Tag Archives: development work

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.