Tuesday, April 5, 2016

What do we actually do at school?

I realize that I haven't written about what we actually do at Akdeniz University. One of the major let down's of my Fulbright experience has been my underutilization at the school. In a nutshell, we work with two types of students: graduate level and "prep" (undergraduate) students.

Graduate students
Teaching IELTS prep to spring graduate students.
We facilitate after school speaking clubs for graduate students (formally) and get called in as substitute teachers for prep students (informally). Our graduate students are the "chosen ones" by the Turkish government; as they have all completed their bachelor’s, have a prestigious scholarship to learn and master English, pursue a higher degree in their desired field, and then come back and serve their country. Our role is to compliment their intense six-month English IELTS course at Akdeniz University, by making ourselves available for a few hours a week after school. IELTS is a English language test similar to TOEFL, taken primarily by foreigners to demonstrate their English comprehension abilities. It is often used by colleges and graduate schools to measure an international student's English aptitude. Upon completion of their coursework at Akdeniz, and taking their IELTS exam, these graduate students go to either the UK or the USA (their choice and score-depending) to immerse in another six-month English course to perfect their speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills. After that, they must apply and get accepted to a master's or doctoral program in these countries. Depending on the number of years they spend abroad, my understanding is that they have to serve in the Turkish government for twice as long as that. For example, if a student’s master’s degree in cotton genetics takes two years, they have to commit four years of service.

When we first got to Akdeniz, the administration took one full month to give us a formal schedule. Moreover, they did not inform us who our students would be, what the IELTS exam is, how we can best prepare these students, and what exactly our role is (teacher? supplement? friend?). Despite their lack of communication, we gathered bits and pieces from our colleagues and the students’ official English teachers and found methods and resources to help our students. I have never taken the IELTS test, but based on my conversations with my students, it seems slightly similar to the SAT or GRE in that there are verbal reading, comprehension, and vocabulary sections on it, as well as a timed writing section. However unlike those two tests that I'm familiar with, there is also a listening and speaking portion that is graded by examiner on the day of the test. As speaking club facilitators, we figured our role was to focus on speaking. After all, we are native speakers who can best help them with their pronunciation and everyday mechanics and nuances of the English language—of which there are many; for someone who also learned English as a second language, I can attest from personal experience. Spellings are rarely phonetics and there are more exceptions than rules to memorize.

We have been heavily using this website as a resource to help our students prepare for the speaking portion. We give them mock questions, time their responses, and provide feedback. Here's an example of part 1, 2, and 3 of a potential IELTS speaking exam for the topic of “Environment.”

Part 1
Are there any environmental problems in your country?
Do you take an interest in nature?
Do you or your family take steps to help the environment?
Part 2
Describe an environmental problem that has been in the news.  You should say
  • when this was
  • where the event happened
  • what actually took place
and say how you felt about this problem.

Part 3
What do you think is the main danger the world faces in terms of the environment?
What examples are there of how we damage the natural world?
In which ways do we respond well to environmental problems?

Prep students
Sometimes, we are called in to substitute classes for prep students whose teachers are sick or on leave. Initially, subbing these classes was a lot of fun, because it was the only time we got to stand in front of a classroom and actually ‘teach.’ I put teach in single quotation marks because we actually have very little flexibility in designing our lesson plans; instead, we are given a “pace sheet” that we have to follow. This is standard practice for Turkish public universities. In other words, we show up for 3-hour or 5-hour substitute blocks and tell students to open their books to page 89, for example, and do activities 1-7. Alex and I used to co-teach these sub classes but now we split them because it's nonsensical to exert ourselves doubly when the task can be accomplished singly. Our prep students are often immature, as they are fresh out of high school. Some of them don’t even bring paper or pencil to class, which is one of my biggest pet peeves. Some, of course, are quite motivated which makes me excited to teach. I am an animated teacher so I always try my best to make English fun. I know that these students have been learning English to some capacity since primary school, so they should, ideally, know the basic grammar structure and vocabulary. University courses are supposed to help them get from broken to fluent, mediocre to perfect. But when I substitute classes, I don’t feel like I am making a significant impact because I don't get to see the same set of students again. I’ve taught over 800 students by now, none of whose names or lives I know intimately, and that’s something that really bothers me.

Frustration with our situation
While we love working with our students, we have also been frustrated at our situation. Our frustration has nothing to do with our students, but rather the administration, and largely the bureaucracy. I personally feel underutilized and undervalued at Akdeniz University. Last semester, Alex and I each taught four hours per week to graduate students, officially (per our schedule). This semester, we teach only two hours officially. Alex has voluntarily picked up another hour on Tuesday’s and we both picked up an extra hour on Monday’s. We know there is a need for us, because our prep students come up to us and ask us to host speaking clubs for them. When we relayed this message to our administration, they said that our official job was to help the graduate students and if we want to make ourselves available for prep students, then they have no problem with it. This was an unsatisfactory response because it didn’t make us feel appreciated or recognize our efforts to take the initiative to take on extra hours. Perhaps the worst part of our teaching situation is that we are called to substitute classes at the last minute, sometimes literally five minutes before a class starts and sometimes we’ve had to skip lunch. When you’re handed books in passing in the hallway and asked to show up in room B104 at 3:30p for a 3-hour class, it’s hard not to feel like a scum. That’s literally how I feel sometimes, a slave at the administration’s mercy. And we’re Fulbright Scholars! What I don’t understand is why this university continues to request additional Fulbright scholars if they don’t have any meaningful work for them. We are quite literally asked to be “available” Monday through Friday, from 1:30p onward in case a class needs to be covered. After five hours of Turkish lessons every day in the morning, one speaking club in the afternoon, who has the energy to teach three or five more hours? That means our bodies are functioning 12 hours a day, totaling 60 hour work weeks…which is three times what our Fulbright contract says we are allowed to work (21 hours). Granted we don’t get substitute classes every day, or every week, but it’s annoying and extremely frustrating. I would be much happier having a full 21-hour schedule if I had my own class to teach; students only I was responsible for; a curriculum I could design. But instead, I sit in a classroom for two hours a week, hoping for students to invest in my optional speaking club (after they’ve had five hours of English in the morning!). I don’t blame them when they don’t come, because I would be exhausted too. In fact, I am exhausted of this very disappointing situation.

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