It's been two weeks since I first arrived in Moscow and I now prepare to leave. As I sit in the airport, waiting to board a plane for the vacation part of my journey, I feel gratitude for my time here in Russia.
I saw the country in a way that few can through the prism of my work as an educator. This was a once in a lifetime experience. I know this. Still, I am so happy to be born American.
If my great grandparents had made a different choice, I would have been a Soviet citizen. I would have grown up in the Soviet Era. Would I have been reluctant and careful to speak of my experiences? Probably. Would I have been as generous and hospitable in a hosting situation with Americans? I hope so. Would I have been as clear about my high regard for my leaders and my country? This is hard to imagine because so much of what makes us distinctly American is free speech and a sense that we are entitled to and have an obligation criticize our leaders. Things are very different here.
I am never more grateful to be American as when I travel through other countries.
We are a blessed nation.
Yesterday, we met at the American Center which is a sort of library and safe haven for visiting Americans. Twelve teachers from twelve different parts of the USA were able to de-brief about our experiences in five different regions of Russia. Most of us were in Siberia. Most were placed in schools that perform. Our experiences were varied and most said that our time here was challenging and stimulating.
The essential question that I used to guide my travels through Russian education was simple: what are the factors that determine the education of the Russian student?
As I traveled through schools, I examined my assumptions and asked questions:
How much of the education is dictated by the state?
How much freedom do teachers have to determine their own instruction?
What is the relationship of teachers and students?
What is the relationship of teachers and administration?
Is there a Board of Education and do they set policy or is the policy set at the school?
What is teacher training like?
How are families supportive of their students' education?
I brought many of my own experiences to the questions that I asked. I was so grateful that BHUSD allowed me to participate in this program (I worried about this from my acceptance) and I wanted my travel to be useful to the District as a whole.
Here's what my group noticed in Russia:
Education has intrinsic value.
Student engagement is at a high level in all observed classes and students actively participate in class. Children raised hands in primary forms. Upper grade teachers called on students.
Students feel high pressure to answer questions correctly and we observed fear on the students' part as they worried about answering correctly.
Teachers didn't want to speak English in front of us.
Students dressed professionally and took great care of appearance.
Students showed great respect for teachers.
As in American schools, halls and passing periods were chaotic. Students liberally use personal phones.
Homework seems prepared.
Education is highly competitive.
Russian schools clearly define gender roles. Girls Technical Arts means sewing, ironing, and cooking. Boys took classes like wood shop.
Clear differences between the American and Russian system include:
The Russian system is nationalized and as such features curriculum, textbooks, high stakes tests and teacher education set by the government.
Teachers here are underpaid and overworked (even more so than in the US). Many must have second jobs.
Most teachers women. I would say that men are nearly absent from the educational process in this country. Those to whom we spoke said that men do not teach because they cannot support a family on a teacher's salary.
Teachers report that students are overworked and overtired.
In order to fit all students into schools, institutions have at least two shifts of classes.
Administrators all teach (my favorite takeaway!).
The school week is six rather than five days.
As in the US schools facilities are are tired and often in disrepair. Lights are often off in classrooms and in the halls.
Technology at the schools at which I visited appeared old.
Critical thinking is not often taught. Facts are preferred to synthesis and analysis. Russians emphasize theoretical over critical thinking.
Students and families transport children to school.
We observed pay for play in better schools. Better schools require money and palm greasing.
Parents are more concerned about grades than actual learning.
Russians take pride in and emphasize early education and pre school.
Fresh food is cooked in cafeteria and provides food for all.
Teachers see students for many years and build long term personal relationships with them. This is further impacted by the fact that all grades are housed in the same building.
Russian student concerns included many of the same as those of my students. They worry endlessly about admission into university and exams (at the state and and university level). Russian students had very different concerns as well. They loathe their uniforms and feel that they have too much homework. They view learning English as an opportunity and school as a way to evade compulsory military service. Students give teachers credit for jobs well done and show respect through everything from standing when an instructor enters a room to verbally praising their teachers. I felt that Russian students demonstrated pride at every turn: pride in their schools; pride in their history; pride in their Olympic teams at Sochi. Russian students clearly wanted us to know the contribution of their artists and to value these artists as they did. The Russian youth is physically fit and I rarely saw any overweight children.
And what do I think now? We have a lot to learn from the Russian education system but they can learn from us as well. Isn't this what we do when we globalize education? Aren't we sharing best practices across cultures and preparing our children for the future rather than the past?
I remain committed to the following tenants of globalizing education:
learning about global issues for and with my students and infusing my lesson plans with a world view;
creating cross cultural empathy and experiences for my students; communicating across cultures and often using technology to do this; creating global plans with many of my lessons.
And I want to add one more of my own: I remain committed to growing culturally and globally as a teacher. Travel is more than a vacation for me. I view it as a way to continue my own education. I plan to do much more journeying through the prism of education in coming years.
We tackled the subway on our own.
With my fabulous co-teacher and Siberian travel partner. Tracey Anderson is an inspiring colleague and travel partner.