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Nina MK, Ph.D.
The living conditions in Siberia are a constant challenge. Winter starts in October and continues till May, almost the whole academic year. In May, when there are still snow mounds everywhere including all around any school building, the temperatures may rise to +30. Children rush outside during a break in shorts and T-shirts and gleefully stomp on the snow. In recent years, the population began to talk more about the climate change here. Though it has always been a harsh climate, with hot spells of +40C through July and cold spells of – 40C in December and January, there used to be seasons. Now we have weather. The temperatures may swing daily from zero to -30 and back; the air pressure drops down to 730 and rises back to 780 inside twenty four hours. Primary school closes down when the temperatures fall below -25C, and seniors do not come to school when it’s below -30C. Yet parents and all adults go to work. Thus all teachers are ready for whatever the day brings. A few young kids are brought to school all bundled up because there is nobody to leave them with; teens rush in blithely unaware of the extreme frosts outside. We get all the kids together, warm then up and do something during the day. Needless to say none of those factors are reflected in the traditional curriculum, for the simple reason that any winter may turn out to be mild enough for the normal course of studies. Once the snow vacations are over, we have to figure out ways and means to catch up with the academic plan, especially for those students who are facing their final exams. I believe that ICT could play a huge role in overcoming those problems. If every pupil had a computer and web access at home, if all the teachers could conduct virtual lessons when needed, if there were rules and regulations for those challenging circumstances, any curriculum would be feasible.
Substitution is the bane of our existence in that there is simply no system in place. One may come into the classroom well-prepared for the lesson and be faced with triple the usual number of students; for some reason none of us are ever warned that a colleague is out sick. So we would have our own group plus one or two others who do not seem to have a clue. Some would tell us that their teacher never speaks English during a lesson; others would show us the relevant pages in their textbooks and we would realise that they are hopelessly behind the plan. The first time it happened to me, I simply tossed my own plan and performed some revision exercises. The situation may continue through the whole term. A few simple techniques help.
• I always carry a folder with extra tasks with me, and have some useful URLs ready. Once you see what you have in your classroom, be your audience children or adults, you may engage them in some useful and exciting activity at once and gain a few moments for yourself to re-group.
• Pair work, group work, role playing and round tables help solve the problems of multi-level classes.
• Forewarned is forearmed: I play out various scenarios in my workshops and courses, and make sure that my colleagues support each other in any difficult situation.
• Parents play an important role in school life. When there is a challenging situation or some unusual circumstances, be sure to inform them. When all the concerned adults work in the same direction it is much easier to cope.
• Never spend any time on useless laments and expostulations. Act at once. I had not just mixed-ability classes but different grades in the same classroom due to the weather or to a colleague out sick. Imagine you have to occupy thirty third-graders and thirty six-graders in one large room. The first time it happened I was quite horrified, but a senior teacher came up to me and said, “You can manage!” Those words of encouragement were enough. I told the older kids that we could do a very productive and exciting lesson if they helped the younger kids by using their superior knowledge of the subject. And I told the younger class that they could surely move faster and sing louder than the older one.
Sometimes challenging circumstances have nothing to do with us teachers. For instance the salaries are delayed or even not paid for months at a time. Surprising though it may seem teachers need to eat, to feed their own children, to buy clothes, shoes and books. Since all of us are very responsible adults and many of us have children who attend the same school, we continue to work. But we also need to find some extra work like private tutoring or translation which effectively sap out our already low energy levels in winter.
In another instance, the city administration suddenly decided that foreign textbooks were not to be used in the classroom – in April, with barely a month left for the final exams preparations. Well, bureaucrats never seem to know when the academic year begins and ends. Or the school administration would tell teachers and parents that there was no money for the new textbooks. In this case, the outcome would largely depend on the parents. They would either agree to buy the textbooks themselves or not, in which case the teachers have to make do with any old manuals they can find.
And yet in spite of all the challenges most teachers I know remain dedicated, inquisitive, and there is no stopping them in their quest for knowledge, and the desire to share it with their pupils.