Frank Thoms


A Teaching Life: In the US, England
                        & Russia


People, Not Putin, and other thoughts…

Oct 13, 2022 by Frank Thoms

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.

Each child is a drop of rain

Sep 17, 2023 by Frank Thoms

Imagine you are an English teacher sitting in an auditorium with your fellow teachers in Leningrad, November, 1987. This American exchange teacher is at the podium. He’s been invited to speak by a city Educational Board supervisor. At the end of his short talk, he says:

“I implore you, then, to step off Moscow’s curriculum train and take time to listen to your students. You will be better for it. Each child is a drop of rain. Cherish each drop, love each drop. You should not simply listen to the storm.”

Why would he (it was I) say that? Because in my experience teaching two of Leningrad’s special English language schools, students, teachers, and directors were overwhelmed with the Party’s curricula that pushed and pushed. Lessons had no time for conversation, deliberation, discussing, arguing. When I had my turn with classes, the sense of relief was obvious. Students (all ages) jumped at the chance to engage in conversation. They loved it. I loved it.

So, what were Soviet lessons like?

A Teaching Life, the Next Step

Aug 26, 2023 by Frank Thoms


For me it began in Hanover, NH, in the fall, 1962, when I was hired to be a teacher of ninth-grade European history and one class of seniors. I expected that as my fate for years to come. But in that year, a twist: Instead, I co-taught seniors with my department chairman and remarkable teacher and mentor, Delmar W. Goodwin. The next year, he had me teaching my my own course with eighth graders. By 1971, I’d also been a part-time administrator, entered a PhD program in elementary education, and taught in a progressive primary in Oxfordshire, England.

I returned to Hanover from England and was rehired (I resigned in 1969 to have money to go to graduate school). I taught a self-contained fifth grade employing the practices I learned in England. For the next six years I created an open classroom for fifth, then fifth-sixth, then sixth-seventh-eighth grades. The following ten years I returned to teaching social studies to eighth graders. From there, I taught English to Soviets and after eighth graders in a private school in Worcester, Massachusetts. My last iteration: teaching teachers for twelve years.

Why am I telling you this? To answer: What follows?


Memory 1986

Jul 29, 2023 by Frank Thoms

Now that I am in the last phase of my life, I am exploring my earlier years. Just today, I saw a picture taken in 1986 of a fellow US-Soviet exchange teacher and me sitting in a grand restaurant in Moscow. We are obviously in serious conversation about what I don't remember.

She and I were two Americans open and curious about a people in Churchill’s aphorism, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside and enigma.” We were part of a larger contingent of teachers who had come at the behest of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Communist wanting to be part of the larger world. We were there heeding his invitation. Why?

Ambassador Plenipotentiary of Peace, Love, and Friendship

Jun 25, 2023 by Frank Thoms

It’s October 1986. I am the exchange teacher at Leningrad’s School Nº 185, my first Soviet school. It was a whirlwind ten weeks. So many wonderful moments. Teaching students seven-to-seventeen, hall monitoring, playing at breaks, drinking compote in the canteen, lunch with teachers, excursions, endless conversations, so many happenings after school.

And then this, what some 6th graders presented to me. Their 8” by 10” document had a banner across the top with the word ‘Credentials.’ Below in large black-ink handwriting:

‘The 6th graders of Leningrad school N 185 appoint Mr Thoms Ambassador Plenipotentiary of Peace, Love, and Friendship. Mr.Thoms is grated full diplomatic immunity to anything that stands between our two countries.’

It was signed by twenty 6th graders (!) from one of the English sections I taught.

This was one of many gestures I receievd toward our friendship. Each one touched my heart. Why did they happen?

The Partnership Classroom

Jun 17, 2023 by Frank Thoms

Americans seem not to think. At least at least a large percentage. They appear not to know how. They prefer to parrot social media sites, other people’s thinking. Schools have to take their share of responsibility with their focus on teaching to tests rather than cultivating critical thinking.

It is true in the social studies, a field in which I spent 40 years. Its traditional methods have been based on delivering information to students sitting passively at desks and requiring regurgitation of the information on tests. Desks remain in rows. Textbook chapters dictate the curriculum. Many teachers talk most of the time. Students listen and take notes. Homework is assigned. We need to ask, What is happening in the students’ minds? What is happening in the teacher’s mind? Questions worth pondering.

In my second year of teaching, my department head offered me a way out of this paradigm. He moved me from a textbook-oriented-ninth-grade European history asking me design my own designed area studies course in the eighth grade. It focused on South America, South Africa, and Russia and the Soviet Union. My teaching since then has never been the same. What options do today’s teachers have? It’s conversation!

Gorbachev's Invitation

Jun 04, 2023 by Frank Thoms

Russian Diary: I learn that Mikhail Gorbachev is summoning foreigners to visit his beloved country. I decide to come in October, 1985. My fellow travelers and I pass through customs at Leningrad’s Pulkovo 2 airport. A grandmotherly Russian greets us, “I am Nina, your Intourist guide.” She takes us to our bus what will be our daily home. We arrive at our international hotel. We eat a small meal prepared for us before bed. I am on Russian soil!

What compelled me to come? It began in the spring of 1964, the first of twenty-five years  in Hanover, New Hampshire, teaching Marxism, Russian history and Soviet Communism with eighth graders. I challenged students to understand Marxism and Communism as legitimate ideologies; we role played a Soviet classroom complete with Pioneer uniforms and red scarves; read The Communist Manifesto; I set up Co-opoly on a Monopoly board in which students played to share, not to win; we digested in intimate detail George Orwell’s Animal Farm; assessed the Cold War threat of atomic and hydrogen bombs; absorbed large black-and-white images of Hiroshima victims with big keloids on their bodies; and viewed the films, “The Day After” and “Atomic Cafe.”


My Oxfordshire Diary (2)

May 28, 2023 by Frank Thoms

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

May 20, 2023 by Frank Thoms

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

May 13, 2023 by Frank Thoms

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

Apr 30, 2023 by Frank Thoms

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

Apr 23, 2023 by Frank Thoms

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

Apr 15, 2023 by Frank Thoms

“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?

Apr 07, 2023 by Frank Thoms

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.

The Veteran

Apr 01, 2023 by Frank Thoms

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?

Mar 19, 2023 by Frank Thoms

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

Mar 09, 2023 by Frank Thoms

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

Feb 19, 2023 by Frank Thoms

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?”


Feb 12, 2023 by Frank Thoms

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

Feb 04, 2023 by Frank Thoms

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.