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My Teaching is Explosive…No, Really.

December 19, 2010

I’ll preface this by saying that the following anecdote is by no means indicative of the average Mongolian classroom. As many teachers recognize (at least I think I’m not alone in this), some days your students are proper scholars, and other days it feels like you’re facing a room of escaped convicts. The following is a story of the latter:

I was teaching my most difficult class, a rather rowdy but friendly bunch of fourth graders. I have a very difficult time getting them to maintain classroom decorum and motivating them to participate constructively is definitely one of my biggest challenges here. This day, Thursday, was especially rough. The material to get through wasn’t particularly enthralling, but the grammar was essential and getting them to sit still long enough for me to teach them anything just wasn’t happening. This is where having a team-teacher in the classroom, like I’m actually supposed to be doing, would be extremely helpful, but that’s a story for a different day.

I’d been to the back of the room to pull one particular student off of his classmates more than once already, and we were only about twenty minutes into our forty-minute lesson. Keeping this particular child in his seat takes some serious work, so when I turned my back to the board for a moment and heard a loud bang come from the back corner of the room, I was about ninety percent sure about who was responsible. Turning around confirmed that suspicion when I saw the student wreathed in a puff of cobalt smoke with a lighter in his hands, looking about as shocked at what he had done as I was. He had shot off a firework in the classroom. Let me repeat that…a firework—in the classroom. I joined the Peace Corps partially out of an interest to serve my country while still avoiding explosive devices, but apparently that assumption was misguided.

I don’t know who was more surprised honestly, because even he looked a little shocked at what had happened, but with the frustrations piling, I went a little nuclear. I didn’t even hesitate to drag the child immediately to the manager’s office. I’m sad to say that corporal punishment is fully accepted and expected in Mongolia. On more than one occasion I’ve been pushed to be more “physical” with my students, but it’s something I categorically refuse to do. I know I will not cross that line, and in some sense, I think the students know I won’t cross it either, which is why I felt the need to take this kid to the manager. I just didn’t have the tools to deal with this particular situation adequately. If I’d left the situation alone, my credibility in that particular class would be damaged beyond repair, but by taking him to the manager, I’m pretty sure I doomed him to a healthy dose of punishment. Frankly, I don’t know for sure, and I think I feel a little better not knowing.

Walking back down the hall from the manager’s office, I just sort of laughed, because honestly what else can you do in a situation like that? I can’t bring my frustration, regret, fear, anger back into the classroom with me. That’s misguided, and at least a part of me felt like I must be on Mongolian candid camera—a firework…in the classroom.

I can’t say yet whether teaching is something I’m cut out for, but I enjoy it reasonably well—some days though, it feels like I’m in the trenches taking grenades.


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