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.


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.


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?


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.

One thought on “Invisible Things, Part 5”

  1. Thank you for another thoughtful post.
    I think that it’s great that you have been able to cope – and also that you’re getting help now.
    Hopefully you’ll be doing much better than ok!

    I also enjoyed the cultural snippets. The linguistic differences in politeness was really interesting to me.
    I can see how that could foster misunderstandings.

    Thank you for sharing your journey!

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