Dasha knocked on my door around 8:20, asking if I was ready to go. She had shyly asked me the night before if I could come to her school that day. Her English teacher was excited that a real live American was living with her and wanted me to visit the school to meet the students.
I had no idea what to expect.
The school was a short walk from Dasha’s house. I learned that it was a public school, supported by the state, with about 200 students. As Dasha and I walked down the street (there were no sidewalks and traffic was almost nonexistent in this forested suburb of St. Petersburg known as Lisiy Nos), we encountered her English teacher, Olga. For the next six hours, I belonged to Olga.
We reached the school a few minutes later and, after hanging my coat in a closet, I followed Olga up five or six flights of stairs (I lost count) to her classroom on the top floor of the building. It was spacious, about the size of any of the classrooms I could recall growing up, with several desks spread throughout the room and posters covering the walls. Each desk sat two students but, as I saw throughout the day, they were never entirely filled.
A loud bell rang and the first class of 14-year-olds soon filed in, each dressed in dark pants and a solid colored shirt. I couldn’t help but think that they were dressed much nicer than most public school students in the United States would ever dress. Olga required them to say hello and good morning in English. Then, when she called the room to order, they all stood as she asked in English how they were. They answered in near-unison “fine, thank you” before she instructed them to sit down. Three boys arrived late, knocking on the door to the classroom and requesting permission to enter before coming in.
As class began, a group of four girls continued to talk amongst themselves as another girl was too busy listening to her MP3 player to pay any attention to Olga. The lesson itself was hodgepodge, with no clear plan or theme to what Olga was trying to teach. Moreover, she spoke to the class almost entirely in Russian, even though it was an English class full of students who should have had at least four years of English study by that point. Olga summed it up best as the class dispersed 45 minutes later when she said to me, “well, I think that session was awful.”
Each subsequent class proceeded in similar fashion. Olga gave them words to define and then repeat or sentences to translate (I couldn’t help but notice that some classes had the same lessons despite being at different levels). Toward the end of class, she would introduce me and bring me up to the front of the room. Then, she would hang a map of the United States on the wall and ask me to talk about the major cities, the weather, the oceans and the flag. I tried to speak slowly and deliberately but no matter what level the class was, I felt like they did not understand a single word I said – Olga usually ended up translating. And despite Olga’s enthusiasm, I could tell the students were not so impressed by meeting a real live American.
The small class of 10 and 11 year olds was quiet and well behaved while the 12 and 13 year olds paid as little attention as the 14 year olds. After a short break, the 6 and 7 year olds were like a breath of fresh air, eagerly repeating after Olga and even asking me questions when she introduced me. While all the older students could come up with was “do you like monkeys?” the younger kids asked my name, what I like to eat, do I like McDonald’s hamburgers and how old is President Obama.
Things really got interesting in the second to last class of the day – a group of just eight 11 and 12 year olds. Shortly after class began, a fistfight broke out as a blond kid sitting near me suddenly flew across the room and grabbed another kid and tried to throw him to the ground! Olga quickly took charge and marched both boys to the principal’s office six floors below, leaving me in charge of the class! That was soooo not part of the plan.
Somehow I stumbled through the next twenty minutes, as I tried to stall for time until Olga returned. The students were in the middle of reading a story about London so I tried to ask them questions and get them to summarize the story. I was not successful. One student seemed to feel sorry for me and made a strong effort to contribute, but the rest of the class just tuned me out, instead whispering and giggling at me as I stood a target at the front of the room.
Finally, it was time for Dasha’s class – the 15 and 16 year olds who apparently were all old enough to completely disregard the dress code. Dasha’s recently adopted brother, Vanya, was also in the class, but they acted as though they didn’t even know each other. I learned later that Vanya had grown up learning German as a second language, but this neighborhood school only taught English, so he was thrown into a class with his age group despite the fact that he had never learned a bit of English!
Olga barely even tried to teach this older class, leaving them to write sentences in their workbooks almost the entire period. She tried to engage them in a discussion with me, talking about the differences between school in the U.S. and Russia, but no one really participate. Overall, the 15 and 16 year olds probably spoke less English with me than the 6 and 7 year olds did!
So what did I learn during my day in a Russian school?
The school facilities themselves weren’t all that different from what I grew up with – more than twenty years ago. No internet or other technology, but good-sized rooms with solid desks and chairs and a chalkboard/whiteboard at the front of the room. Considering the rural location, far outside the center of St. Petersburg, I wasn’t too surprised. The class sizes were incredibly small, ranging from 8 to 16 students – something that is almost impossible to imagine in the US. As I mentioned above, the students dressed almost uniformly (although the older ones all managed to work in their own personal touches) but that definitely didn’t lead to better behavior. If anything, the teenagers probably acted much like American teens as well, caring more about gossiping with friends or listening to music than participating in class.
What saddened me was what I saw in the English classes. Olga herself admitted to me that she was not trained as an English teacher, but happened to end up teaching the English class because she was one of a few teachers who knew some English. And her English was not close to fluent; she sometimes struggled to understand me as we spoke and she often mispronounced words that she was trying to teach to the students. Her lessons were full of errors that had me biting my tongue to I wouldn’t jump in to correct her. It wasn’t surprising, then, that the oldest students hadn’t progressed much further than knowing a few words of vocabulary, despite having studied English for almost a decade.
It was almost enough to make me want to stay and teach them myself.