The most wonderful time of the year… school’s out!

Latvians Online wanted to find out how new recruit Imanta Nīgale is faring, teaching in the Latvian school system with the Iespējamā misija program. Nīgale, a recent graduate originally from the United States, is currently teaching English using Iespējamā misija methodology at the Lithuanian School in Riga.

It’s the end of the semester.  My class is decorated with a beautiful Christmas tree, brought to us by one of my students and her father.  Everyone is dressed up, dancing to music, eating self-baked cakes and enjoying the final day together before the holiday vacation.  This is the life of a fifth grade teacher; trying to differentiate the happy screams from the hurtful ones, testing my patience and the many levels of loud my ears can tolerate.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but my greatest wonder comes from the inner satisfaction that I’ve conquered my first semester as an English teacher with Iespējamā misija.  I’ve succeeded in teaching my students some English and have had plenty to reflect on along the way.

If I think about how I felt at the beginning of the school year compared to this moment, what has changed the most is that now I have a much more realistic view of what my responsibilities are and am finally beginning to understand the ins and outs of the school system.  What’s even more is that I have had an eventful few months getting to know my students and now know what works and what doesn’t work with each group.  This, for me is one of the greatest comforts: to know what needs work, to know the goals of my students, especially when it comes to learning English, and to know how I can help them reach their goals.  Over the summer, when I received my position, I was very hesitant to have been put with high school students, having worked mainly with younger grades in the past.  However, I’m surprised how much I enjoy working with students who already have a foundation in English, which lets me come in and help them develop their skills further, giving them cultural perspective and real-life applications for using the language.

I’m lucky to be in a school that is already accustomed to IM teachers and so, my transition into the teaching collective hasn’t been all that difficult.  But I have noticed a gradually greater sense of openness from the beginning of the year up until the end of this semester.  As always with new colleagues it takes a while to warm up to each other and even more so in a society that tends to be closed off and weary of new-comers, especially strange Americans!  My fellow English teacher has played a strong role in supporting my transition, giving pointers and tips about the classes that she’s worked with in the past.  Iespējamā misija also makes sure that we each have a special “mentor” in the school who takes extra care to guide us and is our go-to person in case of any questions.  Having this sort of security blanket has made it much easier for someone who at times has felt truly lost in the shuffle of everyday school life.

That being said, it has been at times difficult to keep my set of expectations in check with what the school environment is like in Latvia.  I went to a small school in the countryside in Pennsylvania and now find myself in a minority school in the middle of a big city.  One of things that was new to me was the concept of class-looping, which means that the same set of students are in a class together, in all subjects, all of their schooling years.  This system is used all throughout Latvia and in other places as well, such as Waldorf schools.  As much as I appreciate the sense of stability it gives to students, in my case, I enjoyed the fresh start with every school year, not knowing who will be in your class or which teacher you will have.  In my opinion this taught me to adapt, to be able to interact with different classmates and teachers.  A few times now, I’ve noticed the negative effect of this system, which often results in high competition between classes and the resistance to interact with one another.  The lack of flexibility and readiness to go with the flow has also shown itself, even in such simple cases as rearranging desks for a new class activity,.

One of the topics we’ve discussed quite intensely in our training at Iespejamā misija is the project method and how it is perceived in Latvian schools.  This method, which encourages learning through doing, using interactive, hands-on approaches is not fully understood by teachers, parents and students.  It is rarely used as an everyday method in the classroom and is left to the “Project week” which happens once during the school year.  Unfortunately, this week is looked upon as a second holiday for students and a headache for parents who are often left scrambling to complete some kind of project for their children.  Our project week is still to come – in February- so I’m eager to see how things roll out at our school.  Students have already been offered project themes by teachers and have had to sign up with them (in typical Latvian style, with an “iesniegums”- official application).

If anything, this is a reflection of how post-Soviet education is still in transition and as much as everyone may agree that the project method is “good”, there is a lack of understanding and full comprehension from all parties about how this project and others should be executed.  Even when using everyday classroom projects, this semester has been a lot about teaching the basics – how to read and to understand a rubric grading system, what defines a quality product for a presentation or brochure, and what elements are necessary for presenting in front of the class.  Many times I’ve taken these skills for granted, having been taught them repeatedly since middle school years, that I’ve forgotten that now it’s my turn to teach these skills and that they are not second nature for everyone.

I’m very grateful for the support system that IM gives to its teachers.  We get to meet every other weekend to discuss various aspects of teaching, methods and personal development, sometimes covering topics that may not seem all that relevant, but show up later in the classroom.  While at training sessions, every free chance we get is spent sharing our experiences, receiving feedback on tried methods, listening to what others are doing and gleaning what might be useful for our own classes.  Most of us have established closer relationships with one or two people that are our “go-to” phone calls when we’re feeling especially down or need to share a special success.  It all comes down to the fact that there is no judgement in our successes or failures, we’re all here to learn and the learning experience is so much richer when we can share it together.

I have to admit that balancing everyday school tasks with IM training and a constant load of additional assignments takes a toll on a person.  However, I can’t say we weren’t warned about the change in priorities our lives would take once we started work and it’s something we were well aware of when we entered the program – the next two years are dedicated to school, methodology and self-development.  It teaches you to plan your time exceptionally well and as long as you plan ahead it really isn’t that bad!  In many cases,  IM training has become a refreshing break from the everyday classroom setting because it’s always a joy to be in a room of such talented and motivated adults, all working towards common goals!

Looking ahead, I’m definitely ready for a well-deserved break, but it won’t all be relaxing.  At the end of the semester students are asked to fill out a questionnaire about our performance with the goal of receiving honest feedback and constructive criticism to know where we need to develop our lessons further.  It will be interesting to read and to analyze my students’ responses and to take the time to reflect more in depth on my work so far.  What I’ve realized is that even if teaching may not be in my long-term plan, these skills of self-analysis and the ability to critically look at my own work will forever be transferable to other jobs.  I see myself and my colleagues growing into the leaders Iespējamā misija strives to support and produce and I’m excited for what lies ahead!

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