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College Members Abroad
Teaching in the Land of Genghis Khan
kahn.jpg (16943 bytes) This ger, a traditional home of Mongolian herders, sits on the edge of the Gobi desert. As is customary, the door faces south. There are a number of taboos associated with traditional homes – it is forbidden to turn your back to the Buddhist altar, tread on the threshold when you walk over it, lean against the support columns, furniture or walls or walk counterclockwise.

I trained teachers in the summer of 1999 in a place that most people consider uncharted and exotic – in Mongolia, the land of Genghis Khan.

By Maria Nebesny

The Republic of Mongolia is experiencing drastic political and economic changes that have had a severe impact on the country’s education system. Schools have merged, kindergartens are being abolished and teachers are continuing to lose their jobs. The average salary of a teacher is US$24 a month, but salaries haven’t been paid in months and many have had to take second and third jobs.

Project Overseas is a joint effort between the Canadian Teachers’ Federation and the Canadian International Development Agency to improve the education of teachers and strengthen teacher unions.

I first saw an advertisement for the project when I was a rookie teacher. In 1998, when I had the five years requisite teaching experience, I applied. The letter came early in 1999 that I would be going to Mongolia – a large, landlocked, sparsely populated Central Asian country wedged between Russia and China, with vast mountain steppes, grasslands and desert.

This came as a bit of a shock to me; I had had visions of French Africa for many years. However, my mother pointed out that it made perfect sense since I read and write the Cyrillic alphabet which is widely used in this region. It was a skill that would come in quite handy once I found myself searching for supermarkets, reading building signs and trying to find throat lozenges in a pharmacy, and I was delighted when I could join in on Ukrainian songs with the Mongolian teachers!

Our Canadian team was made up of four teachers of varied backgrounds. A part-time ESL teacher from British Columbia, who was heading to Mongolia for the second year in a row, was the team leader. Two retired teachers who had both participated in other projects accompanied us – an ESL consultant from Ottawa and a high school English teacher representing the Quebec teacher’s union.

We travelled to the capital city Ulaan Baatar (meaning “Red Hero,” a holdover from the years spent as a Russian dependent) via Beijing. My expectation of seeing a run-down, Soviet-style city with row upon row of apartment blocks, broken sidewalks, peeling paint and unmowed lawns proved to be correct. However, it was fascinating to see the contrasts of Chinese and Russian influences, Buddhism (whatever temples were not destroyed) and Shamanism.

kahn2.1.jpg (76161 bytes) Ulaan Baatar, the capital city of Mongolia, reveals the influences of the west and the east in its skyline. The city was founded in 1639 as a monastic centre, but many of its temples have been destroyed.

The great city began as a nomadic town in 1639 and is nestled among hills that stretch as far as the eye can see. More than half of the country’s 2.6 million people live in cities. Urbanization has brought modern ways and western dress, but many Mongolians still wear the traditional silk robe deel, and livestock or the occasional rider on horseback trots through into the city’s outskirts. Traditional Mongolians live in felt tents called gers or yurts and are herders. It is the country with the highest number of horses per capita. The horses are very short, but I learned very quickly that it is an insult to call them ponies.

There are an increasing number of tourists, teachers and development workers in Mongolia and the use of English is spreading rapidly after many years of Soviet rule. We were asked to teach methodology to English teachers and to write an education plan and curriculum for Grades 5 to 10. Mongolian children may begin school as early as age 3. Primary school is from Grades 1 to 4 and secondary is from Grades 5 to 10. Russian or English instruction begins in Grade 5 and continues through to the final year, Grade 10.

Many of the course participants were formally trained as teachers of the Russian language and had only 10 months of English training comprised of traditional foreign language teaching methods. With old chalkboards and meagre supplies, teachers face enormous challenges and this project may be their only opportunity to develop additional skills.

Half of the country’s population is under the age of 15. Of the country’s 943,000 children, 250,000 live in poverty. I encountered many of the 4,000 street kids, who would run after me, calling denghi (money). Many parents cannot afford to keep their children in school and many children live with a single parent. A number of female teachers in my own class explained that they left their partners due to alcoholism. There are 16 centres for children in Mongolia and I was saddened by a visit to an orphanage. Malnutrition has delayed the physical and mental development of so many.

Over 50 teachers from the city and various provinces were registered in the course and provided with bus money, two notebooks, two pens, a group photo, a daily snack (salty tea and biscuits), lunch (greasy mutton stew or mutton dumplings, rice and a few traces of carrot) and a copy of our newly produced curriculum.

My first impressions of the teachers was their lovely, high, bulbous cheekbones and their one long name. Mongolian names were difficult to remember and pronounce at first . The patronymic comes first as an initial, then a given name they use when addressing one another. There is usually a shortened version as well, which could be a river or mountain name. We had fun translating the names into English; for example, ‘Tsetseg’ (flower) was a common compound in many girl’s names – Altantsetseg (short form is Altai, which is a mountain range), Chuluntsetseg, Tsetsegmaa. Other lovely compounds had meanings such as strong, iron, crystal, rock and peace.

There were three classes of approximately 17 students. Each class was assigned a “co-tutor,” a participant from the previous year who had displayed high proficiency in English. Classes took place in a very brightly painted secondary school. It seems that teachers are required to paint the school before they leave on holidays in June!

Three of us taught Monday to Friday from 9:00 to noon with a 15 minute break, and our ESL specialist sat at the union’s computer with the Mongolian project co-ordinator and project translator, working on the curriculum. Favourite activities in my own classroom were tongue twisters, co-operative games, verb tense work, songs, journal writing and conversation. From 1:00 to 2:30, the three classes were combined into two groups and the Canadian team rotated to teach. The many supplies I had brought along such as chart paper, post-it notes and an inflatable globe delighted my students.

Mongolian teachers listen attentively in their English-language class, surrounded by tapestries that record their country’s rich heritage.

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We held special events that helped with the teachers’ English and were a lot of fun. Friday afternoons were set aside for field trips to museums, an art gallery or a temple. On Canada Day, we decorated the classroom with flags and tourism information, set up a scavenger hunt on provincial and territorial facts, sang “O Canada” and “This Land is Your Land” and ate maple candy.

On Mongolia Day, we Canadians were treated to songs, dancing lessons, traditional games, fortunes told with sheep bones, and mare’s milk. Other English speakers were invited for a special day as well: an Australian who runs an orphanage, a Canadian from the consulate, a Scottish teacher with Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO) and an English VSO organizer. This event gave the Mongolian teachers an opportunity to hear various native speakers of English and to ask questions about their work in Mongolia. The book launch we held to celebrate the new curriculum was a highlight, with faxes, an e-mail from the CBC, champagne and a visit from the honorary consul of Canada.

Despite the teachers’ relatively limited English-language training, their level of fluency was impressive. The Mongolian teachers were very dedicated, professional and grateful for the new methodologies, materials, curriculum and friendship. Although they gained independence peacefully, the price they now pay is high.

However, the crisis in their country, lack of pedagogical resources and supplies, harsh winters and the endless years under Russian rule did not seem to dampen their spirits. They are very proud of their nomadic way of life under blue skies, clean air and rivers; national sports of horse racing, archery, and wrestling; throat singing, music with horse head fiddles. There was a sweet eagerness in the sharing of their fascinating history and culture; they had so little yet they gave me so much.

Maria Nebesny teaches junior kindergarten and elementary-level French at Unionville Public School. To learn more about Project Overseas, contact the international programs department of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation at 613-232-1505.