Teaching English, and so much more

When I arrived at the one-story wooden schoolhouse on the Siberian steppe, I imagined I'd be stepping into a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. The high school in Aginskoye had a wood-burning stove and no running water. Students walked to the outhouses throughout the frigid winter. But the Buryat and Russian chatter in the hallway, the sight of burgundy-robed Buddhist monks, and the knowledge that Mongolia and China were just over the icy mountains reminded me that this was a very different world from Minnesota where Laura Ingalls and I grew up.

I was the first Westerner most of these Siberian children had seen, and new books weren't the only surprises I brought. I was the first teacher they called by her first name, who let them bring food to class, who'd sit on the desk, and who wouldn't hesitate to jump around to make a point. In the process, we all learned about a lot more than just language.

The 11th-graders I taught had studied English for seven years, but few could carry on a conversation.

My first rule was to ban cheating, rampant in Russian schools. I gave copied homework zeros and penalized those who were late. I set high standards and gave poor marks to those who didn't progress. The struggling students sent everyone they could to intervene on their behalf for a better grade. I was called to a hostile meeting of the Ped Soviet (the teachers collective) to defend the numbers of Cs I intended to give.

Despite the problems, I decided to stay another semester. I chose the more motivated classes and taught those most likely to benefit from what I could offer. In addition, I ran an English club for all students who wanted additional practice.

We read novels, established pen-pal exchanges, and hosted the first ever local Halloween party. I helped several children publish work in an American magazine, I took them to a hospital to learn about AIDS, and brought them to my home to show them how to make pizza and chocolate pudding.

They taught me their traditional game played with sheep knucklebones, invited me to their performances of Buryat song and dance, and opened their hearts, welcoming me into their community.

Several months after I'd been chastised for being too strict, reports started coming in. A local journalist told me, "My daughter has placed into the highest English category at her university and she says it's because of you." Another mother stopped me on the street, "My daughter got into a university in Moscow. She says she never could have passed the English exam if she hadn't had that last semester with you."

After a year, when I announced my plans to leave, the students asked me to come to the school for a special goodbye. There, the 247 students of the Aginsk Gymnasium lined the single hallway and hailed me, applauding, stomping, and smiling.

Back in America now, the image of their faces still brings tears to my eyes. Their love reminds me that children have as much, if not more, to give than a teacher, and that true learning comes from the heart.

Jessica Jacobson is a graduate student at Princeton University.

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