As the school year comes to a close here in Azerbaijan, I can reflect on what I have – and haven’t – accomplished in my 5 months co-teaching English as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I arrived in the town of Masalli at the end of December just before the Winter break. In January, I began working with English teachers at a new school in Digah Village. I can laugh now at the times I went to the wrong classroom, or spent frustrating minutes trying to read the class schedule posted high on a wall outside the teachers’ room.
For the first 2 weeks, I observed classes by each of the 5 English teachers in my secondary school and then selected 3 teachers as co-teachers for their good command of English. I also watched their classroom management styles since Peace Corps makes it clear that no teacher may hit a student. And I would commit to a minimum of 15 classes per week. Those were my 3 priorities, but I failed to notice that the teachers I selected had different days off. I had inadvertently scheduled myself to be at school 6 days a week since schools are open on Saturdays too. What was I thinking! I became exhausted by the end of each week and had to reduce my teaching hours from 19 to 16 per week.
Digah village secondary school begins classes at 9AM with 45 minute class periods. There is a 5 minute break between classes when students move between rooms. Girls stroll arm-in-arm with girlfriends between class periods. Boys do the same with their friends often greeting each other with a handshake and a kiss on the cheek. The last class period begins at 1PM but younger students leave earlier for home because they only have morning classes. Attendance at 9th, 10th, and 11th form classes begins to decline because many students hire private tutors to help them pass exams for technical and college classes. Tutoring is also a better source of income for teachers.
Students’ age and teachers’ styles make each class unique. I love that the 5th form (grade) students eyes light up when I walk in the room, and they bring me flowers. However, the English teacher of an 8th form class demands a stricter decorum, so those students seem less attentive. In early April, I decided to introduce what I call Everyday English and the atmosphere in that classroom changed. I simply taught them the English translation for their Azerbaijani greetings and they had “ah ha” moments. Suddenly, it made sense to them that their Salam means “Hello”, and Necesiniz? means “How are you?” Each day I added 5 new English phrases and the equivalent in the Azerbaijani language. This also showed them that Americans have similar customs in greeting and speaking with each other.
My personal best accomplishment was getting the students to practice speaking English to each other at their desks. Pair work had been misinterpreted as just 2 students speaking at the front of the classroom. Now, students know that everyone will be speaking quietly with another student. This takes the onus off of speaking in front of the teacher and classmates, increases the number of opportunities to practice speaking, and allows students to help each other. I only need to write the words “Pair Work” on the black board and a quiet murmur fills the classroom.
What would I like to do better when school starts again September 15th? I want to meet more frequently with each teacher to prepare lesson plans. Planning is not a strong suite here, but teachers agree that they have a sense of accomplishment when they decide in advance what the students will do in a class. And for sure, I’ll plan my teaching schedule so that I have some personal time to unwind.
Margaret (Peggy) Reinhardt is a Minneapolis Wedge neighborhood resident serving in the US Peace Corps in the Central Asian country of Azerbaijan.