By Maria Nebesny
The Republic of Mongolia is experiencing drastic political and economic changes that
have had a severe impact on the countrys 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 havent 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.
A HANDY SKILL
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 teachers 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.
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.
TRADITION AND MODERNITY MINGLE
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 countrys 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 citys 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
MANY CHILDREN IN POVERTY
Half of the countrys population is under the age of 15. Of the
countrys 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 girls 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
Three of us taught Monday to Friday from 9:00 to noon with a 15 minute break, and our
ESL specialist sat at the unions 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.
teachers listen attentively in their English-language class, surrounded by tapestries that
record their countrys rich heritage.
SPECIAL EVENTS ENLIVENED CLASSES
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 mares 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