Friday, September 17, 2010

brass tacks

Today was my first day actually in the academy to try and understand a bit more clearly what exactly it is they want me to help them with. There is always the obligatory meeting with the vice rector which in its own way is a charming cultural ritual. It goes roughly like this. The international ( me) is ushered into an airy office where the administrator sits behind a big dark desk decorated with country flags. There is a TV on with the sound turned off. In my case, my pathetic Russian is not up to the task of what is a formal and always interesting exchange of gratitude and history. Thus inevitably there is a translator and mine is one of my favorite colleagues a young incredibly smart guy from the Pamirs who switches languages like the Rosetta Stone. He has the added advantage of being the person responsible for getting this, what ever this is, done.

The vice rector ushers us all to the table where we in turn produce notebooks, he orders tea and we begin the dance of introductions. It is one of the very few times in life when I find it okay to contextualize myself and my accomplishments, announce my various degrees, University associations and my genuine enthusiasm for the region. It is also a chance to bring formal greetings from my university to his. He in turn outlines his life and accomplishments and gives a short and impressive history of his university. This information exchange is then followed up by gratitude statements that cover the bases of organizations, donors and in some cases celestial beings. Once this is out of the way and it takes at least 30 minutes we get down to brass tacks.

Here is where my heart starts to sink as the scope of work I was sent which was barely doable in the first place is ballooning into a project that even with sleep and working in my own language and culture and institution would take years. Basically he would like if I have time to design a faculty development in-service program that would meet the needs of his education faculty as well as his teacher training faculty and of course there is a need in business as well. Also could we design a faculty exchange program where our gang could have a visit and he could send a delegation and also, while I am at it, there is a real need for a redesign of curriculum and teaching methodology and new textbooks. He has another meeting soon and of course we will meet again after the weekend.

I leave the office dazed trudging after my buoyant and endlessly good humored colleague to our next meeting which is with upper level teacher candidates. I feel remarkably like Eyore when he lost his tail and rather wish Christopher Robin would appear and make it right ie; come up with a brilliant plan that meets everyone's needs. Our next stop is to visit with some teacher candidates and their supervisor. These were upper level candidates who were in their 4th and 5th year. They are biology teachers.

We had a really interesting conversation. I asked extensive questions about how they went about their course of study. There is very little actual field time. In fact their student teaching is two weeks long and then they can go out and get a job. Their supervisor comes once and beyond that the expectation is that they should know what they are doing. ( this is the old Soviet model) The practicum sessions are short and highly structured.Each student has a notebook which outlines exactly what they are to do and how to do it. When asked how they decided what to teach on a given day, they referred to the textbook or to the standards. Interestingly, when asked how these young teachers would deal with students who were not all learning similarly they had good answers that indicated they are thinking about levels and instructional variation. Of course I had to ask the question why teach? Their answers were as you might expect. I am drawn the children, I had a teacher in school who was great and i want to be like her. As always the desire to make a difference and teacher as hero rises to the top. They in turn asked me a million questions about America and my family and of course my students.

The trek back to the office was a chance to think. It seems that every educational system in the universe is busy rewriting their standards - albeit an admirable way to spend ones time, I guess. However as standards get rewritten the work of the teacher gets lost in the shuffle of papers. Tajik teachers in the last three years have had innumerable booklets on how to teach the standards but the standards keep changing which means that the booklets are outdated before they come out. There are conflicting theories and approaches in a part of the world that just likes one answer and a clear path. Older teachers came out of the tough Soviet system and not surprisingly teach exactly the way they were taught. Younger teachers want to do things differently but are not exactly sure how.The international development community through a variety of projects is injecting some more flexible approaches but it is hard to go to scale and in some regions the cultural context is such that it is an uphill battle. There also, just like in the US, is no real agreement on what works and what doesn't.

So there we are back to the age old question which is How do we get "hummingbirds" in every classroom and for every kid. It isn't solely a matter of training, or standards or guidelines or books but in large measure it is a matter of heart and passion. In fact great teachers are something of a mystery. I have always said that to solve all this mess don't write another manual, simply xerox the great teachers who are hidden away in villages, cities and hamlets around the world, make thousands of copies and sprinkle liberally. Would it be so easy.


  1. Bird, it's a pleasure to follow you through your days. I often wonder why we spend so much much time spinning our wheels. No matter what the approach that is eventually (and temporarily) decided upon we can't find "the" answer because the complexity of teaching involves a social relationship that is between and among individuals, while every effort we make to develop standards and efficiency in approach speaks to the masses. Hummingbirds indeed. You seem most alive and happy in the classroom - how fortunate for your hosts!

  2. Reading this description this morning, I recollected on my singular experience in a nearby country. I thought in that foreign to me context, which your post reflects, that an important challenge is sociocultural shifts. Institutional, cultural, and social constructs impact making space for hummingbirds. But more importantly, institutional structures, historical practices, and cultural norms of the contexts seem to impede hummingbirds from becoming bees that pollinate and hybridize the existing notions with new notions.