On teaching

My life has been so fast-paced recently that the task of summarizing a mere two weeks seems impossible. I don’t have the time or the energy to type all of the stories that I want to share with you, but I’ll give you a rapid-fire summary of a few.

On my first weekend, my new friend Kseniya took me to her friend’s home in a small Russian village. We ate shashlik, drank samagon (Russian moonshine), and with gusto and great ceremony they shared many, many “Raaaashin Tradiiiiitions” with me (some real, some made up for my entertainment).

I’ve begun to mentally refer to one of my colleagues, Natalya Vladimirovna, as my adopted babushka. She always has a story to tell me when I arrive to the department (around 8 am, before I’m awake enough to hold a conversation). On my first day of class she brought me a mason jar full of stewed vegetables because, “you probably haven’t had time to cook yet.” The next day, she asked me if I preferred plum or apple jam. I said I liked both, and the following day she arrived with a full jar of each, homemade from fruit she had grown herself. The plum jam is probably the best thing I’ve ever tasted.

Although I’ve really been struggling with my Russian this trip—perhaps because speaking English is my job here, whereas it was something I avoided during previous stays in Russia—I’ve had one or two really successful conversations in Russian. Those kind of moments make living here not just bearable, but ecstatic.

I finally found the electric burner in the communal kitchen that actually gets hot enough to boil water (stove on the right, burner on the back right).

I spend a lot of free time socializing with the secretaries in my department. Like, a LOT of free time. I think they may want me to stop bothering them. Anyway, I was hanging out in the department when a teacher from another department dropped by (although I remember his name and specialty, I’m keeping these details vague on purpose). We got into a conversation about the places I’ve visited in America; he mentioned that he has always dreamed of visiting the US some day. One of the secretaries suggested that he had a year to convince me to marry him in order to make the visa situation easier. You would think that it would be clear that she was joking. But alas, I have no idea. Russia.

On a related note, I’ve learned to stop making jokes about finding a “Russian husband.” Such statements are rarely if ever taken at anything but face value.

My social life is going well. I’m more popular than I’ve ever been in my life (I’ll talk more about that later) and it can be hard to find time to settle down, wash my dishes, write a blog post. Most of my time on the weekends has been spent with students. I love getting to know them outside of the classroom and, if any of you are reading this (and I know some of you are!!), I definitely want to keep doing that. On the other hand, I need to put some work into finding not-student friends. Among other fairly obvious reasons for this, I feel like I owe it to my students to speak English with them and not use them as Russian conversation buddies. I owe it to myself, however, to improve my Russian while I’m here. I don’t really know how to approach socialization as a teacher, though, because although I am nearer to the students in age and experience, I am not part of student culture. Nor am I old enough or married enough to fluidly socialize with my colleagues. I don’t know. I’ll keep ya updated.

Teaching has been alternately challenging and rewarding. I didn’t know whom or what I would be teaching until I arrived in Murom. As such I had no opportunity to prepare or bring relevant materials. Now that I’m here and I am teaching “American English” to first and second year English majors, I am sorely wishing that I had had the prep time. I hesitate to complain about my situation in part because my colleagues, particularly the head of the department Elena Aleksandrovna, couldn’t be kinder, more nurturing, or more supportive. I also have a feathery-light workload compared to the other teachers, who teach 3-4 one and a half-hour lessons a day, often six days a week. On the other hand, I have no books, no curriculum, and no guide other than a hand-written semester plan that dictates the topic (example: illnesses and their treatments) and the skill set (example: monologue speech) that I am supposed to address in each lesson. This simultaneously vague and strict semester plan makes finding relevant course material time consuming and frustrating. To further add to my difficulties, my initial unfamiliarity with my students’ language levels has made it near to impossible for me to know what will and won’t work in the class.

I know that I should accept failures in the classroom stride, learn from them, move on. From my perspective as a very recent college student, however, it’s also very important to me not to waste my students’ time. Unlike in my college experience, my students really have no choice whether or not they will take my class, have no agency to drop my class, and are probably just happy that I don’t give them homework. (Also, they’re not paying $50,000/year for the supreme honor of having me teach them, but that’s a different story.) Still, I refuse to let my only asset as a teacher be my native-fluency in English. I care much, much more than that.

I began by sharing my woes, but this whole teaching thing really is going much better than I honestly expected it to, at least in the beginning. It seems like most of my students, at the very least, don’t resent me. Some seem to like me. There are magical moments when I catch someone paying close attention to me. My humor is starting to communicate. Sometimes I can tell that they find my classroom activities tedious, other times they bring so much (careful) creativity to their work that I my heart swells. I’m slowly getting to know them as people—some were spitfires from day one, but as is true anywhere, some people take more time to open up. I’m beginning to realize that as much as people keep telling me what a unique opportunity it is to get a native-speaker teacher, I’m going to get way more out of this year than I could possibly give back.

Also, can I just say that it’s supremely weird to be so in demand just because I happen to be an English speaker? I get that that’s the whole point of the Fulbright ETA program. But it’s still true that where you are born, and by extension the language you speak, is just as determined by chance as your race or gender. So what I’m trying say is, damn. Why can’t you just value me for my MIND or my PERSONALITY? Just kidding. Kind of. But it is genuinely bizarre how much people care—from the lady that sells tickets on the bus to my colleagues—that I’m an American. I’ve never been so popular in my life and I don’t really have the requisite social skills to deal with it. I wonder how long it will take people to realize what a giant, albeit lovable, dork I am. I’ll keep you updated as the situation progresses.

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3 thoughts on “On teaching

  1. I totally feel you in terms of the alternatively challenging and rewarding thing. I feel like I’m on a roller coaster— one day I come home feeling defeated/frustrated/useless, the next I’m thrilled/encouraged/triumphant. Hopefully this will mellow out a bit as time goes on? It’s a bit exhasting…but at least there’s always the upswing to look forward to?

    • It even varies widely for me from one lesson to the other. I started this Monday, for example, feeling totally defeated, then finished the day wonderfully. I’m trying to tell myself maybe not to take the bad moments too seriously! There is usually something good to look forward to

      • Agree agree agree! I don’t even have full “bad days” or “good days” because everything turns over so quickly. One class can be a total failure, the next one a huge success. I don’t know if this will ever change, but I guess we just have to take it as it comes.

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