When I decided to come and teach at the American Home, I was expecting my year in Vladimir to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I ended up being right about that, but what I wasn’t expecting was to come out of that experience with a clear idea of exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. To my surprise, teaching at the American Home didn’t just give me an unforgettable experience in Russia; it also showed me that teaching is where I belong. Based on my experience at the American Home, I decided to return to the USA, get the necessary additional certification, and embark on a career as a teacher.
I am now in the final weeks of student teaching for my certification program, and it has not been an easy ride! As I had expected, teaching high school is very different from teaching at the American Home - the students are less motivated, the curriculum is much more rigid, and there seem to be a million things to keep track of, from homeroom attendance to hall passes for kids who want to go to the bathroom! It has been a challenging time, but once in a while I catch a glimpse of the kind of learning that I saw in my students at the American Home, and it’s that kind of connection that keeps me going these days.
One thing that has been fascinating for me this semester is discovering just how well-run the American Home is. In addition to student teaching, I attend a weekly seminar where we discuss curriculum issues and general teaching methods, and I’ve been amazed over and over as I read various articles about excellent teaching practices and theory. “That sounds exactly like the American Home!” From the American Home practice (strictly and excellently enforced by Lena) of creating tests well in advance and making sure that they actually measure proficiency, not just the ability to fill in blanks, to the very collaborative work environment where teachers can and are in fact encouraged to ask each other for advice or bounce ideas off each other, practices that are so everyday as to be taken for granted at the American Home are being presented in education journals as solutions to the many problems in the American public school system.
American Home teachers may often come in green and inexperienced, but the support and training they get are excellent. And now that I’ve had a chance to study teaching methods in a more formal setting, I can confidently say that the quality of instruction at the American Home is really very good. The American Home isn’t just for Russophiles or adventurous souls with an urge for something different—it’s also for people with a serious interest in developing their teaching skills in an uncommonly supportive and well-run program.
by Youngmee Hahn - ICAL Student ID ON1576
Sara trained with ICAL and gained her TESL Certificate in 2006. She then spent 2 1/2 years teaching at the American Home in Vladimir, Russia. Here is her account of that experience.
In high school history we learned the battle cry of 19th century labor: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will!”
In college we allotted 4 hours for class, 4 hours for the library, 10 hours for procrastination, and 6 hours for sleep – unless of course it was the night before your term paper was due. In this case you shifted to 16 hours for procrastination, 6 hours for work (beginning around 11 pm) and 2 hours for sleep. (Your friends find you drooling in your library carrel at 7 am.)
Friends in America tell me that they’ve joined the rat race; they work 9 to 5, try to kick back in the evenings, and, reluctantly, get a full night’s sleep in order to do it all again the next day. But here at the AH, no such 8-8-8 rule exists.
And it’s not for lack of labor reform. My day here starts just barely before noon. That is humane, if not downright indulgent. If I happen to come in a little earlier, there’s no need to get down to work right away. Actually, there’s an inescapable pull toward the kitchen table, tea, and snacks. And it’s not a break I have to hide from my boss. It’s my boss (Galya) who invites me to join them. Relations between labor and management are quite good. In fact, I think management would even like us to take a few more tea breaks. (Among other things, these contribute to the best possible relations between the Russian and American staff.)
Between noon and four I go back and forth between lesson planning, grading, and reading the New York Times most-emailed list. And then, with a cup of coffee in hand, I do the real work from four to nine in the evening. This is the part of the day when I really feel alive, when I have to be ON for ninety minutes in a row, answering unanticipated questions about modals with grace under fire; acting out the difference between past simple and past continuous; doing a little interpretative dance to demonstrate tag questions – and then – in the fifteen minute break – try to rewind the movie, clean up all the scraps of paper, schedule extra office hours for Masha, find vocab list #7 for Pasha, discuss the quiz with Sasha, look at photos from Natasha’s trip, and make a date for coffee with Dasha.
These supposed 8 hours for what we will should begin around 9:15, once we’ve cleaned up after the last class. But even when I make it to Joanna’s (see her essay in this issue) by 10 pm and collapse on her couch with a cup of tea, I seem to keep working. For one thing, Joanna and I are A2 (fourth-level) colleagues. We’re allies in the valiant struggle for more conversation-based grammar, and we’re comrades-in-arms in the march towards the proper – though restrained – use of the passive voice. We are united in the fact that, having seen it 13 times, we know every single word of Father of the Bride.
We’ve spent more evenings than I can count lamenting dry grammar and thinking of ways to make it relevant. Our students’ mistakes come up in conversation not because they’re funny (“My mom needs to be done”) – well, OK, they sometimes are pretty funny – but because we spend a lot of time thinking about how to do our job better. Most students confuse past modals for real and unreal situations – so what can we do about this? Are there any new speaking activities that will get them talking? What bombed last semester, and what can we do to achieve success this term? Joanna usually reminds me a few days early – sometimes when we’re out on a Saturday night – that we’ve got to remember to write that quiz for Monday, and do I happen to have any good ideas for it?
Like gas in a container, the AH expands to fill the available time, and often it takes as much as being in a different country to prevent me from coming in to work every single day of the week. That’s OK. If I didn’t have my students, I probably wouldn’t have any Russian friends here. And if I didn’t like my students, respect them, and know them as good friends, I wouldn’t have quite as much motivation to help them learn English.
Here is how my days break down. If you subtract tea breaks from my 8 hours for work, then I suppose I clock in at slightly over 6 hours at the AH. I closely guard my 8 hours for sleep. And those for what I will? As much as I thought it was essential for good mental health to keep this part of my life separate from work (and here’s a shout-out to A2 Unit 2A - Gerund Phrases as Subjects and Objects), working as a teacher is slowly but surely turning into being a teacher.
by Sara Beach - ICAL Student ID ON1767