Learning and Teaching in Eastern Europe

As I talked about in my last post, every Peace Corps Volunteer deals with their own specific kind of cultural assimilation/integration process. It differs from volunteer to volunteer, and it definitely differs between Peace Corps countries. As an education volunteer in Moldova, I entered into an educational system that has an actual governing body and works toward the achievement of various educational standards for their students. This has made my job both easy and hard in the eyes of the “traditional” Peace Corps service: it provides us with a definitive curriculum to follow, but it often stifles our creativity due to the necessity of following the curriculum/textbooks to the letter.

But, since everyone loves a good listacle, I thought I’d compile the top 10 biggest differences between Moldovan and American schools to give you a bit of insight as to what school life is like in my little corner of the world. You will see photos from the school that I am lucky enough to teach in for my 27 months of service.

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The front of my school. We have 470 students, grades 1-12.

1. Education is only compulsory until the age of 16.

Students in Moldova have the option of choosing to leave school at the end of their 9th grade year to pursue a technical degree at a trade school or college in the country, and these programs typically last two years. If students choose to stay and complete their education, they will be able to attend a university to further their studies after graduation from 12th grade. From my understanding, colleges in Moldova educate pupils on how to work in a service/trade field and, if students so choose, they can continue their education to obtain a higher degree at university upon completion of college or trade school.

2. Students begin learning foreign languages in 1st and 2nd grades.

When Moldovan students begin their formal education at the age of six, they begin learning Russian (which is widely spoken here, but is still considered a foreign language, as the official language of Moldova is Romanian). In 2nd grade, they begin learning English and will continue studies in both of these languages until they leave school, whether that be at the end of 9th grade or 12th grade. People living in Moldova see the importance of learning a foreign language because they understand that Romanian is not a widely spoken language. With the knowledge of Russian or English, they will be more marketable outside of Moldova since, unfortunately, it is the fastest shrinking country in Europe, and almost half of the population works outside of its boundaries.

3. Class periods are only 45 minutes long.

Forty-five minutes is only 15 minutes less than a standard American class period, so it’s not that big of a deal, right? Yeah, that’s what I thought too, but oh, what I would give to have those additional 15 minutes now. My partner teachers and I are expected to deliver an entire lesson within a 45-minute time span, which is actually more like 35 minutes since we spend about 10 minutes yelling at the students to be quiet (more on disciplinary methods later). Within that prorated time, we are expected to cover all the aspects of foreign language teaching: listening, speaking, reading, writing, and grammar. It is truly not feasible and, coming from a university setting where I had 90 minutes to wax lyrical about various topics, these time constraints are probably one of the biggest stressors I face while at work.

Here is the entryway of my school.

4. Disciplinary methods here are… well… different than in the States.

Moldova is a post-Soviet state and some of the practices that were employed in schools during that time haven’t exactly fallen by the wayside just yet; among those are disciplinary methods that are utilized by most of the teachers that I have come into contact with. I have tried multiple “Americanized” behavioral management techniques to get my kiddos to quiet down (standing silently at the front of the classroom, standing beside the students making noise and placing my hand on their desk or their shoulder, etc.), but the only thing that seems to semi-work is for my partners to slam their textbook on the desk while screaming for the students to pay attention. It is also not rare for me to see teachers grab students by the ears to move them across the room back into their seats. And, unlike in American schools, the students do not begin crying, they do not threaten to call their parents… they just take it and continue on with their lives. Definitely something I am still getting used to seeing.

5. The daily schedule for students here is also drastically different than we would see in America.

As in America, school schedules differ between schools here, so I will just speak from my point of view. Our day starts at 8 a.m. and lasts until 1:30 or 2:05, depending on how many lessons students have that day. There are typically six lessons a day, each lasting 45 minutes, with multiple 5- and 10- minute breaks, and one 15-minute break in between. Students in Moldova over 4th grade are not served lunch at school, so many of them eat once they arrive home after lessons. In my school, lunch is prepared for 1st-4th grades and students of vulnerable families to ensure that they have at least one meal that day. My school administration is fantastic in anticipating and making the effort to meet the needs of poor students, and this is just one of the ways they attempt to reach out and help.

Extracurricular activities aren’t really a thing in Moldova… there are a few sports teams, a girls choral group, and a traditional dance group, but outside of that, students are not involved with things after school. Most of them are expected to go home, work around the house, and complete the absurd amount of homework that is given to them daily.

One of our English/French classrooms.

6. The inability to think critically.

This is another one of my major stressors because, coming from America where we are taught to think critically from the time we are very young, it is frustrating to teach this skill that is rarely used here, but is so necessary for future success. Education in the Soviet era focused on rote memorization, much like it is in modern-day China. The Ministry of Education has started to place a bigger emphasis on developing critical thinking, but teachers who were educated under the Soviet system are expected to teach their students a skill that they have very little experience in working with. This often causes apathy in regards to this impactful analytical skill. My students struggle to answer “Why?” questions because they immediately turn to their textbooks to find an answer instead of synthesizing the material and making inferences.

7. The grading system.

Contrasting with the A-F grading system we have in America, Moldovan teachers grade their students on a 1-10 scale. A passing grade here only requires a 33% as opposed to the 60% needed in the majority of American schools. Grades are also given somewhat subjectively here… certain students receive certain grades because of their previous performance or based solely on the family they were raised in. This is an issue that I have raised with my partners, and we have created rubrics by which to grade our students so that they are given objective grades based on current performance instead of any past actions.

Grade books are also 100% handwritten… there is zero technology used in controlling or distributing grades, which is not surprising considering there is no privacy in regards to grades. After tests, my partners will announce all of the students’ grades aloud in front of the entire class, and this is common practice in every school in Moldova. As a Type A person who was extremely OCD about her grades, this is my own personal nightmare, and it still makes me so uncomfortable even though they aren’t my grades being shared. Can you imagine a teacher in the U.S. reading aloud all of the test scores of everyone in the class? Phew, the backlash would be crazy!

Chemistry classroom where another one of my partners and I teach classes because she does not have her own classroom.

8. The prevalence and normalization of cheating in the classroom.

Another fight that I have taken on is to cut down on cheating in my classroom. Moldova is a community-based society that functions on the idea that when everyone succeeds, the country succeeds. As commendable as this is, this belief carries itself into the classroom in the form of cheating. My students will straight up walk across the room during a test to help one of their classmates with a question because these actions have never been punished. As an American who comes from an educational culture that completely demonizes cheating, I was baffled the first time I saw this happen. Every time I have cracked down on my students for cheating, I get the response, “But this is Moldova, it’s normal.” Which spurs a conversation about how this behavior is not normal and not accepted in many other developed countries across the world. My students hate taking tests in my class, but I feel strongly about this and it is a fight that I will keep on fighting until I leave in July 2018.

9. The lack of standardized testing.

Again, coming from an American perspective, standardized testing was a normal part of school starting in 3rd grade. Our regular school grades kept us accountable while the standardized tests kept the teachers and school accountable. I hated testing at the time, but now, working in a system with limited testing, I see its benefits. In Moldova, students are tested at the end of 9th grade and 12th grade. The test at the end of 9th grade determines if they are prepared to continue their high school studies or if they should pursue a different track. The tests at the end of 12th grade, referred to as the Baccalaureate exams, determines whether they are accepted into university or not. They are tested over every major subject they take in 10th-12th grades, and it is extremely stressful for them. Since there are no tests to hold teachers and schools accountable, the regular semester grades for students do so instead. This practice, however, encourages grades to be inflated in the grade books so that teachers can keep their jobs and schools are not punished for having underachieving students.

10. The lack of classroom materials and resources.

This is an issue that plagues lower income schools in America as well, but it is something that definitely affects the school culture here. I am lucky enough to be placed in a school located in a “larger” town within my region (it’s really only 7,000 people…), but since we are in a municipal center, my school has more financial resources than others. I walked in one day last semester and was giddy when I saw that my classrooms had received new chalkboards that I could actually write on… yes, chalkboards. Most schools only supply their teachers with one box of chalk at the beginning of the year and anything after that must be supplied by the teacher.

Many schools do not have enough classrooms for teachers to have their own rooms, so the teachers move from room to room instead of the students. If teachers want to print and/or copy tests, they must provide their own paper for the copier/printer IF the school has one. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we work with our partners to teach them how to be more creative and innovative with the resources they do have… for some, that means making materials from paper and markers and, for others, it means leading technology workshops and teaching technology integration in the classroom.

Din Moldova cu Dragoste (From Moldova with Love), Morgan

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