While I have employed this question rhetorically a number of times since I arrived here, there is actually a good answer to it. I have come to bring English and the wonder that is the American culture to central Ukraine. I am currently teaching one course, “English In Use,” at Bogdan Khmelnetsky National University to two groups of second-year students; both groups meet Monday through Thursday. All of my classes are one hour and 20 minutes, and they are all in the afternoon. I have found so many things to be different with the classes here from what I am used to. Here are a few of the most notable differences:
- The classes at the university here follow a much more uniform schedule. ALL classes are one hour and 20 minutes, and there is a 20-minute break between each set of classes. So when you walk into the building, it is either full of students or appears totally empty. A bell rings to mark the beginning and end of classes. Students are all expected to be in the class before the bell rings, but teachers usually come in after the bell. All of the students stand up when the teacher comes in, to show respect. If a student comes late, s/he asks your permission to be able to enter and join the class. If a student misses class, s/he is expected to bring a written excuse from the doctor or the administration office. If students miss class without excuse, the teachers are supposed to call their parents to discuss the problem.
- The same group of students stays together for all of their classes. When you are a student here, you are part of a specific group, and you have your classes and schedule set out for you. Your group either has classes for the morning shift, or for the afternoon shift. Teachers also usually teach just one “shift” of the day. This term, the first-year students are in the morning and the second-year students are in the afternoon, but next term that will flip-flop.
- There are no elevators in these old Soviet-era buildings, and it seems like every place I ever need to go in such buildings is on the third or fourth floor. Case in point: the foreign language classes, and specifically the English department, is on the fourth (top) floor of our building. I am always a sweaty mess when I get to the top. I’m quite sure people here are wondering why Americans look the way I do when I get to the top. We’re (I’m) definitely not in as good of shape as them!
- There is a schedule posted in the hallway for the present day and the next day’s classes, and it is key to check this schedule every day: it is the only way to find out what room your class will be in on that particular day. It is also possible that the time of the class could change for the following day, so you need to check tomorrow’s schedule before you go home. I’m quite sure that sometimes today’s schedule is posted on the top, and sometimes tomorrow’s is on the top, just to keep me guessing, so I am trying to learn to read the days of the week so as not to have a heart attack, thinking I’ve missed my class.
- There are only 10 students in most of the classes. This is actually a good thing, since some of the classrooms wouldn’t be able to hold many more than that.
- There are rather small chalkboards at the front of the classroom with chalk that doesn’t stick to the board as well as ours, and wet rags for erasing. That is basically the only instructional item in the classroom.
- The poor economic situation shows itself in a variety of other ways. The lights are almost never turned on in a room. The teachers have to buy any materials they would like to use, including paper and ink for the copier/printer in the teachers’ room. Accordingly, the copier is used very sparingly since these resources are so costly for them, and is currently low on ink. There is a textbook approved by the Ministry of Education that students use, but other than that there are no English textbooks at the school. Quite a difference from the resources we are accustomed to!
- Teachers here are, if you can believe it, worse off economically than adult-school teachers in the States. A teacher may get the equivalent of just $100 a month, and as you can imagine, it’s quite a struggle get along on that. Boots, for example, are costly and would require about a month’s wages.
- When you use the bathroom at school, you need to bring your own toilet paper with you. If you want soap, you need to bring your own. If you want to dry your hands…well, it’s the environmentally friendly air drying!
- There is no student store, no items to buy with the university name…the students and teachers alike buy their notebooks at local stores, the same ones that kids use for school. Many have cute pictures on them. They are the same size as a test blue book. When students take a test, they often write in one of their notebooks and then hand that in to the teacher to correct.
- The language classes here work a good deal with memorization and translation. Students often read texts and then need to know the translation of vocabulary and passages, and be able to “re-tell” (paraphrase) the passage. This actually makes a good bit of sense when you realize that many of these students hope for a career in translation or as an interpreter.
- All of the English taught here is British. If I want to bring some American English into the students’ lives, I’ve got my work cut out for me! I unfortunately have a bit of difficulty understanding the British English (or possibly vocabulary misuse), and that has led to some confusion and misunderstandings. I often find myself concentrating very hard when someone is explaining something I really need to understand!
So, that gives you an idea of what the teaching situation is like here. There is more I could say, oh yes, but I am giving my students their first major test tomorrow and need to get to bed. They are very good students, but I’m sure the test will be quite different for them, so we’ll see how they do. Wish them luck!