I don't teach for the vanity, and let's face it - teachers do not exactly have the best reputation these days. Something stupid about money-hungry fiends who take up way too much of the taxpayer's money, blah blah blah. It's not like we are educating the future citizens of the world or whatever, so no big deal. For the record, it is a huge burden to teach kids stuff they will never use in real life. Even textbooks have to work extra hard with their fancy graphics and enticing fonts to convince children that modeling the shoulder height of a male African elephant is an example of using cube roots in "real life."
Note that the problem states "a male African elephant," as in a (singular) male African elephant. Why the hell does nobody ever care about the female population? What made this particular male elephant so special that he can have his shoulder height modeled by a mathematical function? Won't the other elephants feel left out?
Some days I feel as if I am teaching from inside of a five foot thick cinder block that's been buried ten feet underground. A few sympathetic students will strain their ears and squint their eyes, but no one is really listening.
Other times my lessons go so horribly that I wish I could morph into a bird and fly away. At least that will be more exciting than what my students will have to endure. There are moments when I forget that teaching is not the same thing as learning, and there are instances when I knowingly commit the heinous crime of giving my students the "I taught it so you should know it" attitude. I know, I'm awful.
I have been told that it can take years to make a difference in someone's life, and most of us do not have the privilege of witnessing that change. I have also been told that making a difference in somebody's life can be as simple as handing out a lollipop.
My "lollipop" moment happened on my graduation day.
Four years ago I was an orientation leader for the incoming class of con-ed 2015, Queen's University. A couple of us volunteered to write letters to future members of the con-ed family that year. I had a lot of fun with those letters and wrote them on hello kitty paper and decorated the margins with stickers from my personal sticker collection (of which I am very proud of). Only one person out of five responded to my invitation to email any questions or concerns they had to me. Orientation week came and went, and for a while, that was that.
In all honesty, I had forgotten all about those letters. But one of those letters had been sent to a young man named Mike. Mike went on to become the Rector of Queen's University in 2014. On the day I received my Bachelors of Education, I walked across the stage of Grant Hall to shake the Rector's hand. He leaned in and said to me, "April I just wanted to tell you that you were the one who wrote the letter to me. The one with the hello kitty stationary and all. I wanted to tell you what a difference it made." I was so shocked I nearly pushed him off the stage (okay, it was a gentle nudge, but my family members who were watching from the balcony swore that it looked like I punched him in the shoulder).
That story still gives me warm fuzzies every time I think about it. Who would have thought that a letter I wrote, and purposefully sprinkled with tacky looking gold-trimmed stickers would have been something that could ever have an impact? I mean, okay, I doubt I drastically altered the course of his life by sending him that letter, but I will be forever grateful to Mike for showing me what I difference I have made.
To quote Drew Dudley who quoted Marianne Williamson, "Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, and not our darkness, that frightens us."
Sometimes our students have small ways of telling us we matter, and they will come at moments when we least expect it. On Friday, I complimented a student for the cute stickers she had on her notebook. Surprisingly, stickers are not easy to come by in Kazakhstan, and if you know me, you will know that I am a proud owner of a shoe-box full of stickers that I have been hoarding since I was seven. Today, that student came to school with a pack of happy face stickers. She gave them to me.
So, to my fellow teachers who may feel discouraged, worn out, or overworked, I say - teach on! Follow your guts and stick to your principles. Teach because you matter more than you know. Teach because you are powerful beyond measure. Teach because you have the courage to teach.
On Friday, a few of my grade 10 classes began the new unit on "nth roots." My "lesson planning" currently consists of getting orders from my co-teachers on what they expect me/us (?) to cover the next lesson, me taking pictures of the related work pages, subsequently decoding these work pages which are all in Russian via an online Russian keyboard, and then translating them via google translate. The process looks something like this:
Step 1: Obtain photos of the exercises my co-teachers would like to cover for the next lesson.
Believe me, I am not exaggerating when I say that these are all to be covered within one forty minute lesson. Oh, and have I mentioned that the curriculum here is about a trillion times more advanced than the Canadian one? Units covered in the grade 10 math curriculum include sequences (okay, so far so good), nth roots (seems alright, until you see what types of questions the students are expected to solve), properties of functions (don't see this until gr. 11 in Canadian curriculum), vectors and equations of a line and circle (gr. 12), reciprocal functions (gr. 11/12), trigonometric functions (gr. 11/12), probability (at grade level), modelling mathematics (11), transformations of shapes (11/12), combinations (12), and finally, logarithmic and exponential functions (11/12). My first reaction was shock and awe, and I think those are still accurate descriptors for how I feel now.
Step 2: Convert questions to an electronic format.
Step 3: Copy and paste Russian text into Google translate. Pray that the translation is comprehensible.
Step 4: Do the work! --> Understand it! --> Master it!
Sometime in the distant future: Actually plan the lesson!
Teaching is a deeply humbling pursuit. No matter how much I think I know, I discover that there is always more to learn. Sometimes I feel silly taking notes in class while my co-teacher is teaching. Sometimes I think I hear them making fun in their native language. But I persist anyway. I am here for the students and I will put in my best effort, even if it means looking "stupid" in front of the kids. I want to show them that it is okay to struggle and that everyone will at least once in a while. I am not just here to teach Math, I am here to teach the students. Besides learning a bit of math, I hope that my students learn the skills of patience (because math has a reputation of creating short-tempered monsters), persistence (do the work, and the payoff will come), and that mistakes are okay (life is messy)!
Okay, I know this is way late, but I thought I would compose a list of my packing successes and regrets: a) for future reference, and b) for anyone who might be considering travel/living abroad.
Some things I was glad I packed:
Some things I wish I brought:
I've been able to purchase all other things I need here for low to mid-range prices so thankfully my list of packing regrets is not sky-high. To give you an example, I was able to purchase the items below for about 20 USD in total, which amounted to less than $2 an item.
Last Thursday, I finally got to meet some of the students I will be working with this year and it was a real pleasure getting to know them! I started off by introducing myself as one of the new international teachers at the school. Teachers go by a first name basis at the school, so the students call me "Ms. April." Since I will be working with them for the entire year, it was only fair that we take some time to get to know each other. I passed out two pieces of paper to each student (one white, one blue), and my first task for them was as follows:
The first unit we are covering has to do with series and sequences. The blue paper I passed around to students contained a sequence with a missing number. The idea is that answer to their sequence problem would determine the order in which students would speak. In theory, this seemed like a great way to tie in bits of math instruction along with my introductory spiel, but since all of them were English Language Learners, this part of the activity took longer to explain than I had anticipated. While the students worked on the Starter activity, I passed my camera around and asked them to take a #selfie of themselves so I would be able to better learn their names. The students had a lot of fun with this, and I got some pretty nice pictures at the end:
I had a professor in university who started off his very first lecture with the statement, "Ask me anything," and it's stuck with me since. I appreciated how he did not choose to just hide behind all the abbreviations attached to his name (trust me, there were many), and owned up to the fact that he was a real life human being who eats, poops, and sleeps just like you and me. So, I let my students ask me anything they wanted to know about me. I figured they were all curious to learn more about the new young and beautiful looking international teacher at their school (ha!).
Most of them wanted to know where I was from, what I thought about their country and their city, how long I would be staying at the school, and what my hobbies were. I answered their questions in earnest and they shared some facts about themselves. I am from Canada; I've had a very enjoyable time in Taldykorgan so far and I love seeing the mountains as I walk to work everyday; my current contract allows me to stay for one year; and I enjoy reading, playing volleyball, badminton, and drawing. I learned that most of the boys enjoy playing football (soccer) and basketball while the girls had a wider range of hobbies, including playing musical instruments, watching anime, and reading. I got the feeling that the students wanted to share more, but their limited English language prevented them from sharing any thoughts that may have been too difficult to express.
After the sharing, I showed the students some pictures that represented me and where I am from. In particular, they were very interested in my grade 8 class photo. I explained to them that I grew up with people from many different ethnicities, and that there was no single colour of skin that defined "Canadian." Also posted some examples of my artwork from high school since drawing is one of my hobbies. I got a big reaction from the boys when they saw my pencil crayon drawing from the cover of "World of Warcraft" which I wasn't expecting. I think I gained some massive cool points for that.
I shared with the students what my reasons were for teaching, and talked a bit about my teaching philosophy in language that was more accessible to them. I framed my classroom expectations within a brief talk I called "How to Ace Math Class." There are only three rules in my classroom and they are not optional. They are: listen ACTIVELY, take good notes, and participate! I took some time to talk about what each rule entails, and explained the rationale behind each one. I chose these specific rules because I learned from the experience international staff that the students will often chat among themselves during instructional time, and that they are used to being spoon-fed information so it is not unusual for students to sit passively in class. I think if I were to teach in Canada, I would have to rethink these rules a bit. Keep in mind that many teachers in Canada and the US will spend at least the first week discussing expectations and classroom procedures, I only had 20 minutes - and that is longer than most local teachers spend on this topic. The culture here is just different, and the norm is to jump right into curricular content. The good news is that there are no major behavioural issues with the students. As I learn more about my classes, however, I will continue to introduce and rework new routines and procedures on an as-needed basis so that we can have a successful year together.
My concluding message? "Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous," (advice from one of my teacher idols Tina Seelig).
Today was the official first day of classes, and I did absolutely nothing. As someone who values organization and preparedness, I am left feeling adrift. I feel like I'm stuck in a cycle of restlessness and unproductive-ness, and I'm itching to get out of it. But since everyone is assuring me that this is normal, I am doing my best to just go with the flow.
Flexibility is Key
To give you a little bit of context, all international teachers are paired with local Kazak or Russian speaking teachers for every class we teach. An international teacher may be working with anywhere between 3-7 national teachers each year. As a result, curriculum planning is arguably one of the most difficult parts of the job. Aside from those who teach English, a majority of national teaching staff only understand limited English. Google translate is not always the most reliable, which means I have to muster all the charades skills I have just to communicate simple sentences with the local teachers whom I work with. To add to the challenge, the school timetables are still in the process of being finalized since every school within the *** network (acronym omitted in case of publishing issues) must wait for a set of directives from the headquarters in Astana before the real planning can begin. This means that everything is currently being run on an ad hoc basis, and will likely continue this way until mid-September. Since I've had so much free time in the last two days, I've mostly been reworking my introductory powerpoint and reviewing key concepts for the first unit I will be teaching (whenever that may be).
Aside from wanting to just hit the ground running (a sentiment I've been warned I might later regret having), my experience at *** have been very positive so far. The staff are supportive and the students are extremely talented and well-behaved.
Some Background Information About the School ('Shkola')
For those who are new to my teaching journey, I am a new teacher at the *** school of Math and Physics in Kazakhstan. *** is a network of schools around the country whose aim is "to increase the intellectual capacity of Kazakhstan as well as to implement the best Kazakhstani and international practices." The locals usually refer to *** as the "President's School." *** is an extension of the public education system in Kazakhstan, but students must pass an exam to get into the school, and they must maintain their grades to stay. The schools have a trilingual policy in which students receive instruction in Russian, Kazak, and English.
The facilities are clean and well maintained. The hallways are MASSIVE compared to the schools in Canada. There is a canteen that is open all day, where teachers and students can have lunch for cheap (a regular meal at lunch would cost me no more than 3 USD). In all, there are over 300 staff members that assist with various upkeep activities at the school; from security to plant maintenance (they take their plants very seriously here).
The Teachers ('Uchitelya')
International teachers are invited from around the world to help shape the new educational models and introduce innovative teaching practices into the country. Out of the 170 or so teaching staff, there are about 20 international teachers. One of my favourite things about teaching in Kazakhstan is getting to know the other international teachers in our staff team. A lot of people back home think I'm crazy for coming here, but it's good to know I'm not the only one! I have colleagues from England, South Africa, the United States, Canada, Germany, Kenya, the Philippines... and now we're all in Kazakhstan! They have all different types of accents and have taught all over the world. I love listening to their stories and hearing about the experiences they've had prior to teaching in Kazakhstan.
That's all for now. Stay posted for updates about my teaching journey, and what it's like living so far from home. Leave a comment below if you have questions or words of encouragement, they will be most welcome. =)
International math educator who writes, occasionally.