Friday, September 22, 2006

Work in school

For the past month, I’ve been blessed to work in a fantastic community, with a supportive school director and a counterpart who has 35 years of teaching experience. There is an active youth action club that recently held a seminar on civic democracy and next month we’re planning a seminar about the harmful effects of smoking. The other day I met with an English teacher from Yerevan who would like for me to start a service learning center in the village and my school director is requesting I write a grant for a community health resource center (there is a project design management workshop in February that my counterpart and I will attend to learn about grant-writing). All of these opportunities are exciting and motivate me to learn Armenian as soon as possible. In general I tend to feel inadequate with my current language ability.

Knowledge of the Armenian language is absolutely necessary in the classroom. Every school, every classroom and every teacher is different in America, and in Armenia it is no different. When I joined the Peace Corps I never imagined I would work in a school and even after a month of standing by my counterpart’s side it still scares me. We are allowed (and encouraged) to spend time simply observing the classes. One day, for instance, I went to the second grade Russian class and learned how to say grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, sister, brother. On a different occasion I went to 9th grade math where I think we were studying COS and SIN. Much to my surprise, however, my counterpart has expected small contributions to our health lessons since day one. Sometimes I’ll provide an example from America or I’ll help the students with an assignment. All of our lessons come from a healthy lifestyles curriculum developed by UNICEF so I generally have an idea of what topics we will cover in each class. Even though we’ve been teaching for three weeks, I still don’t understand the student’s schedules. The school includes students grades 1-10 and there are two classes of each grade (ex: 7a and 7b). Some days we’ll meet with only 2 classes. I am worried that we only see classes once every week or once every two weeks, which I don’t think is enough to cover all the content that I would like to add to the UNICEF curriculum.

My poor counterpart has been assigned to cover HIV/AIDS lessons in the 9th grade for the first time ever this year. Discussions about relationships, puberty and reproductive health are extremely taboo in this country. Not only are these topics not discussed in the schools, but they’re not even brought up in most homes. We call it ‘amot,’ shameful. Last week was our first lesson and my counterpart recruited the biology teacher to discuss the danger of HIV/AIDS and the potential risk for the small country of Armenia if people are not educated of its harms. She seemed very distraught after the lesson and I didn’t know why because it seemed to me (despite the fact that I didn’t understand a single word of the lecture) that the students were engaged in a healthy question and answer discussion. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that a boy stood up and told his classmates: “Five minutes of pleasure is not worth a lifetime of suffering.” When I was told about his comment I was impressed that the lecture was successful. Of course I considered this a positive comment for one of the students to make but my counterpart thought quite differently. She was concerned that this boy could only make this type of comment if he had some kind of outside knowledge or experience. At 15, I would assume that most boys have outside knowledge of this topic, or at the very least I know they all watch American films. As much as I tried to explain to her that this was a positive thing for a student to contribute she still assured me that she’d be watching him very closely for the remainder of the year. There’s an NGO in Yerevan called AIDS Prevention and Education Center (APEC) that does training sessions with students so they can be peer educators in their schools, maybe I’ll suggest they come to our village to assist in this process.
My counterpart loves the students and speaks to them with patience and love but today (September 19) she was sick. I found myself living a nightmare in a classroom of 4th graders. I stood in front of them and I said: “Hello. Today Enkert Grikoriyan is sick. Today is a special day because I will teach alone. You must listen so we can learn.” And then, after my 20 second introduction I realized I didn’t know the lesson plan and I was so scared I didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, they sent me to the class with the school secretary. I calmly walked the UNICEF lesson notes over to her and much to my dismay she just started reading the book out loud. When the students were instructed to participate, and were allowed to get out of their seats they began to misbehave and I was even more horrified when she began pulling their ears, yelling and smacking the back of their heads. I realize that in America teachers used to be allowed to hit with rulers, books or hands, but I’ve never seen this first-hand. I wanted to cry and I’m pretty sure the students did too. Finally, she told them all to take their seats and she began reprimanding them for their behavior. After listening to this for a bit I got up the nerve to interrupt. Very slowly and very ineffectively I said something to the effect of: “Do you know the word respect?” They all answered yes. I said: “Respect is very important in school. If you do not respect your teachers or each other we can not learn.” I wrote on the board: (in English and in Armenian) why is it important that we work together? I used the imperative form of the verb to write and hoped they would answer the question. Of course they didn’t understand what they were supposed to do, they just copied the question on their paper. I was about ready to have a heart attack as I frantically flipped through my dictionary for the verb to answer. I couldn’t find it, but fortunately I found the noun form and I instructed them that I wanted them to tell me why working together is important in school. They all did so and I collected their papers. The room got really quiet when I started to talk again. I gave them a “lecture” on the value of education and work-ethic, which I’m sure amounted to: “if we can’t work together in school, if you won’t listen to your teachers, then you won’t be successful.” Oh well. The class was over and the secretary put her arm around me and said how much she loved me. I was happy to have her on my side. She told me that the class was naughty but I just told her that they had a lot of energy. I said thank you for her help and she said, no problem, they’ll behave for me because they’re afraid of me. I didn’t tell her that I was afraid too.


Ann W said...

Wow Sarah! I can feel your anxiety still! Please know that you are probably understood better than you think you are. The nuances will come, it just takes time. You are having an impact already, with the women of your village and your school. I imagine it's like eating an elephant. One bite at a time, and you will eventually eat it all. God's peace be with you Sarah. Ann

Anonymous said...

Dear Sarah:
Wonderful! I knew you would be the best teacher on earth! You know, every Monday morning, I am still afraid to go in the classroom!After 28 years of teaching! So, don't worry aobut it. You are doing a splendid job: I envy you! Take care. May God walk by your side
Marie-Madeleine Stey

Mom said...

Good job with the teaching/learning. I think that you are having a really big impact on not only the student but the entire community and your "family". Considering you have no teaching or health experience you are doing a fantastic job. Love, Mom

Sarah said...

Thank you so much everyone! These are so encouraging