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.
My Oxfordshire Diary (2)
In my first entry for My Oxfordshire Diary (4/29/23), I shared about the the school, its head, Barrie Rodgers and a couple of our encounters in my diary. Being a teacher of 34 seven-to-ten-year-olds in which I was expected to tailor each their personal curriculum was a monumental challenge. But I chose to seek an English primary school to do just that. I was enamored of the idea of a child-centered education. But the practice proved challenging, more sometimes than others.
Our school, the Ducklington Lane School, later christened Queen’s Dyke County Primary School, was the first open-plan school in the county. My three colleagues and I had a magnificent shared space in which to teach.
We wanted our junior-department 160 children to do productive work. We set up centers for writing, science, reading, drama, clay, painting, drama, music; each of us would do movement with our groups in the dinning hall. We planned our ‘home bay’ times, each with our 30-plus children. We are each anticipating the challenge of dealing with a mix of children from the town and surrounding villages. We felt ready.
On our first day, 100 more students showed up!
On Del's Shoulders
We stand on the shoulders of others. We know that. Our parents shoulders were the first. If we were lucky they were there for us throughout their lives. In the last stage of my life (I turned 85 at the end of April) I find myself wondering who, if anyone, is standing on my shoulders and will after I leave.
Del Goodwin was my first department head, master teacher, mentor, colleague, friend. More than sixty years since we first met, my first year teaching in 1962, I stood on his shoulders––and still am.
Who was this man? Why do I revere him? And revere him knowing not only his distinctions but also his rumored flaws?
AI, the Russians, and Me
I had a birthday recently. A friend sent me AI images of me he created, a dozen of them. He framed the images combining a photo of me and a Russian, Stalin I believe. Do they look like me? I doubt it but others say yes.
But, and here’s the but, Is it me? Will AI turn us into visual beings of ourselves? Will we be us? Or in this case, will I be me? (Sorry grammarians for this last two sentences.)
Ever since ChatGPT 4 arrived not very long ago, I have wondered where we as humans are going, what/who we will be in the not-to-distant future. I have often wondered in my life where I was headed.
That was true when I stepped over the threshold into my first classroom in 1962. I was a teacher, yes, but where was my choice to be a teacher taking me? In my second year, I was in a radically different place. Same school, same department, but no longer in the high school, now in the junior high. Not an AI shift but definitely not anticipated.
And the unanticipated happened when I landed at Leningrad’s Pulkovo II airport.
My Oxfordshire Diary
I purposely titled this blog, “A Teaching Life: in the US, England and Russia.” I want to tap into the driving force of my life, my teaching, and share it with you. Who I was as a exchange teacher in Gorbachev’s Russia grew out of twenty-five years of teaching in the US and in England. After eight years teaching in Hanover, NH, I traveled to Oxfordshire, England in 1970-1 to teach in a progressive primary school. A radical switch from junior high.
Faced with 34 children from 7-to-10-years-old and required to teach each one individually, I was in unfamiliar territory, but a territory I chose. Head of school, Barrie Rodgers, required a weekly diary; he abhorred meetings. The diary proved to be not only a dialogue with Barrie but a dialogue with myself.
November 11: While I know that ‘informal’ [another term for ‘progressive’] education is child-centered, I never realized how much of it depends upon knowing each child. Only as I grow to know each of my children do I become better able to be their teacher. Knowing all the subject matter and psychology is an ally but no substitute.
One of many ruminations in the diary…
My Russian Black Fur Hat
You are a writer. You finish your book. It’s been published. A seminal moment. You worked hard on it, beginning thirty years ago, reviving it for five more years, bringing it to fruition. You believe it will speak to readers. First reactions are positive.
You wake up one morning after publication and realize you left out a salient piece. How could you, you ask yourself. That makes no sense. It was integral to your adventures. Essential. It was my Russian black rabbit fur hat.
In October 1985, my first trip to the former USSR, I procured that hat at a beryozka shop in Leningrad. I loved that hat. One that common people wore. At home, I put it on in cold New England winter days. It was a part of my identity.
I wore the hat on late fall and winter trips back to the USSR. Russian hats were ubiquitous; I thought that wearing mine would bring me closer to the people, would allow me to slip inside Russian culture and life, to discover their inner layers of the matryoshka, nesting doll. Did the hat do that?
A Teacher in the Rye
“After school, Thoms will walk to his hotel room on the Nevsky Prospekt with a small tape recorder pressed against his cheek. He refuses to forget a smile, a tear, or an important confrontation with Soviet life. He gathers impressions of the Soviet Union like a real-life Holden Caulfield, the consummate social satirist. Nothing seems to escape his discerning eye. By watching and interacting, Thoms believes he is helping civilization from going over the cliff—a teacher in the rye.”
This comment was from a New Hampshire reporter who interviewed me in Leningrad in the fall of 1986 when I was an exchange teacher at School 185. I have no memory about how he found me. Probably he was sent to interview US exchange teachers in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. We had quite the conversation, but I did not expect the wording of his impressions of me. But he reflected my thinking. I did have a “discerning eye,” curious about everything around me. Being inside a foreign culture with a bare modicum of language invited me to pay attention to everything but words (except for their rhythmic sounds). But “a teacher in the rye?”
Why Me & the Russians?
In this blog, “A Teaching Life: in the US, England and Russia,” you have read mostly about my time in Russian schools. After all, the Russians have been in the news (not favorably). I want you to know that the Russian people are not Putin and are not responsible for his war crimes. The day after the invasion, my best friend, Misha, from St Petersburg wrote me, “Horribly shameful days, horribly shameful country. Heart shrinks for the Ukrainians, and it is irreversible. Mind resist to believing what is happening.”
I am taking a step back to tell you why I chose to commit to being with the Russians for nearly a year in my life during Gorbachev. I had been a middle school teacher teaching about the Russians for twenty-five years before I flew behind the Iron Curtain. I had come to understand that teaching about Marxism, Communism, and the Soviet Union deserved respect––and I made sure my students knew that. For me patriotism meant to be real about ourselves and real about the world beyond.
My schtick obviously focused on the Russians. For all I know, it may well have come from way back in my childhood.
I am in the assembly hall at School 169, on my second US-Soviet exchange. The school has gathered to celebrate The Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917. All the students were seated. On the stage the Director Rima Alexdrovna was seated at the center, surrounded by her assistants, teachers who would be speaking––and the veteran.
After a long opening celebrating the school and the Communist Party followed by a wonderful coral rendition, Rima stood again to speak: “We are honored to have with us a living example of the birth of our great republic. Everyone, please give him a warm welcome.”
He stood slowly, and in his dark suit, his lapels suffused with more than two dozen medals, he shuffled to the podium. As he began to speak, his voice hesitated, his Slavic-square, wrinkled face reflecting the weariness of his long life. His words came slowly. Students and teachers began to buzz among themselves.
Democracy in the USSR?
It was October 1988, my third visit to Zoya Anatolyevna’s tenth form class at School 21 in Moscow, the last of three in which I came to know her and her wonderful group of students, who’d been with her for eight years. A remarkable class––and remarkable that I was able to know them. Welcome!
Olya, one of the most outspoken students the last time we met, sprawled her lanky sixteen-year-old self at her desk in the back, her wispy, light brown hair flailing behind, her slender hands fidgeting with her pen, her papers, and her hair. She wanted more than she ought to ask for—and she asked anyway. She took up a lot of personal space like an American, and unlike most of her peers, who shared space with one another interlocking arms or resting a hand on a friend’s shoulder. On this day, she had a light blue sweater with oversized shoulder pads. But it was her ideas drew more attention than her appearance or personality. She thrust ideas onto her classmates, pummeled them with her passionate beliefs. Before I could ask the class for their perceptions of democracy, Olya—not unexpected—blurted out:
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.