It was only my second day teaching English in Tajikistan and I panicked.
I sat alone in my room flustered and close to tears because I had no clue how I was going to come up with four hours of English lessons every day.
I planned out what I thought would be my first four lessons the night I arrived in the village of Shing, but we whipped through everything on the first day. So after nearly five hours of lessons the previous day and over two hours of lessons that morning, I just froze. I literally sat there with twelve eager faces staring at me, unable to think of anything else I could possibly do.
Teaching English in Tajikistan is one of the hardest things I have ever done.
I thought I prepared myself for it. I took an online TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course before leaving the United States and I thought it taught me a lot. In retrospect, the one thing it really didn’t focus on at all was how to teach total beginners. When it came to lesson planning, I was able to choose the level for which I planned my lessons and I always went with intermediate. At that time, I never pictured myself working with beginners or with children.
I expected to be teaching adults in Tajikistan – my hosts, the homestay owners who needed to learn English to better interact with tourists. As it turned out, my students in Shing were my host’s family – four of his daughters (ages 14, 18, 34 and 36), his daughter-in-law (20) and several grandchildren (ages 10 to 16). Everyone was at a beginner level, but they caught on at different rates, so it was hard to balance teaching what many still needed to practice while not completely boring the others.
My picture dictionary saved me.
Before heading to Tajikistan, I found a website with sample lessons for beginners. I couldn’t print them out, but I figured I could pull them up online when I arrived. I also bought a picture dictionary, thinking it might come in handy. As it turned, my internet connection was too slow to access any of the sample lessons, so the picture dictionary ended up forming the basis for a majority of my lessons. With absolutely no resources available other than pen and paper, I may have relied on it more than I should have, but it worked. I used it to teach the alphabet and pronunciation, as well as numbers, days, months, colors, action words, food and clothing.
While I initially started or ended lessons simply saying and repeating words, or asking them to read the words, eventually I branched out. Once I taught action words, I pointed to animals in the dictionary and asked them to say what each animal does. When we learned colors, I did the same, asking what color different animals and objects were.
Finding my rhythm.
By the fourth day, I had settled into a rhythm with two hours of lessons in the morning and two hours of lessons in the afternoon. I used the morning lessons to review and expand on what we learned the previous day and then I introduced new concepts in the afternoon. Each lesson began with a short review, but I soon realized that the more I taught, the more there was to review so I could use that to fill some time. I also observed that they dutifully took notes on just about every word that came out of my mouth – to the point where I realized that if I gave them a lot of new vocabulary to write, it took up more time. That may not have been the best approach, but I think they benefited from both the repetition and the writing.
I also tried to mix things up by playing games or having them interact with each other in different ways. After we learned action words, I tried charades (acting out the words they learned). It took them a while to get the hang of it – many would announce their action before doing it instead of waiting for people to guess. But it worked and I think they had some fun with it. While my attempt to introduce Twenty Questions bombed, they loved sticking pieces of paper to their foreheads with the names of animals that they had to guess (thanks Jill for the suggestion!).
My most exciting breakthrough may have been teaching them how to pronounce the sound “th.” I discovered that in the phrase books they had, the “th” sound is translated as either “c” or “z” because there is no equivalent sound in Russian or Tajik. I noticed how much they struggled with the sound as we worked through the dictionary, so I spent a few minutes demonstrating where they needed to put their tongue in order to make the “th.” In addition to drawing a lot of laughs, I think most of them got it.
As hard as it all seemed and as nervous as I got before every lesson, I think they actually learned something.
More often than not, once I got the lesson going, things went fairly smoothly. As much as Dodojan rolled his eyes at me and urged me to move on while I was waiting for the others to grasp something, Mohpisand and Mehron and Farhunda seemed to hang on every word I said. It was gratifying to me that by the time I went for a walk with Jonona and Shohpisand three nights before I left, they were using bits of English here and there and asking me what things were called as we walked. The next day, when Mohpisand, Farhunda and Boborjan took me hiking, it was even better, with Mohpisand trying to use English whenever she could and constantly inquiring about things – a shortcut, a shadow, a rock, steep, flat… And while Boborjan wasn’t quite as inquisitive, he did use the word “jump” at every opportunity.
In the end, I feel like I must have done something right, even if I didn’t always realize it.