A Teaching Life: In the US, England
People, Not Putin, and other thoughts…
I’ll begin here: People, Not Putin. You read that right. The Russian people have been a central part of my teaching life. I ventured seven times into Gorbachev’s Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991 and once in 1994, three years after the fall of Communism––nearly a year of my life. I taught English in four schools in Leningrad, Moscow, and Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan. My encounters with students, teachers, and directors gave me the opportunity to reassess who I was a teacher and opened me to becoming better.
Given the crisis in the Ukraine, I want to bring my love and understanding of the Russian people into the forefront of this blog. In addition I want to place these understandings alongside my teaching in England and the US. Having been called to teach, I immersed myself into becoming the best teacher I could find within me. Each of my forty years in the classroom and twelve teaching teachers, I devoted to make my teaching memorable. Naturally some days were better than others.
The Impact of Orwell's Animal Farm
At school 185 in Leningrad, Irina Nikolaevna, my supervisor, became my anchor. Despite living in a society where half the people spied on the other half, Irina acted as a friend and confidante. She glided about the corridors, never raising her voice when disciplining a child. Her teaching was well organized, gentle, and respectful of her students. She was a loving presence.
Hardly a day passed when she and I didn’t have extended conversations. Her soft voice and gentle demeanor, the gentlest in the school, created a safe space for us to share our thinking. Each time we spoke, she was open about our relationship. Once she told me, “I like the way you are with our children, Frank. You encourage them to want to learn.”
About midway through my time at School N. 185, I placed a copy of Animal Farm on her desk. Inside its front cover, I wrote: “My dear Irina, With appreciation for all you’ve done for me. Love, Frank.” The next day late in the morning, she approached me with a worried look. “Frank, I need to see you in my cabinet right after school! I must see you!”
1963; The beginning of my teaching about the Russians
I see my self first as a teacher.
In the spring of 1963, my first year, my department head, Del Goodwin, said, “I want you, Tommy, (he called me by my childhood nickname) to move down to the eighth grade to teach area studies with a focus on Marxism, Communism, Russian history, and the Soviet Union. Your course should be honest. You need to teach your students to understand Marxist Socialism and Communism as sound ideologies, not as evil or bad. Students deserve to know these doctrines for what they are. And to know the Soviet people for who they are. Millions of people around the world subscribe to these ideologies. I believe you are the teacher in our department who can do this.”
His request sealed the deal for me. On the first day of the unit in the spring of 1964, I darkened my classroom, pulling down the shades, papered over the glass panel on my door leading to the hallway, and turned off half the lights—the room becoming an inner sanctum. My unsuspecting students stepped in hesitantly wondering, “Why is the room dark?” They might well have asked, “Is Mr. Thoms about to do something bad?”
As I was writing about my ventures to Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, I began to reflect on who I was, the person who yearned to travel behind the Iron Curtain. Curious how writing invites the mind to visit places heretofore not thought of. The more I was writing, the more I thought about who I was at that time. Who I was before that led me there. I opened the boom with:
I grew up in a world of mechanical toys with backs and bottoms and tiny metal tabs that invited prying. Some were wind-ups that whirred and buzzed in unpredictable directions. Others stood still, playing tin drums or running strings around pulleys. Most were made in Japan. I played with them, took them apart, and reassembled them.…
I would peer through the narrow hardboard slits at the back of my Motorola table radio. I applied gentle pressure to the on-switch until it clicked to see the orange glow alight in vacuum tubes bringing in the sound. I was part of its creation.
It's all about the collective
As an American teacher, I had the responsibility to take care of my own discipline. If a student needed reprimanding, it was up to me. If one of them disrupted the class, I would have to be the one to quell her behavior. The others would would look on.
I am in School 185 in Leningrad, my first exchange school. I took part of a day off from teaching to observe other classes. After visiting a geography class, I headed to the science room. By the time the bell rang, only three students had arrived. The rest were nowhere to be found. Ten minutes before the end of the period, they straggled in, slumped into their seats with red faces, shortened breath, and wide eyes.
“Where have you been?” I asked Gleb; I knew him from Raisa’s class.
He took a breath. “We’ve been outside playing frozen tag. We went across the street where nobody could find us.” Short, spunky, and clever, I figured Gleb to be the leader.
“So, you are the one who decided to skip science class.”
“Oh no, not me. We all decided.”
I pressed him but to no avail.
Choosing To Be On A Bridge
I had come to be a teacher in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union to be a bridge between our two cultures. I let go of preconceptions of Soviet culture I may have gleaned, and assumptions that my culture was better. I remained open to understanding their mores. I observed their practices and let happen what happened. I hoped to engender trust. In the end, I better understood both cultures.
When we meet new people, if we allow barriers to drop we extend appreciation, enabling what we share in common to emerge. We will have moments we’ll never forget––and hopefully they will, too. When we choose to return to be with them, we slip deeper into their culture, closer to the people, and less confident of what we know. Exchanges become less abrupt, less instant, more subtle, more lingering. We find moments sharing the same perspective.
Stepping Off Moscow's Curriculum Train
In the fall, 1987, I was invited to speak to the city’s more than one hundred English-language teachers. Having taught in two of the city’s school and observed its curriculum in action, I decided to focus on about having a classroom that invites students in, rather than one that asks them to take out what the teacher tells them.
I began: “Have you seen yourselves and your students as puppeteers of the Soviet State? Have you seen yourselves as passengers on Moscow’s curriculum train? Will you consider stepping off this train and take time to listen to what your students have to say? You are living in a time of great change in your country. What has been gospel is now being transformed. The strictness of Communism before Gorbachev is receding, as visitors from the West––I am one––are flocking to see who you are and were you are headed.”
The room was quiet, very quiet.
Love Being Russian
1- It’s the Last Bell graduation ceremony in May 1987. I’m on stage with, Elvira Nicholaevna, the director of School Nº 185 in Leningrad. As I wrote in my previous entry, two weeks earlier she had told me I could not come into her school, because I did not have proper papers. In part because I chose to wait, taking the advice of Viking Rune, I may have given Elvira time to find a way I could return. I do not know how she managed it.
My return to the classroom allowed me and my students and colleagues to relive our mutual joy of the previous fall. It was a if I had been there the week before. I reconnected with Irina Nikolaevna (no relative) who shepherded me from class to class; we had conversations after school. However, I did not return to Elvira’s cabinet for conversations; she remained distant. Then came the Last Bell.
Trusting A Rune
In the spring 1987, I came back on my own to Leningrad to School Nº 185, my first exchange school. Without official permission. On my last day the previous fall, I had been honored by a two-hour concert in which teachers and students begged me to come back.
I surprised everyone by walking into the school on my first day back in the spring, but I was out on the street within a half hour. Forlorn, the next morning I spied a bag of Viking Runes I’d brought for a friend. I picked one and read it. It suggested I was in a position of “wasted motion,” that “the well is clogged,” and suggested that I “consider the uses of adversity.” Whoops, not my modus operandi,” I said to myself. But what choice did I have?
Any actions would be futile. No rushing back to the school. No seeking others for help. As the Rune suggested, I waited.
Two days later, my telephoned rang. “Hello Frank, it’s Irina. Why aren’t you here? We are expecting you.”
What moves us to take a different path, contrary to who we are? What moves us to change? Was I alone?
Teaching About the Russians
In my first twenty-five years in the classroom, teaching with a textbook disappeared. It did not happen by accident. In the spring of my first year of teaching, 1963, I was a European history teacher in high school; my department head and mentor invited me to create a new area studies course for the 8th grade. He asked me to step away from the confines of the textbook and create my own curriculum on Russia and the Soviet Union.
It was in the midst of the Cold War. At my mentors advice, I treated Marxism and Soviet Communism as legitimate ideologies. To declare them as evil would deter students from having to pay attention to what millions on the planet held allegiance to.
After teaching the principles of Marxist socialism and some Russian history, I transformed my room into a Soviet classroom complete with dioramas, a Cossack mural over the blackboard, and Communist propaganda on bulletin boards in the back. My students role-played a Soviet classroom complete with Pioneer uniforms with red scarves and classmates acting as teachers. We read The Communist Manifesto. Exhilarating!
Prompting for Putin
Soviet education was designed to train collective thinking. The State demanded allegiance from its citizens. The Party set the curriculum, published the texts, and determined the pedagogy for schools across eleven time zones. Prompting during lessons helped to ensure that everyone learned the same information.
Teaching the text’s assignments (the same lessons for all special English language schools across the country), the questions I had to ask were designed to solicit expected answers. But answers came only after much needed whispering/prompting from classmates to the boy or girl standing. Satisfaction in these lesson meant that everyone would know the same information.
Upon reflection, my role in this process of assuring that children gave the ‘right answers’ may well may have contributed to laying the ground work for Putin’s autocracy. I was enabling, unbeknownst to them and me, prompting for Putin. An intriguing thought.
In Cahoots with Putin?
I am the American teacher in my first Soviet Classroom with primary students in October 1986. I ask for their names and write them down, an important part of my practice. I ask my first question. Silence. I ask another. Silence. I see a right hand, angled up, elbow fixed on the desk. I look at my list of their names: “Alyosha.” He stands. Still. Does he have the answer? I hear a whisper. No answer. More whispers. He answers. He sits down folding his arms on his desk joining his classmates.
This pattern repeats throughout the day. When Yuri, Natasha, Dima, Nikita, Yulia, Vika, André…stands and hesitates—even for a few seconds––the whispers come. The longer the hesitation, the louder the whispers, a cacophony. And if no answer, the teacher leans in and prompts loud enough for me to hear. “I want to hear from Yuri.” “Please let Natasha answer.” My pleas fall on fallow ground.
Years later I have reflected on this moment and countless others like it. Was I in cahoots in preparing Russian children to regurgitate the words of Putin? To show deference to authority?
Stepping Off the Path
It’s October 1985. My tour group is in Moscow’s Palace of Pioneers, a showcase of exemplary Young Pioneer students performing on multiple floors throughout the massive building in living dioramas behind floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows. Tourists are gawking through the glass observing selected Young Pioneers demonstrating their skills and workmanship.
I stop on a landing, leaving my group. I peer through a small picture window into a large darkened room. A young Pioneer girl, with light brown hair and braids, about ten, alone in the near corner. She’s in her brown school uniform with white apron wearing her Lenin pin and standing before a dozen stuffed dolls sitting at miniature desks. Other tourists race up and down the stairwell past me.
If you’ve read my first entry. You know something of who I am. From my early years, I have been what one would call a contrarian. I wanted to be part of life around me intending to do it in my own way. I considered myself a maverick, designing my own lessons and delivering them in my own style. I spent most of my years teaching eighth graders, for me a joy. I wanted my classes to be memorable.
I loved teaching and the adventures I had in and outside of the classroom. My first foray into another teaching world happened in Oxfordshire, England in 1971-2 teaching in a progressive primary school teaching alongside seven-to-ten-year-olds, a remarkable year.
In October 1985, I stepped away from the classroom for a two-week tour of Leningrad, Moscow, and Kyiv. Twenty minutes off the plane in Leningrad's international airport, before meeting our guide I found myself face to face with a Russian women with wild hair and two children. Two days later, I had lunch in her flat, and returned several times; she managed to slip me into a Soviet primary classroom––off the tour.