It is not easy to be an EL teacher today!

I live in the academic research community with a large number of research institutes, a well-known state university and several schools. Until recently most students would come from families of scientists and teachers. Both parents as well as grandparents having a Ph.D. degree is still rather common. It is often said that there are more brains per square meter in our town than anywhere else in the country.

The situation began to change at the end of the previous century, and it is still fluid. Lots of people from the former Asiatic republics keep coming annually in search of work and better living conditions for their families. “My daughters can attend your school here together with my sons; there are no such opportunities for girls back home”, more than one parent told me. There is a great influx from China, both international students and workers. There are quite a number of researchers, educators and businessmen from various countries who come here for a few years on a contract. When you enter the university building you see the signs in Russian, English and Chinese. In addition to our traditional mix of many nationalities peacefully co-existing together for centuries there are now many newcomers with their own customs and traditions.

In summer I was walking along the main street deep in my thoughts when somebody stopped me. “Girl, do you want to be friends with me?” I raised my eyes and saw a tall young black man smiling down at me. I was stunned: in our culture this is simply not done. One can see I am not a “girl”. Nobody would address a woman who is clearly his mother’s age like this. And I was stumped. If a young local man did that I would make the logical conclusion that he was drunk, and say something like, “Son, go sleep it off!” He would apologize and go. But what do I say to this complete stranger? I asked around later. It turned out that there were 200 cadets from Ethiopia who were to spend several months at a military school. The one Russian phrase they learned was the same one I heard, with “friends” being used as a very transparent euphemism. They had no idea of our local customs; they could not see our age either, I guess all the faces looked the same to them at first. The local young people took it upon themselves to teach the visitors who were all willing to learn.

People from Asia and the former Caucasian republics invariably treat a mature woman with respect and address her as “mother”. At school, the new parents would always ask for advice and follow it, so we must be really careful in what we say. Children assimilate easily; no prejudices are shown to any newcomers regardless of their appearance and religion. Tolerance is taught if needed. Mostly it seems to be ingrained. The one significant exception is the occasional nouveau riche family. Some of them may expect their child to get good grades just because the parents can pay for anything. There are no rules, a child of very rich parents may be talented and diligent. And of course a hooligan or a child with psychological issues may come from any milieu. The most important factors which help us in our work are the following:

• All the students attend school between the ages of 6-17 by law;

• All the parents stick to the law.

In other words, no matter how diverse our senior class may be, all the students and parents know what school is. They are not surprised, for instance, by the fact that most teachers are women. They know that they are to stay at school until they reach a certain age. In a sense the differences among them are superficial: they may come from different social, economical and cultural circumstances but they are still school children. They know that each one of them may become a truck driver as their father, a nurse like their mother, or a researcher, an educator like their friend’s parents. This is one of the main lessons their ten or twelve years of school teach them: education means opportunities.

I would say that the main difference I address is that of their ability to study and achieve success. I would not speak about it directly or give them any lectures about the need to excel. As any experienced teacher I notice the specific features and peculiarities, mentally arrange any class into smaller groups, and then work out the ways and means to teach them to the best of my abilities so that the most advanced students are not bored and the weakest ones are not afraid of failure. I would bring in extra tasks for the geniuses and shorter tasks for those who lag behind in the beginning. By the end of the year they all manage to move forward. In this way I do address the differences. My international colleagues tell me about the problems they face, with the newcomers who see themselves as young adults while in the new country they are treated as minors. If a group of teenagers who probably never attended regular school before, who are astonished by the mere fact that a woman is to instruct them, who have no idea of discipline and motivation are to become students, new strategies should be used. What would happen if any of us EL teachers were suddenly told that we were somehow to teach geometry or physics? I would say that we should first refresh our memory and remind ourselves what the new subject is all about. In the same way children who had no prior experience of our traditional schools should first be given some explanations and introductions. I don’t know if it is possible to achieve success because only our willingness to do that is not enough. There should be reciprocity, the desire to study on the students’ part too. It is now six years since I became a TE blogger, and fifteen years since I first got published on this wonderful site. It is a great learning experience!

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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