Posts tagged Soviet education

Encounters with Soviet People (Part II)

Perhaps some of my readers may think it odd to write about Soviet people when the Soviet Union was dissolved 17-18 years ago but the Soviet mentality still exists.  I know, because I will be teaching English this fall semester once again in Almaty, Kazakhstan at a “westernized” university. The following quotes I typed up ring true even today in Kazakhstan.  My guest writer, Frank R. Thoms, for this series on “Encounters with Soviet People” was maybe a Fulbright Scholar for several months in Alma Ata (as it was known back during Soviet times).  I have never met this writer but appreciate his unpublished document he left behind with my friend Tatyana about his experiences in secondary schools, specialized schools of English in Almaty.  Maybe some of my Kazakhstani teaching colleagues knew of Frank R. Thoms.  I would love to meet Zoya of whom he writes about.

p. 99 – “It was not many years ago, however, when the evaluation of Soviet teachers was based on the performance of their students.  Though this practice has been abolished, its residue remained.  National Teachers Day aside, teachers do not receive much respect from students or parents.”


p. 108 – “I preferred to teach from the curriculum, to mingle with the texts of their lives, their daily fare, rather than to use my own material.  It was enough difference that I was an American.  Though I enjoyed addressing larger groups, I preferred the classroom where I could mix with the students and their textbooks.  Somehow I felt that the texts would be a bond between us after I left.  As the same texts are used in all schools, the lessons become a shared memory within the school and throughout the city and the country.  Mention “What is More Useful” or “The Black Cat” and all students of English in special schools will remember.”


p. 110 – “I then labeled the Stages of History, putting each one higher and to the right of the other.  Everyone recognized what I was doing.  I then wrote ‘Socialist” slightly higher and to the right of “Capitalist”, and put “Communist” higher than that.  I added another live above “Communist” and put a question mark.

“Marx said the dialectical process is inevitable,” I continued.  “Do you agree?” Everyone nodded.  “It must go on and on.  If that is true, how can the end of history be Communism?”…The students were perplexed.  I think it was more than my American dialect, as they had met American teachers before.  But it might have been the first time in their schooling that they had been asked to evaluate Marx’s theoretical realities.  School learning required that they memorize texts or at least be able to retell it.  With so much to cover at each lesson there was no time for discussion, for reflection.  By the eighth year many students became numb to the disparity between the texts and their own realities; some were already cynical and most were bored.  In asking them to consider the implications of what they had read was another matter.”


p. 111 – “In the classroom, after all, a teacher is a teacher and students are students, adults and children teaching each other, learning from each other—at least that’s the way I have always done it.  I cannot see myself as “the teacher,” the one who knows, and “the students,” the ones who must learn from me.  It has never worked that way…

Zoya was fascinated with my teaching methods.  After the lesson on Marx, she said she wished she had been one of my students.  “You teach them to think.”


p. 112 – “The ebullient feeling that had permeated the room during the break vanished.  Her [Zoya] voice took on another rhythm.  The structure of the lesson in the text seemed to absorb her personality.  It was as if an Inspector had walked in, an Inspector who looked for the lesson to be performed as designed in the teacher’s text with each question, each explanation, each step to be carried out exactly as written.  I had heard that Inspectors could be that precise.  Zoya became “Soviet teacher” and her students become “Soviet students.”  The lesson materialized as if it had come from the book I read about Soviet education.  The children responded to her as if they were automatons, and she spoke to them as if she were on a language-lab tape.  When in pairs practicing dialogues, her students spoke to each other – back and forth, back and forth—without feelings, without emotion.  Nobody was having fun.  Nobody was charged with energy.  Nobody was thinking.  Everybody appeared bored.  They acted bored.  Yet everyone was involved.


…the lessons were more methodical than mine as teachers asked predictable questions, and students responded with predictable answers.  Because they were speaking from memory and retelling the texts, participation was guaranteed.  Besides, Soviet teachers can not tolerate silence as there is too much to cover.  Nor do they allow for mistakes as students are subject to being graded every day.  Therefore, methodical routines improve chances for success.  Success is better for everyone.  For students, good grades mean better choices after graduation; for teachers, they mean better evaluations.


…They spoke when asked and presented dialogues—retold, repeated, regurgitated without hesitation.  The voices were robotic—Zoya’s as well.  And the rhythm of the lesson, a relentless pattern: a question, hands raised at the elbow, standing, speaking, sitting; another question, hands raised at the elbow, standing, speaking, sitting.  If a student hesitated, the rhythm paused…No time for silence, no allowance for patience.  Too much to cover, too much to do.”




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Encounters with Soviet People (Part I)

The following quotes are from an unpublished book by Frank R. Thoms tentatively titled “Through Their Eyes, Encounters with Soviet People.”  I never met this man who was probably a middle school teacher from, I believe, the East Coast who visited in Kazakhstan in the early 1990s.  I received Mr. Thoms manuscript from my friend and assistant, Tatyana Kazanina, when I was training 30 Peace Corps volunteers in the summer of 1993.  I’m thankful for Mr. Thoms asute observations of what the former Soviet Union educational system was like over 15 years ago because it helps me to understand the university where I am teaching in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Regrettably, my teacher friend, Tatyana Kazanina died May of 1997.  I am not able to ask her how she came to know and have Mr. Thoms writings in her possession.  I hope to meet him one day, to compare notes with him, if he is still alive.

Through Their Eyes, Encounters with Soviet People by Frank R. Thoms


p. 28 – Ï am in a Soviet classroom, I thought to myself, an American visitor with his camera and cranberry Land’s End coat, taking pictures to bring home to show his students.  Pictures of anonymous children filling the room like a wall-to-wall carpet, packed together.  Why should they be crowded together in the largest country in the world, I asked myself.  They had stood up as one, they sat down as one.  They looked at me.  They kept looking.


p. 36 – “…Tatyana invited the students to express their own opinions as they discussed this interpretation…She assumed her students knew the material and invited them to use their knowledge in search of deeper understandings…Nor was I surprised that I had been invited to observe “the best English teacher in the school”(as Anna told me later).  I did not expect, however, to observe a teacher in a Soviet classroom who preferred to listen to her students and to encourage them to express their ideas.  I had understood from my own reading and from what I had learned that morning in the Director’s office that Soviet education was a pressure cooker operating by rote memory and repetition with no time for deliberation.”


p. 40 “Tatyana Popelyanskaya was another story.  She was the best teacher I saw that day, perhaps the best teacher of English I have seen in Soviet schools.  Only one lesson and I had felt her presence in her pupil’s minds.  She dared to ask them to think—before glasnost had opened the way.  I would love to have been her student.  Was she a set-up for vulnerable visitors, the icing on the cake…in a ‘show school?’ She was “the best,”as Anna had said, a little lady on stage in her tidy room…a performer to enamor all observers with the quality of foreign language teaching in the Soviet Union.  I was enamored to be sure, but for different reasons.  She was a teacher.  Not a Soviet teacher but a teacher.  I imagined her with my eighth graders, sitting in our circle, engaging us to think beyond our words, enticing us to discover more than we ventured to find.”


p. 50 “Children learn to learn together from the first year of school.  I was naïve to think that the students would take the initiative to discover their own solution to the giant conflict.  That was not the Soviet way.  It is a given that all Soviet children struggle for peace.  Period…Open-ended approaches are an anathema to Soviet education.  Alternatives, choices, speculation, unresolved outcomes—these do not fit a prescribed curriculum, particularly a national curriculum, one that has been designed and produced at the Ministry of Education in Moscow.  At home my [American] students insist upon creating unique responses; Soviet students, on the other hand, seek to discover what is the right response.”


p. 62 Ëlvira was the outer matryoshka doll of School 185, the face of the school.  More like a Gorbachev than a Brezhnev, she created its image and shaped its thinking and performance.  She held the reins firmly.  It was her school and she knew it.  Her discipline was strict and evident.  Her sharp voice could cut through the bedlam in the corridors at any time, though she rarely chose to use it.  At faculty meetings she chastised those who failed to live up to her standards.  No one was spared.


p. 63 Ïn a society corrupted with hypocrisy and overloaded with rules and regulations, students (and teachers) welcomed opportunities to be defiant.  Pinning buttons under their lapels was one of many such defiances in a system that had ladened their lives with endless demands for proper behavior.  For some of the students defiance was their favorite pastime whether it meant skipping lessons, copying homework, cheating on tests and exams, wearing improper uniforms.  Feigning sickness was the favorite for many, teachers and students alike.

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