Ah, the annual teachers’ retreat!
Two days of good, clean countryside fun. Wrestling for the ladies:
Beauty contests for the men:
Singing and fermented beverages for all:
Last year’s retreat was scheduled during one of my first weekends in Erdenet, and I found out about it only a few hours beforehand (“Kate, will you go to the picnic today?” “Will I…what now?”). There was a series of confusing, awkward conversations — What was happening? Where was everybody going? Was I (gulp) invited? — and at the end of it, somebody promised me a ride. I rushed home, threw things into a bag and then sat on the couch, staring at my phone. After a couple hours I got a text: my ride had fallen through. So everybody left for the countryside without me, and I sat at home that weekend watching my Facebook feed fill with posts from other new volunteers about their teacher retreats. I got pretty bent out of shape about the whole thing. Everybody else was making friends and having a good time with their counterparts (I imagined), while mine hadn’t even thought to include me (I suspected). This was, of course, ridiculous: My teachers had known me all of one week, first of all; there would be almost two whole years’ worth of time for me to play ridiculous drinking games with them, second of all; and third of all the world didn’t revolve around me and my need to collect Authentic Host Country Experiences ™ as fast as possible. And yet I pouted.
So! I’m sure you’re relieved to know that I finally got my Mongolian Teachers’ Retreat, and it was everything I wanted, and so now, maybe, I can stop being such a brat about it for about five minutes.
I actually bailed on the weekend early — one of my teachers had to go home on Saturday night, and I caught a ride into the city with her. To me, it was a perfect escape: It had been a lovely day of goofing around and eating cake and drinking airag and doing shots, but things were just beginning to reach the point that divides “light boozy fun” from “heavy boozy non-fun,” and so I would whisk myself discreetly away and wake up in my own bed the next day, not monstrously hung over! Wasn’t I clever!
My teachers kinda put up a fuss about it, though. Just as Inkhkhishig and I were sneaking away, they cornered me: Where are you going and why are you going and you must stay and dance and is something wrong and what did we do and you aren’t having fun?
I wasn’t expecting this at all. “Nothing’s wrong!” I said, with my widest shit-eating grin. “Really! I’m just tired! That’s all!”
They didn’t buy it. “Hhmph,” they said. “Murmur.”
There is some Unified Theory of My Own Narcissism hidden in these last few paragraphs. What is it that made me feel entitled to be included in the retreat last year, when I was a complete newcomer and had no relationships with anybody? What is it that made me think that, having formed those relationships, I could leave this year’s retreat early and not cause alarm? Is it the same thing? Is it the thing where I am a dick? Perhaps it is.
I don’t think I’ve ever talked before about one of the central tensions in a Peace Corps Volunteer’s life: Relationships vs. Getting Shit Done The Way You Like It. This is an issue in all development work, I guess. And actually it seems like it’d be an issue for anybody who has to work with anybody else on anything. But whatever, I want to talk about this totally mundane thing as it applies to me.
My day-to-day job at school is basically this: Sitting down with a teacher, planning a lesson with her, and then teaching that lesson with her. Repeat repeat repeat, a million times repeat, with the same English teacher, with all 16 of the English teachers, every day, amen. There are other things that I do on a semi-regular basis, but basically that’s it. Here I should mention how lucky I am to get to do this banal-sounding thing over and over and over; more accurately, I should mention how lucky it is that my teachers, my supervisor, and my directors let me do this banal-sounding thing. Team teaching is, like, the holy grail of Sustainability and Capacity-Building and Skills Transfer and All That Peace Corps Deems Holy And Good, and there are plenty of volunteers who struggle to convince their schools and their teachers that this would be a good use of their time (as opposed to, say, solo teaching only the brightest students for hours and hours every week, and/or acting like a glorified substitute teacher). My teachers are eager to sit down with me and lesson plan; they say shit like “what interesting activities can we use?” and “good idea, what should I prepare before the lesson?” and god bless ‘em, I hit the jackpot.
Have I just talked myself out of the thing I was just going to complain about? I…my god I have.
Well not quite! I just want to talk about how, last year, during these lesson planning sessions and the lessons themselves, I leaned more toward the Relationships side of the equation. Oh, you want to do X activity? Sure, let’s try it! You think we should spend a lot of time on Y vocabulary? Okay! Neither of these things connects to the lesson objective, and we have only 40 minutes, and trying to cram all these things in means the students will probably not learn anything? I will swallow my tongue! As a jerk and a control freak and somebody not used to teamwork, this was…hard.
This year I’ve been leaning towards the Getting Shit Done The Way You Like It side of things. It has been Katie’s Way Or The Highway this last month: Oh hi, we’re team teaching next week? Then we are going to sit down and plan out the whole unit! And we’re going to create materials out the wazoo! And we are going to design a unit assessment, with test items tied explicitly to our objectives! And we are going to teach to those objectives, and throw out anything in the (often weird and disjointed) textbooks that do not enable our students to achieve said objectives! And sure, if you want to sit in the back of the room and watch me teach this whole lesson by myself THAT IS GREAT I AM ALL POWERFUL HA HA HAAAAA hoooo.
So which way is the best way, in terms of teacher training? I can’t really say. Ugh. There is a central, underlying, festering sore in all this, and it is priorities. My priority in the classroom is to use those 40 minutes to achieve some kind of performance-based objective, and that usually involves departing from the textbooks at least a little. My teachers’ priorities are to use those 40 minutes to teach everything in the textbook lesson, because that is what the students will be tested on in school-wide and province-wide exams. I cannot change my teachers’ (legitimate) priorities. Nor can I change the books, or the exams (which, I mean, just do not get me going).
So what can I change, I suppose I can only change myself, except I’m kinda here to train people which by definition involves changing things besides myself, and blah blah blah o let’s just look at another picture from the retreat and remember what is truly important and then go to bed:
I sure do hope you’re swell.