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.
I am excited that my fifth book for teachers, Conversation Classrooms: A Profound Shift from delivery of information to Partnership (Rowman & Littlefield) will be out next month. It is the second edition of Teaching That Matters: Engaging Minds, Improving Schools. I was honored to be asked to make this revision. The new book is shorter, more concise, and has a better directed message. In creating partnerships with students thru conversation teachers see themselves on a bridge where they bring information to share that invites thinking, wondering, questioning, ideas, respect. Where mutual understanding is intrinsic, everyone free to express ideas, individuals having the right to speak, and everyone listens.
I don’t expect it to be a best seller, but I hope it has some impact. But if it changes the life of one teacher (as reportedly happened to a teacher, now in Spain, with my first book, Teaching from the Middle of the Room: Inviting Students to Learn), I will be grateful.
So, if my books are not best sellers, why do I persist in writing to teachers?
Looking Through the Fingers
It was November 1986. I was on holiday after teaching in Leningrad. I entered School 21 in Moscow on my own. I wandered up to the second floor, its door open. Students were talking and laughing—a girl playing a piano. Whoa, a piano being played in the middle of the morning in a Soviet school!
“I spied a tall young woman from across the room. I can still see her approaching with her pulled-back brown hair, blue sneakers, white rolled socks, stooped shoulders. Her twinkling eyes peered through pink-tinted myopic spectacles with ornate temples. With a broad grin, she limply shook my hand. “Good morning,” she said in a soft voice barely rising above the bedlam, “I’m Zoya Anatolyevna. Will you teach my children?”
Just like that. No assessment of who I was. Asking why I was there. She obviously knew I was a foreigner. In Moscow especially during Gorbachev may well have opened her to trust visitors. It was strange to feel this immediate trust. I did not question it.
Two years later she tells me that she and the director “looked through the fingers” (look but not see) to change Illya’s exam grade. Really?
Discrimination At Home
It’s 1968-69, my seventh year teaching social studies at Hanover Junior-Senior High in Hanover NH. The social studies curriculum, which had been updated, did not address covering issues as a school community, particularly the Vietnam War and racial discrimination. We were a privileged school isolated from society’s bigger issues. I decided to do something about it.
After holding two assemblies on the Vietnam War, one led by a Maryknoll priest who opposed the war, the other from a local veteran in support. Given their success, I proposed a three day symposium on racial discrimination to be held at the end of the first semester. It would feature the new NBC documentary, “One Nation Indivisible,” which focused on “white racism and black futility.” The plan was to show the film on the first day, followed by small discussion groups. Each group’s recorder wrote up notes that to be published in a magazine, “Discrimination: Mini-symposium for Seniors” to be distributed to participants the next day.
We regrouped on the third day with a panel of a professor, minister, parent, two students (one an inner-city student attending the school). The panel session was contentious, but not at all like what happened afterwards.
It was the end of my first week teaching as a US-Soviet exchange teacher in Leningrad in October 1986. In my green jacket with its leather elbow patches I had been a billiard ball cued by curiosity moving with random abandon throughout the school. I taught English to five classes a day to four-hundred children from seven to seventeen each week; I arrived early and stayed late. City officials had said to teach only three classes, take one Russian class, and leave for the day.
I plunged into the life of the school. I found my way into the class collectives and into the private lives of a few teachers and brave students. We met after school, in cafés, on the street, and in parks. All the while, students were forming their impressions of this American in his green jacket.
Each child is a drop of rain
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
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.
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
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
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!
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)
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: