them.
[3] This is especially true for TEFL, which has acted as something of a catch-all for less-qualified applicants. I’ll get into this further in the next post.
[4] Insert mandatory line griping about the lack of Kazakh training for people going to Kazakh sites, which may or may not ever be rectified.
[5] And would have experienced firsthand, if I had been going to a Mongolian site or lived with a Kazakh host family.
[6] Peace Corps only grants emergency live in case of the loss or illness of immediate family — so grandparents, aunts, and uncles don’t count.

Photodump

If you follow this blog with any regularity at all, you’ve noticed I don’t post a lot of pictures.

The reason for this is pretty simple: I don’t take a lot of pictures. I’m not a photographer. I don’t carry a camera with me unless I’m doing something specifically for photo-taking purposes. Most of the pictures I do take are of landscapes and pretty places, not people or cultural items or other things of interest to this blog. And I like to experience things firsthand — with my own eyes, not through a camera lens — so unless it’s a spectator event, with me sitting in the stands watching quietly, I’m not likely to snap a photo.

That said, I have collected some pictures here and there. Without further ado:

My first view of Mongolia, from a guest resort outside the capital.
My first view of Mongolia, from a guest resort outside the capital.

Traveling to our training site in June
Traveling to our training site in June
Trying to study when my host дүүs wanted to play.
Trying to study when my host дүүs wanted to play.
the demon goat.
the demon goat.
The aftermath of a dust storm. I had raised up the bottom flaps on my ger for air circulation and forgot to put them down.
The aftermath of a dust storm. I had raised up the bottom flaps on my ger for air circulation and forgot to put them down.
No comment.
No comment.
The kids in my host family liked to play with my iThing when they got bored. This means I have a lot of pictures of fingers and noses saved for posterity, but they also organized a couple of cute shots.
The kids in my host family liked to play with my iThing when they got bored. This means I have a lot of pictures of fingers and noses saved for posterity, but they also organized a couple of cute shots.
Mongolian wrestling during Naadam
Mongolian wrestling during Naadam
The Mongolian flag and my training site's sacred mountain, as seen from the Naadam stadium
The Mongolian flag and my training site’s sacred mountain, as seen from the Naadam stadium
Me and my host mom wearing our deels in front of my ger. My host mom's friend made mine for me.
Me and my host mom wearing our deels in front of my ger. My host mom’s friend made mine for me.
The cutest host дүү ever
The cutest host дүү ever
The view from Chinggis Khan square in Ulaanbaatar.
The view from Chinggis Khan square in Ulaanbaatar.
My training sitemates and our teachers in our deels. Missing: two LCFs and one PCV.
My training sitemates and our teachers in our deels. Missing: two LCFs and one PCV.
The view from my window at site.
The view from my window at site.
Beautiful...
Beautiful…
...isn't it?
…isn’t it?
The first snow in the mountains.
The first snow in the mountains.
Ulgii aimag center from Nairamdal Mountain.
Ulgii aimag center from Nairamdal Mountain.
Yes, that eagle is tied to someone's front fender
Yes, that eagle is tied to someone’s front fender
The Khovd River in February.
The Khovd River in February.

Invisible Things, Part 4: PST

Peace Corps is hard all the way around, but Pre-Service Training is the hardest part.

Within two weeks of arriving in country, you’re dumped on a host family with whom you have maybe a couple pleasantries of common language. You don’t know what they’re telling you most of the time, and between the language barrier and your relative ignorance of their culture, you have no idea why they do anything they do. Your home life is defined by linguistic mixups, mystery rituals, and the repeated difficulty of insisting that no, you’re not hungry, please Mama don’t give me more бууз. It makes for some of the most hilarious stories, but it’s also incredibly stressful.

Then there’s the actual training. Four hours a day of language training five days a week — enlightening, but exhausting, and culminating in an oral exam by which Peace Corps will judge your fitness to communicate at site. (Almost nobody fails their LPI. And if they do, they just get extra tutoring at site. But, still, the spectre of the test is present throughout language training.) Then the afternoons are given over to technical training.

I hated tech training.

Don’t get me wrong: Peace Corps is doing the best they can with what they have. We made a lot of suggestions about improving training at the PAC meeting, and staff’s enthusiastic reception demonstrated their commitment to improving the PST framework. But ultimately, there’s no way to cram everything we need to learn into eleven weeks[1], and there’s only so much our trainers can do to simulate a classroom situation in the middle of summer break. Yet, at the same time, how we performed during practice teaching was one of the biggest factors in our site placement.

As I’ve said in previous posts, one of my biggest concerns coming to Mongolia was my limited teaching background. I have a TEFL certification and a fair amount of tutoring experience, but before PST I’d almost never worked in a classroom setting. I absolutely did not feel qualified to give experienced teachers advice on how to handle their students (and some days, I still don’t). Even after I met my PST sitemates and learned that most of them didn’t have much more experience than me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was making stupid rookie mistakes every time I stepped into a classroom. I was terrifically nervous around our awesome tech trainer Hongoroo, and downright intimidated by Bayar, who evaluated us for site placement — and who, as the other PCVs know, is a kind, gentle, and tremendously competent man, entirely physically unimposing, who has worked with Peace Corps longer than any other host country staff.

Despite these stressors, I did all right for the first half of PST. I’d practiced enough with the language before site that it was easy to keep up; my host family gave me adequate space; and in the afternoons we were taking lessons more often than we were teaching them.

But that changed during second half. We had finished ‘microteaching’, and were now supposed to start ‘practice teaching’ — delivering a complete unit of content to classes at three different levels. The setup at our site was kind of a fiasco, not to mention profoundly artificial (you could have ended up teaching the SAME set of lessons to 6-year-olds and 20-year-olds, albeit in different classrooms), but at the same time the expectations were much higher. We were teaching three or four days a week instead of one or two. Our trainers started asking us to provide detailed, typed lesson plans, despite the fact that we did not have access to a printer and the wifi at the school was not entirely reliable. I was partnered with a potential teacher trainer (attached to a bigger school with more CPs, responsible for doing more seminar-type stuff and observation and less classroom teaching), and our trainers had explicitly singled the three UT/TTs in our training group to write better lesson plans than the rest of the group — being more experienced, and having a different job, and all that.[2]

Since day one, I’d been nervous in the hour or so before our lessons, when we prepared our materials and set up the classroom. But it got worse during second half. Way worse. I’d spend the lunch break sitting in the school lobby listening to music: I couldn’t think straight enough to be productive, to relax, even to have a coherent conversation. I was consumed by this overwhelming fear of incipient failure, far beyond my ability to create an outlet, and I think this more than anything else left me exhausted at the end of the day.

I really should have talked with the PCMOs at that point. But here’s the thing: PST was the test. It was proof that you could hack it for the next two years. Trainees had already been sent home for both medical and behavioral reasons, and gossip was all over the place about the things they’d done to warrant it[3]. I didn’t know the PCMOs, I didn’t know how to talk to them, and no matter what we were told, I didn’t yet trust them to be able to help. When unwarranted fear is your root problem, it is really, really difficult to contemplate a solution that makes you even more afraid.

But I did get extraordinarily lucky in one respect. My practice teaching partner — whom I ended up spending a ton of time with, between teaching, lesson planning, and language class — ended up being one of my closest friends in-country. He was, openly and without dissembling, dealing with a pretty serious mood disorder on top of PST stress. One evening, not long after our trainers upped their expectations, we were trying to lesson plan. I couldn’t think straight. I hadn’t been able to relax in days. I absolutely could not shake the overwhelming sense that everything I was doing was wrong. And so, in a pause in the conversation, apropos of nothing, I said, “I think I’m having anxiety problem,” and started to cry.

I was genuinely terrified to make this confession. It had been on my mind for a while now, and I’d tried slipping it into conversation with friends who had similar issues: like, “Oh, doing such-and-such makes me really nervous, isn’t it silly?” or “Do you ever feel this or that way for no good reason?” But never had I actually admitted that I was struggling. I was afraid of that long pause after an unpleasant revelation; I was afraid no one would know how to help; I was afraid of being abandoned because of it. In my mind, there was a major possibility[4] that my friend would walk away. That he’d tell me he had enough of his own shit to deal with, and there was no way he could help me.

But what he actually said, after a pause, was, “I’d suspected as much.”

I spilled my guts then and there. Not nearly as eloquently or coherently as I am here — I had neither the perspective nor the presence of mind for that — but it was by far the most complete story I’d ever shared. He listened, and helped me talk through it; and for the rest of PST, despite his own struggles, he kept an eye on me and made a point of supporting, distracting, or teasing me as he saw I needed it. He didn’t pressure me to take this or that step to deal with things — which, although I suppose he should have encouraged me to speak to the PCMO, I appreciated endlessly. Between the anxiety and my own fears about the anxiety, I probably would have shut down and been unable to help myself at all if I’d been pushed into counseling just then.

So that was how I got through PST, and how I managed to open up for the first time. But, obviously, the problem didn’t end there.


[1] As our Director of Programming and Training put it, in a peppy but slightly harried voice, “Peace Corps is hiring more and more generalists, and we need to figure out how to adapt our training to that.”
[2] Still think this was a pretty shitty thing to do, especially considering the people who get TT/UT training don’t always end up with the job. We talked at PAC about giving EVERYONE TT training, so that we’d be equipped for whatever site we landed.
[3] And at this point in time, communication between Peace Corps trainees/volunteers and upper staff was kind of shitty. Staff kept completely silent on the subject of early termination and made no attempt to diffuse the fears ground out by the rumor mill. There was a distrust of authority on the part of current volunteers, and while the PCTs weren’t directly involved, the prevailing culture was not conducive to saying anything that might get you in trouble.
[4] And very unbelievably stupid from a rational point of view, as pretty much anyone who’s ever met Logan knows. Self-Sacrificing Adopter of All the Strays of Mongolia, etc. etc. This was a fear born of the silence (ergo non-support) I was accustomed to, rather than anything actual in either my environment or my friend’s behavior.

IST Recap

Happy 2016, everyone!

I’m glad December’s over. It was a weird and kind of rocky month, and I’m ready to start fresh.

I spent the bulk of last month in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, for a series of Peace Corps trainings. Because I’m a fly site (Peace Corps buys me plane tickets for official events), because the Bayan-Ulgii flight schedule is a tad bit haphazard, and because my meetings were pretty scattered, I had training for seven days but stayed in the capital for two and a half weeks.

At the beginning of the month I had subwarden training. Every aimag has two safety officers — a subwarden and an alternate — chosen from among its PCVs. In the event of an emergency, the subwarden is responsible for communication between Peace Corps staff in the capital and other PCVs in the aimag; making sure aimag-mates are safe; keeping track of emergency supplies; and generally making sure no one loses their head and runs into a fire. If the subwarden is out of town, the alternate is supposed to take charge.

That training was only a day long, but gave me a whole week to hang out. It was pretty cool, because I got to see people I wouldn’t otherwise have met for months, if ever: Community Youth Development and Health volunteers, who had IST the week before; our M25 TEFL IST trainers; and M25s who’d come in for VAC (Volunteer Advisory Council) meetings, which happened that week as well. Toward the end of the week TEFL M26s began to filter in — the last two nights before IST, most of my PST sitemates stayed at the same guesthouse as me.

The following week was IST — In-Service Training. Five days of sessions about how to work well at site, specifically tailored to TEFL volunteers. IST is interesting, because everyone brings a Mongolian (or, in my case, Kazakh) counterpart, and the sessions are designed so that you work both with your own counterpart and with other people’s. I found the Experience Sharing session really useful, because it demonstrated for me that (while my school is atypical in a few ways) some of my difficulties at work are shared by many PCVs. We also had a cross-culture session that my counterpart says she found enlightening, but it didn’t benefit me as much. There are some rather pointed differences between Kazakh and Mongolian culture (holidays and drinking culture being major ones), and because of the way our groups were divided, there were no Kazakh CPs in my session.

I walked away from the seminar with some new ideas, but it was also absolutely exhausting. When you put into one hotel 40 Americans who know each other embarrassingly well and have interacted with only a few native English speakers in the last three months…well, I’ll let you imagine the kind of shenanigans that go down. I think we were pretty evenly split between people who threw parties nightly and people who hid in their rooms because the population of the hotel was overwhelming. (I was among the latter, but I did spent a LOT of time making sure I got to see my close friends.)

I’d been having problems with the pollution at site — I’d start to cough whenever I spent more than a few minutes outside without a mask. I had intended to talk to the doctor about it anyway, but the week before IST I stayed in a guesthouse that kept ALL of its windows open. (Central heating in Mongolia is controlled by the government, and some buildings are randomly set to ‘sweltering’.) I’d developed a pretty deep cough, so on Tuesday I booked a few minutes with one of our doctors.

“I cough whenever I go outside,” I said.

“Okay. You should take Vitamin C for your weak immune system.”

Confused, I said, “It’s not a cold. I’m not sick. It’s the pollution.”

“Ah. Then you should exercise to make your lungs stronger.”

It’s a half hour walk from my home to my school, and I spend about an hour a night practicing karate. It was a bit of a sore point that morning, actually, because the night before I’d tried to work out with some other PCVs and started wheezing within fifteen minutes. Biting my tongue on a sharp retort, I said civilly, “I do exercise. Should I exercise when I’m coughing?”

“No. Maybe you are allergic to coal dust. I will also give you Benadryl so you can sleep at night.”

“I don’t have problems sleeping at night,” I said, and gave up, frustrated. In any case, I’d figured out some healthy practices on my own: wear a mask when you go outside and keep the windows closed.

By Wednesday night, however, it got to the point where I couldn’t take a deep breath without coughing. I couldn’t focus in sessions because my chest hurt. I staked out the hotel’s temporary medical office Thursday morning and pounced on the other doctor as soon as he got in. Upon realizing that he couldn’t actually listen to my lungs because I wasn’t capable of taking a deep breath, he brought me into the Peace Corps office proper for a breathing treatment. Afterwards he informed me that my lungs had been spasming and that I was probably developing pre-asthma triggered by the pollution. I received an inhaler, cough syrup, and several extra face masks, and returned to IST much happier and more functional.

The Monday after IST I was invited to the TEFL Project Advisory Committee meeting. The PAC is assembled annually (?) to review how Peace Corps is doing in Mongolia and how the program can improve. I attended with three other M26s, three M25s, two counterparts, the president of the English Language Teacher’s Association of Mongolia, and the Peace Corps staff associated with the TEFL program. In a way I feel like this was the most valuable part of my time in UB — I got to share my experiences as a TEFL volunteer and make suggestions for how the program might be bettered for incoming PCVs. I was also put on committees to compile resource handbooks for PCVs and to help the national education department revise their new textbooks (!!!!!).

All in all, it was a productive, emotional, and ultimately exhausting month, and while it was pretty interesting, I’m glad it’s over. Here’s to everything 2016 will bring.

Xutul meets Zombies

Edit 2016-02-03: Ian has put up his cameras post (“Khutul on Film”) on his blog. Check it out!

Happy holidays, everyone!

December has been a bit crazy with Peace Corps-required trainings and the start of the Mongolian holiday season (Шинэ Жил [Shin Jil], or New Year’s, is at the end of the month). I’ll have posts on both over the course of the next month or so, but right now I need to process and catch up with work.

The nice thing about this madness? I’ve had the opportunity to meet and reconnect with my PST sitemates. The following post was inspired by a discussion with fellow bloggers Ian and Jenni, and should eventually have a companion post (What Cameras Are We?) on Ian’s blog.

So, without further ado:

The city you were visiting became the site of a zombie apocalypse while you were peacefully asleep in a hotel. You wake to find that a zombie has climbed through the window of your very small fourth-story room. The door is locked and the zombie could tackle you before you have time to unlock it. What would you do?[1] Room contents: bed, small table, wooden chair, bookshelf full of paperbacks and heavy ornaments.

Logan: Would beat the zombie to a pulp, no problem, and then spend the rest of the week painfully contemplating the ethical dilemma of (re?)-murdering the undead while on the run from a zombie horde bent on revenge.

Alex: Would have a wacky misadventure that resulted in her dangling halfway between her window and street level, safe from the zombies but not entirely certain how to return to solid ground before nightfall.

Ashleigh: Would be prepared for this eventuality on account of her extensive SFF reading. Having seen signs of the impending apocalypse, she would bring her Anti-Zombie Kit (TM) with her on vacation, with which she would hastily dispatch the zombie.

Elisha: Would loudly exclaim, “WHAT?!?” and demand all of the details of the zombification process, edging toward the doorway as the puzzled zombie paused in front of the window. She would discreetly unlock the door, slip out, and slam it shut on the lunging zombie’s face.

Ian: Would discover that zombies, like Ians, are photo-phobic. The zombie would tumble back out the window in its effort to escape Ian’s lens.

Olivia: Would scream and smash the zombie with the chair, stunning it long enough for her to implement a clever plan involving items on the bookshelf.

Bryan: Would probably get turned into a zombie, but it’d make a good story to tell his fellow sufferers.

Amanda: Would shout at the zombie to get the hell out of her room, how did you even get in here? before waking fully to the realization that it was undead. By then, however, the zombie would already be climbing back out the window in search of a more easily frightened target.

Jenni: Would make a quick call for help. Ian, at the top of her recent call list, would advise her to attempt a picture with her phone camera, and in this way she would frighten the zombie into submission.

Paul: Would affect complete ignorance of the zombie’s change of life and shoot the breeze as if it were perfectly normal to have a shambling corpse trail innards into your room on a Sunday morning. The zombie, confused, would decide he was one of theirs and stumble off to find someone else, pounding on the door and moaning until Paul considerately unlocked it.

Eric: Would loudly proclaim his love for his wife before smashing the zombie with a heavy orb from the bookshelf. The zombie would drop. A slightly puzzled pause would ensue — Eric having of course expected to be slaughtered by the angered undead — and then he and Emily would tiptoe out of the room, settle their bill with the zombified desk clerk, and return to their home city, which would remain unaffected by the scourge.

Nik: Would manage to make the zombie laugh, confounding scientific conclusions on humor as a trait destroyed by the zombification process. He would go on to be elected mayor of the new zombie city, appoint Bryan as Official Liaison Between Undead and Not-Yet-Dead, and issue official pardons to Logan, Olivia, and all other murderers undead or alive, in light of the immense panic caused by the change in state of three-quarters of the city’s population. His twenty-year reign would render him the most popular, if not necessarily the most effective, mayor in the city’s entire history.

Matt: Would calmly and quietly walk from his bed to his table, pick up his key, unlock his door, and leave the hotel.

Xutul and Xutul-friends: What are your thoughts? How close am I to the mark? What do you think I would do?


[1] These are Renee’s guesses. No interviews were performed for the writing of this post.

The Goat

In honor of Halloween, here’s a story about the only demon I’ve ever met.

On my first day of PST, a goat stuck its head through the window of my host mom’s house.

It was brown, rather larger than a large dog, and its horns curved toward each other instead of straight back. My host mom’s daughter-in-law, who had come to help with morning chores, fed it a piece of candy. She gave me a piece of candy as well, and when I turned toward the window, the goat had reared up and put its front hooves on the sill. I fed it the candy anyway.

This was my only positive experience with the goat.

We walked out of the house into the хашаа, and the goat ran toward me. I dodged out of the way before it could headbutt me. It came at me again, and my host sister, laughing, grabbed it by the horns to redirect it. She smacked it with the wooden stick she was holding, and — for the time being — the goat left me alone.

It had decided, however, that I was its new toy.

Every time the goat saw me after that, it attacked me. I would dodge out of the way, or grab it by the horns and swing it around the way my host sister had, but apparently this was part of the fun; it wagged its stubby little tail and came right back at me. If it saw me with other Americans, it would mark them as targets too.

Once the goat followed me to the neighborhood park and attacked me right outside the gate. I wrestled it by the horns for a solid five minutes while the kids in the park laughed. Finally a couple of teenage boys grabbed it so that I could escape; the goat wrestled with them until a herd of cows wandered over and distracted it.

I asked my host mom once why the goat always attacked me, but not my ten-year-old host sister. “Чамд хартай,” she informed me, grinning. It loves you.

One weekday evening I was having a quiet dinner with my host mom. Somebody called her on the phone, and she stood and went over to the window while she talked. Suddenly she started shouting. “Ирина! Ямаа, ямаа!” Renee! The goat, the goat!

I’d left my ger door open. I ran into the ger and found the goat happily munching on a cupful of sugar I’d left out for my morning tea. I wrestled it out, grabbed the cup, closed my door, and fled back into the house.

I put the cup away and resumed my meal, but not ten minutes later the goat was at it again. I removed it again, this time making sure I’d closed the door completely.

When I came back in, my host mom smiled and drew her finger across her throat.

Yeah, I thought, I could kill him, too.

My host mom’s friend and neighbor stopped by shortly after. She looked out the window, and then she shouted. I looked out and caught the goat tugging on the string I used to tie the ger door open in nice weather — sneaking his way back in to see if he could find the sugar.

With the neighbor’s help, I tied the door closed and settled in for a quiet evening. But then three boys came into the yard and started chasing the goat around. My mother watched, laughing, and shouted advice until they subdued it: One grabbed it by the horns, the other by the back legs, and they wheelbarrowed it out of the хашаа.

Again my host mother looked at me, smiled, and drew her finger across her throat.

One of my sitemates reported a goat slaughter in a nearby хашаа that night. I never had problems with the demon goat again.

Eleven weeks later

One week ago, I learned where I would live and work for the next two years. Two days ago, I was officially sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Tomorrow, I will be going to my permanent site.[1]

My time is once again my own — at least more than it was during my training — so I intend to resume blogging. I’m especially excited to blog now that I know my experience is going to be unusual even for a PCV (see the bottom section of this post). Expect posts once a week on Wednesday as often as I have reliable internet.

Note that this is a super brief summary of my experience; I hope I have opportunities to expand on it in the coming months. This blog cannot be complete until it houses my demon goat story.

PST wrap-up

So, what was it like?

For two months, I lived in a ger inside my host family’s хашаа (hashaa), or fenced property, beside my host mom’s one-room house. My host mom was retired, kept four cows, and sold frozen тараг (tarak, yogurt) out her window to the neighbors. One of her sons lived down the street, and his two daughters came over almost every day to hang out and help with chores.

IMG_1130[1]The view from my ger door. From near to far: хашаа, neighbor’s ger, hill with Buddhist stupa and prayer wheels, and (on the right) the town’s sacred mountain.

Two granddaughters means my host mom was an эмээ (emee), and as such she was a force of nature. She was steadfastly determined that I learn to understand her Mongolian, cook traditional Mongolian foods in a hot pot, wash my clothes in a түмпэн (tumpin, a plastic basin that vaguely resembles a very small swimming pool), and light a cow-dung fire. While she was very understanding of my need for sleep, she insisted that I participate in cooking, washing-up, and family chores.

My work day began at 9am with a four-hour Mongolian lesson. I was at the largest training site and had thirteen American classmates; we were divided into three language groups by learning speed and style. Our teachers (aka LCFs) were native Mongolian speakers who lived in the area and had been trained by the Peace Corps. They were our cultural liasons and our advocates within the community; we relied on them as much as, if not more than, our host families.

IMG_0279[1]The western half of my ger. The only picture anyone got of the inside, complete with my underwear hung to dry — go figure. Not shown: my plastic dresser, my bed, and the door to the south.

Lunch was an hour and a half long. I had the option of either making a twenty-minute trek uphill in ninety-degree weather to my хашаа, where my host mom would feed me hot soup (Mongolians don’t really serve cold food or drinks), or of spending my limited funds on a lunch from the local дэлгүүр (delguur, small shop). I mostly ate with my mom, because I wanted to spend time with her and because I’m cheap.

After lunch, one of the smaller training sites joined us for a methodology lesson that lasted until 5:30. As training went on, however, we spent more and more days practicing instead of studying. Our teachers recruited local kids to take classes from us; in pairs, for a total of twelve days, we taught three forty-minute lessons to students aged 6 to 28.

IMG_1118[1]
The sacred mountain, as seen from the town’s Naadam stadium.

Then I went home, stumbled through a few broken sentences of Mongolian with my host mom, ate hot бууз or хуушуур (buuz, khuushuur, composed of flour and meat), and planned yet another lesson.

What I’m saying is, I did a lot of things and didn’t sleep nearly enough, and I’m pretty glad it’s over. But the relationships I forged — with both Mongolians and my fellow American trainees — motivated me and kept me sane, and I’m going to rely on those relationships for those next two years. (Huj huj, Хөтөл.)

What’s next?

Our formal site announcements happened a week ago, on the 10th. But I knew where I was going four days in advance, because I had an extra day of language training.

I’ve been assigned to a school in the far western region of Mongolia. This part of the country is predominantly Kazakh — the people there speak the same language as the people of Kazakhstan, are mostly Muslim, and (according to almost every Mongolian I’ve spoken to) have very different cultural traditions. This means that my last two months were…well, I certainly won’t say they were useless, but my next two months are likely to resemble them very closely, as I learn to navigate a whole new language and cultural perspective.

I’m super excited for this experience and gratified that the Peace Corps staff thought I was up for the challenge. (I’m also working in a large school with no less than eight Mongolian counterparts, which is…a tad bit intimidating.) I will freely admit I have mixed feelings about the prospect — not only will I have to learn a third language on the job, but my atypical experience is going to set me apart from the support network I’ve only just built. But I also think it’s going to prove a valuable opportunity for growth.

I’ll tell you all about my new site next week!


[1] I wrote this on Monday the 17th, but set it to post on Wednesday so I could jump right into schedule. These days are accurate for Monday.

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.