It has taken me a while to come to this realization, but it’s worth it. Amidst all of the controversy surrounding the quality of education in America, one little facts seems to slip past our attention. School is not just a place of classrooms and teachers; it is where we learn to sink or swim. It’s where our personalities are cultivated, where our social skills are fine tuned. School isn’t just a center for education. Until we graduate, it is the center of our entire life. It’s shapes us not just as scholars, but as people. In America, as education reform takes shape, results seem to be the most important factor. Fewer teachers, shorter school hours, less “life skills” courses and more math; you name it and it is being cut. As long as test results improve, olsun (Azerbaijani for “let it be”). I can’t agree more with the need for higher standards. Our schools are getting weaker. Too many teachers are complacent, and too many students are falling behind. Every performance test strategy that has been presented so far has loopholes that allow just about every school to pass standards. If so many schools are passing state and national standards, why are so many students nearly illiterate still? Why are we falling behind in academic performance to countries we once towered over academically, to countries we still tower over economically?
I admit that may have been a little too much of a rant, but today opened my eyes to a problem here in Azerbaijan that might start poking it’s head up in America if we’re not careful.
Right from wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, how to talk to girls or boys, how to make friends, how to stand in lines and wait your turn. These lessons are not the objectives in a teacher’s work book, not the ultimate goal of the lesson plan. They are the indirect results of the sense of community and belonging that a good school fosters. I realize that school is supposed to be the breeding ground for future success. But what is that success derived from? I believe it does not come as much from the classrooms as it does from the entire school experience. I don’t believe that math or science results completely reveal the potential success of individuals in the future. It is the life skills learned, the life lessons taught, not solely the biology or algebra lessons, that prepare students to be cunning in the boardroom, creative in the studio, or courteous in everyday life as adults.
It is this sense of community that school is supposed to instill in children that is the very fabric of our society and our culture. It is slowly slipping away.
You may ask yourself what would happen if it did. The implications of this loss are standing right in front of me here in Azerbaijan, and they take the form of 25 school children in my English conversation club.
I love teaching and I love interacting with children, but I do not enjoy teaching English. I am not trained to teach it, and kids truly don’t want to learn it. They want to come to my clubs after school to hang out with their friends and the American and socialize before going home for the evening. I’m okay with that. As I explained above, I think they need it. The weather is nice now and everyone wants to be outside. I’m not going to try and fight it. They have so much energy and can’t sit still for more than 2 seconds. Outside to the field we go; I was a kid once, I understand.
Today’s lesson: 4-Square. The ultimate game of recess! Simple to teach right? So I thought! Let’s ignore the fact that 98% of these kids have the hand-eye coordination and dexterity of a boiled lobster; it was impossible! See what happens without proper physical education courses!
Anyway, I am confident enough in my language skills after this much time in country that I know the directions were clearly explained. It’s not that complicated. However, sheer chaos ensued and two things in particular stood out. Mind you these kids are between the grades of 6 and 8. The should be able to comprehend this, even if it the first time they ever played the game. The two things that struck me most, in fact, had nothing to do with the rules. They had to do with social order.
First of all, the concept of a line. Whether it was Tetherball or 4-Square, the line was paramount when I was in school. Cuts, Chinese cuts, the ole “I’m just talking to my friend” – whatever it was, lines were understood and embraced and it took masterful prowess to avoid them. Despite all my efforts, the kids could not comprehend the idea of a line. One student would get out and then they would just stand in some random place and be surprised when I told them that they, in fact, were not next and had to wait for everyone else to play before they could go again. They’re not too young, and they’re certainly not dumb. They just could not grasp the idea of a line that they had to wait on if they wanted to play. I see it in everyday adult life as well. At the ATM on payday, in the post office, at the market, lines are not a thing and people don’t wait. Is it a lack of courtesy? In a whole society? I think not. I don’t know what it is, but I think I just found where it all starts.
My second observation was a lack of self-governance. The kids got the hang of the game alright, and some of them were pretty good. They understood the rules, knew what was allowed and knew what wasn’t. They knew how to get someone out. Problem was, without me pointing and telling them specifically, “YOU are out”, no one left. The remaining players recognized someone was out, but everyone refused to stop the game and say it. Every single round, I had to stop the game and say who was out. When I asked if they all knew that person was out, they said of course. When I asked why they didn’t stop the game themselves, they had no answer for me. Again, I don’t know how to explain. They knew the rules, but they refused to enforce them. When I was a kid on the playground, rules were usually unquestionable, and everyone in line stood, anticipating their turn, ready to point out with a piercing scream whenever someone who was currently playing was out. I see the same problem in everyday society. Azerbaijan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Everyone knows corruption happens, at all levels. There are those that refuse to partake, but it is a small minority. People know it is happening, but no one says, “Stop, that’s not allowed”. I don’t know if there is a connection or not, but it just seems eerily analogous to me.
So, as I try and foster this sense of community and belonging with the education system here in Azerbaijan, I’ll issue a warning to those back in America. School is so much more than we treat it as. Don’t give up on it.