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.