Category Archives: TEFL

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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[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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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[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.

Invisible Things, Part 5

At the beginning of my sophomore year of college, I switched from music education to creative writing.

I had a lot of good reasons for this: my dislike for the hypercompetitve culture that exists in the higher tiers of classical music; the knowledge that teaching positions, like performance positions, are competitive, and becoming more so as arts funding gets scarcer in schools; a perfectionistic frustration with the expectation of near-note-perfect live performances; the dawning realization that my continued development would require increasing amounts of time, money and passion. Ultimately, I weighed my priorities and realized that I wanted to be a professional writer more than I wanted to be a professional musician — and while I could be an amateur musician while continuing to develop myself as a writer, it would be very hard to find balance with the reverse.

But there was something else, too — something that, at the time, I was at a loss to explain. Once I was part of a studio — taking private lessons, competing for ensemble seats, and performing for critique on a regular basis — once, in effect, my performances were being evaluated in ways that were very important to me, I started to get pretty intense performance anxiety. I’d be shaking before I played; I couldn’t gauge how people were responding to my performance, or even whether I thought I was doing the well; and after the fact, unless I got effusive and specifically targeted praise, I had a hard time shaking this irrational sense that the whole thing had been mediocre and unimpressive. I felt like the worst player in the studio — even though that wasn’t really true, nor would it have been a terrible thing if it was true, since I was also the most junior.

I never talked about those kind of nerves, though it belatedly occurs to me that my studio professor could have helped a lot. I had enough other reasons to want to change majors; and anyway, the way I felt in those moments was not entirely conscious and wholly unverbalized. But in hindsight, anxiety probably figures pretty heavily into the fact that I am currently teaching EFL in Mongolia, and not music at a grade school somewhere in the States.

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Things got easier when I got to my permanent site. The first few weeks were stressful, since my former sitemates were now flung out across the country and I had nothing but free time for the first time in aeons; but pretty soon school started and I fell into a rhythm. Team teaching was considerably easier than practice teaching — there was a curriculum, my teaching partner knew a lot about her classes, and (most importantly) the burden of success or failure didn’t fall on me. The success of my lessons doesn’t affect my salary, and I leave in two years whether I do well or not.

At the beginning of the year, my supervisor suggested that I teach English at the police station as a community project[1]. Naively, I decided this seemed like a good idea; I could teach lessons targeted for officers dealing with tourists and foreigners, and fill up my community requirement right away. A few weeks later, I was handed a Cambridge (!) beginner’s book and told to teach out of it. Okay, I thought, they’re definitely used to following textbooks pretty closely. Maybe I will have to adapt this whole ‘targeted lessons’ idea.

Then, in the first class, I did a quick needs assessment. Why did they want to learn English?

The answers ran the gamut from “I want to help my children with their homework,” through “It’s my hobby,” straight to “Maybe it will be useful someday.” All very good reasons to want to learn English — and none of them any different from what you’d get in a general community English class. I realized rather belatedly that I’d locked myself into a very limiting situation.

Still, I’d agreed to it, so I decided to give it a shot. I spent hours designing the first classroom lessons I’d ever taught solo, looking up games online and planning out how I’d give directions without the guarantee of a CP. (My teachers sometimes came to help out, but I really wanted to show that it’s possible to create an immersive English classroom.) The early lessons usually went to pieces, as I got a better sense of how to design them, and it really stressed me out; but improvisation is a crucial part of a teacher’s toolkit, and the officers liked my lessons so much they asked my supervisor if I could add a Saturday class. My supervisor said no.

Then, about two weeks into the class, the chief of police requested that I come visit the station. A tad bit nervous, I came with my supervisor. I was invited into the chief’s office, while my supervisor was left to wait outside.

The chief of police said something to the other officer in the room, whom I’d later learn was the Mongolian-English translator. The translator said, “You should teach on the weekends.”[2]

I blinked at him for a moment, then indicated that he should go get my supervisor.

With Sabit translating for me, I learned that the officers liked my lessons. They really liked my lessons. Moreover, because of the mixed level in the classroom and the fact that they were all very busy adults, some students forgot what happened between lessons. The obvious answer, the chief of police concluded, was for me to teach more often so they wouldn’t forget.

I told Sabit a little bit wildly, “I can’t teach weekends. I have to get my chores and my shopping done. Tell them I can’t teach weekends, I really can’t.”

We hashed out an agreement. My hours would not change, but once a week I would teach a review instead of a new lesson. I left the station feeling dispirited and uneasy. I already spent so much time trying to find interesting games — and now I would have to think up twice as many, because I’d basically be teaching the same thing twice. And I was starting to feel like, no matter how much the officers proclaimed their enjoyment, there was no way I’d be able to teach a really good lesson.

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Fast-forward to a really rough Thursday near the end of first term. I was exhausted and unhappy, and I wanted nothing more than to curl up in my apartment and cry into a mug of tea. But I had that damned police class to teach, and I had no idea if the lesson I’d planned would work with the chief’s request for more reviews.

That day, I’d managed to really upset the CP who had planned to come help me run the class[3]. She’d still agreed to come, however, and had even texted me to make sure the class was still on. I met with her right before the lesson to go over my plan, and we made a few last-minute adjustments.

We carried out the lesson without too much of a hitch. But because it had been a long day, and I was upset, and I just didn’t feel anymore that I was doing a good job with these lessons, I asked my CP what she thought.

“It was okay!” she said. “But you need more games and songs.”

Now, for context, this is one of my most blunt CPs. Few Kazakhs or Mongolians will hesitate to tell you their honest opinion about something, but this CP in particular will make a firm statement regardless of why you’ve asked. I knew that, and I asked for her critique anyway. She had no idea how much time I’d spent trying to put a fun lesson together. She saw how my face fell, and added consolingly, “It’s okay. I will help you!”

But, although I smiled and thanked her, this only upset me more. My CPs are always asking me for more games, more methodology techniques; and here my CP thought my skills were so insufficient that she was offering to help me find games. What kind of a PCV did that make me, in her eyes?

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After the very first police class I taught, I went home, sat on the couch, and stared at the wall. I had a lot of work I could do, a lot of people I wanted to talk to, a lot of fun things I wanted to spend time on. But for the better part of an hour I sat, stared at the wall, and reviewed every last minute of the lesson I’d just taught.

It had gone remarkably well, actually, considering I’d taken a nosedive off the rails in the first five minutes when I started a needs assessment and the class demanded that I begin with the alphabet immediately. I knew it had gone well. I knew I’d done a lot of successful on-the-spot improvisation. I knew my students had grasped the lesson, and moreover that they’d enjoy it.

I went over this — I thought about this for the better part of an hour — and even as I reviewed all of the things I’d done well, I absolutely could not get rid of the sense that somehow, I had managed to do the most horrible possible job.

And that was the moment I finally acknowledged to myself that something in my brain was seriously malfunctioning.

I think a lot of people have a moment when they say, “I can’t do this anymore.” I’ve never had that moment. I’ve had moments where the cost of continuing a course of action seemed much higher than the reward; but I’ve never felt myself incapable of achieving something (no matter how badly I underjudged my skill at it). The same was true that evening.

I told myself, “Nobody can see me right now. I am alone in my apartment. Nobody has any idea that, in this moment, I am absolutely paralyzed by a completely unreal sense of my own incompetence. I know the reality is that I’m pretty good at what I do; I know that I can fake at least some degree of confidence in myself. I’m doing okay. But I am tired of only doing okay, and I am tired of doing this alone.”


[1] New PCVs: Don’t jump on community projects before at least a term at site. Just don’t do it. And do a needs assessment before you agree to somebody’s New Brilliant Idea. Community projects are some of the most rewarding and varied parts of your service, and there will be lots of opportunities — so make sure you only agree to things you’re really invested in.
[2] Polite expressions in English are kind of difficult for native Mongolian speakers. To form a polite command in Mongolian, you add -аарай4 to the verb root. (So, for example, “____ хийгээрэй” means “Please do ____”.) When English imperatives are taught in the classroom, though, the “please” is often omitted. A lot of the time people who know modal verbs will say “You should _____” or “You can _____” without knowing that giving such a direct command in English is a little rude. You learn to look past it, but if you don’t know it’s a language barrier thing rather than deliberate rudeness — as I didn’t, this early on — it can cause communication problems.
[3] Long story, of the “Renee made a regrettable decision despite multiple warnings that it was a regrettable decision” variety. It made things a little awkward with some of my CPs for the next week or so.

Fairness, passion, and persistence

It’s Usage Olympics season in Bayan-Ulgii.

In Mongolia, the English Usage Olympics are designed as a demonstration of each school’s linguistic prowess. The school’s top students are chosen to participate in a series of events — for instance, introduction, roleplay, English-language song and dance, spelling bee, or debate — and each team is graded on a point scale.

I have been closely involved in the competitions this year. My school relied on me to help the students prepare, and I was asked to judge one of them. (We have two — the Usage Olympics, begun by a former PCV and run by a different school every year, and the English Extravaganza, run by our aimag’s Foreign Language Methodologist.) Between one thing and another, my schedule has been pretty much consumed by Olympics for the last two weeks.

To place in these competitions is a huge deal. Reputation is a major currency for Mongolian schools — if you work or study at a high-achieving school, you carry yourself with pride — and a school’s reputation is very much determined by its Olympics rank and concourse scores.

On the Saturday afternoon I was judging, the auditorium was packed with students who’d come to cheer on their classmates. The other judge and I cringed as groups from two private schools shouted, trying to drown each other out. “You’d think they were at a high school football match,” I said in some exasperation, trying to parse the haphazardly-micced performance on stage.

“You know,” the other judge said thoughtfully, “there aren’t organized sports here. So this kind of is their football.”

Foreign volunteers are usually sought as judges for the English Olympics, partly because of their mastery of the language, partly because as foreigners they are supposedly distanced from the rivalries and biases natural to a long-running annual competition. This is, to say the least, a bit of an awkward position: all of the American volunteers (Peace Corps and otherwise) currently working in Bayan-Ulgii are directly affiliated with a school. I’d helped the kids in my school put their presentation together, and I knew they’d worked hard and were very proud of their performance; I wanted very much for them to win. And it didn’t much help that, before the competition, both of my teachers texted me to think well of my school while I was judging.

I’ve had moments, out here in Mongolia, where some of my most fundamental values prove themselves to be cultural artifacts, and they’re some of the most difficult moments I’ve had to face. You find yourself at an unexpected communicative barrier that has nothing to do with language, and see your own incomprehension reflected in the eyes of somebody you care very much about. This was one of those times. In Mongolian and Kazakh culture, it’s seen as a good deed to grant the people you care about a few extra points; but here I was asked to judge specifically because I was American, and Americans take particular and vehement offense at that kind of favoritism.

“You’re a judge?” one of my tenth grade students asked in shock when we entered the auditorium, and then grinned. “You can give lots of points.”

“I will be a fair judge,” I told him, because at the end of the day, I had to stand by my principles. As much as I wanted my kids to win, I wanted them to win honestly.

My school didn’t place. I later joked halfheartedly that my job that week was to make the students cry: several of them had stressed themselves to the point of tears during preparation, and all of them were damp-eyed in the hallway after the scores were announced. If you don’t place, in these competitions, it doesn’t matter how hard you practiced or much fun you had on stage; you still lost. It tore at me, because I had seen these kids work incredibly hard over the past few days.

The rest of this post, then, is for the kids I’ve worked with over the past few weeks.

To the 10th, 11th, and 12th graders who participated in the Olympics two weeks ago:

After the Olympics, I told you I was proud of you. This is true. You only had three or four days to prepare, and I saw you work very hard every day. It is a little different for Americans: We think it is important to win, but it is even more important to work hard. We value the person who has very difficult circumstances and works very hard more than we value the person who wins easily. Because of this, I think you did very well, even though you didn’t place.

And you had so much fun and creativity when you were planning! If we judged based on fun, I think you would have gotten many points.

To the students participating this week:

I think you are going to do very well, and I am so proud of you! You spent many hours preparing with me last week, and the last time I saw you, your performance was great. I am especially proud of how hard you have worked on your debate, and that you can debate for ten minutes and make new sentences by yourself. Good luck on Friday!

To all of the students I have worked with these last two weeks:

I don’t have many opportunities to work with very active students, because we don’t have an English club this year. Preparing with you has been so much fun for me. I saw your creativity and your love of language, which I can’t always see teaching normal classes. You are incredibly passionate and motivated students, and that is so important. Your passion motivates me to be a better teacher. Keep working hard for the things you are passionate about: this will help you so much in university and in your adult life.

Love,
Renee teacher

Happy new school year!

Another month later…

My internet situation has been a little more questionable than I’d hoped for — I’ve only gotten public internet access as of this week.

This post and the previous one backdate to when I thought I would have internet within the week.

Written for September 2nd, 2015

Yesterday, September 1st, was Mongolia’s national first day of school. The teachers greeted each other in Kazakh, clasping hands, and I leaned over to one of my counterparts and asked what the words meant. “Happy new school year!” she told me.

In Mongolia, every school year begins with an opening ceremony. I gave a speech in front of the whole school — in Kazakh, written with the kind help of one of my counterparts — and sang an American song. At least two of the kids recorded the event, so there is now a video somewhere of me mangling Kazakh words and forgetting the lyrics to “I Dont Wanna Miss a Thing”[1].

I am super excited about my placement. Here are some of the awesome things about my school:

  • My CPs have high fluency and good comprehension — meaning we can speak exclusively in English, because they understand what I say and can answer in an appropriate way. (This is not true of all English teachers in Mongolia, unfortunately.)
  • I’ve already gotten suggestions for four or five different projects, as well as individual requests for specific help (e.g. grammar, TOEFL, teaching the college-prep 11th and 12th grade classes) — and I haven’t even started work yet.
  • The school has had multiple PCVs in the past, so they know what to expect and how to work with me.
  • The kind of projects being requested of me are very much in line with Peace Corps values — so, while it’s true I’m likely to help tutor advanced students for the Olympiads[2], I am also being asked to run a weekly English club for disabled students and help design student-centered, inductive lessons[3].
  • My CPs are super excited to have me specifically because I am a woman, and the entire English faculty at my school — bar one — is female. Cross-gender friendships are not a thing in Mongolia, but the division between work and personal life is not as strong as it is in the ‘States. My CPs really, really want to get to know me as a person, not just as a teacher, which they couldn’t do before — their previous PCVs were all male.
  • Related to the last: I am super well cared for here, as PCVs often aren’t when they live in apartments. While I spend a lot of time alone at loose ends — a chronic problem in PC/Mongolia — I’ve made contacts. I already have somebody to buy dairy from (it’s a thing here to buy dairy fresh), and my nearest neighbor/landlady is a CP’s sister. (Also a huge sweetheart who is gradually lending me half of her kitchen cabinet.) Last Friday at lunch I told my CPs my phone number, and my phone immediately started ringing off the hook as my CPs made sure I had theirs. “So you can call us in the evening,” one of them told me.

There are, however, some challenges in store.

  • I have eleven CPs. All of them have been excited to meet me, and about half have already suggested projects they want to work on. Scheduling could get…interesting.
  • I’m at one of the bigger schools in the province — there can be as many as 35 students per class. I really don’t like big classes, as a student or as a teacher; a lot of the fun of teaching, for me, is in getting to know the students and adapting my lessons to their needs. The more students there are, the more difficult this becomes.
  • I don’t know Kazakh. I really, really don’t know Kazakh. I can buy food at the market and mumble through some pleasantries (though I’m not sure which of the five ways to say “hello” is appropriate at any given moment). Because my CPs speak good English, and my landlady and school personnel also speak Mongolian, I could theoretically get by without learning much — but that’s not, in my opinion, a good thing. Most of my CPs speak Kazakh to each other, and in meetings the faculty speak both Kazakh and Mongolian (sometimes switching within a single sentence). I need to learn the language if I want to know what’s going on, but it’s going to take a lot of initiative on my part, since I can almost always ask for a translation instead.

I’d say, though, that these problems are surmountable with a bit of attention and planning.

All said and done, while I was petrified when I first got the placement (“I have how many CPs? There are how many students in this school?” not to mention that bigger schools are usually higher ranked and have a better reputation), the more time I spend here, the happier I am about the time I have ahead. I’m really looking forward to getting back to work.


[1] The story behind me singing in front of a crowd of Kazakh children is a tale unto itself, too long for this humble post.
[2] English competition, about which I shall write another day.
[3] Teacher jargon, about which I probably will not write.

Backstory: the invitation

The summer passed slowly. In June, I took a TEFL certification course (through Oxford Seminars; seemed like a solid program, though I haven’t got any basis for comparison). This was partly to enhance the competitiveness of my application, and partly because I felt — still feel — thoroughly underqualified.

Actually, it may be helpful for me to list my qualifications here:

  • a Bachelor of the Arts in English/Creative Writing from a small SUNY (State University of New York) school.
  • one academic year as a peer tutor in my school’s College Writing Center (around five hours a week, ~80-100 hours total) — primarily one-on-one sessions working rhetorical structure, grammar, and citation — following a semester-long practicum including composition theory.
  • volunteering for a literacy organization, tutoring a student one-on-one and designing my own lesson plans/curriculum — at the time of my application I’d only just finished the month-long training, but I’ve since clocked about a year (another 80-100 hours) of weekly sessions.
  • TEFL certification — four sixteen-hour weekends learning some basic language-learning & education theory and best practices for teaching English to non-native speakers.

It looks pretty on paper, but: I’ve never been responsible for a whole classroom; I’ve never worked with students younger than I am; and I’m not certified to teach in my own state. Many of my friends — virtually all of teacher my friends — have a minimum of two years working toward an education degree. By that standard, I really am massively underqualified. I really hope this three-month Pre-Service Training beefs up my classroom management skills.

September arrived, and with it the year’s first cold winds. Buffalo, for those of you unfamiliar with New York State geography, is one of the snowiest cities in the U.S. — we get around eight feet a year. The past few years have been especially awful thanks to climate change. I began to joke with my friends and coworkers that of course I wasn’t going to Thailand — instead we’d have a horrible winter, and as soon as it started to warm up, they’d ship me off to one of the coldest countries in the world.

I shouldn’t have said anything. Sure enough, in the middle of September, I got an official email: As the Placement Officer for the Thailand program, I am writing to inform you that all positions for the program to this program have been filled. Your application will now be prioritized and considered for the next possible program for which you qualify. … Specifically at this time, we are looking at Mongolia which departs May 2015.

I replied that I was willing to wait until May to get into the Mongolian program. Less than two hours later, I got my formal invitation to join the Peace Corps as a Secondary English Teacher.

This, of course, meant that Buffalo had the coldest, snowiest winter I have ever experienced.

The invitation came with about a hundred pages of PDFs: a description of my responsibilities, notes on the history and culture of Mongolia, a safety and security primer. The email politely requested that I read these and respond within seven calendar days.

I flew through the readings over the course of a weekend (at that point I was working the document control job full-time) and accepted my invitation. I got an autoresponse informing me I would be contacted within few days. This was September 18th. On the 22nd my legal kit was mailed out — I had to find a place to get fingerprinted and return it through FedEx — and my medical portal was updated.

I had planned to attend a science fiction/fantasy writing workshop the week of October 13th. Not yet having heard from anyone — not, in fact, having any points of contact known to me — I shot an email to my placement specialist to let her know I would not be able to respond to emails.

She responded that I now had four main points of contact: the Mongolia country desk, SATO, Medical, and Staging. I was supposed to have received an email with a checklist, and could I please “let us know” if I hadn’t received it.

Having no idea which of the contacts was applicable here, I replied to the placement specialist, CC’ing the country desk, and asked to have the checklist resent. I left for the workshop; it was an absolutely wonderful experience, andI developed an entirely new perspective of myself as a writer and a professional. I threw myself into my writing when I returned home, and two months flew by.

December: I still hadn’t heard anything from the Peace Corps. It was just over five months from my tentative departure date, and I was a bit worried. I checked my email history and realized the placement specialist had never gotten back to me. I sent an email to the country desk and received no response. The following week I sent an email to Staging, asking for the checklist or at least direction to the appropriate email — and, lo and behold, within twenty-four hours I had access to two new portals, fifteen Mongolian language lessons, two online classes, a series of forms, a new resume request — oh, and a passport and visa application I was supposed to have filled out within a week of receiving my invitation.

I was understandably rather panicked.