That Time I Reflected on Being an Teacher in Albania

That Time I Reflected on Being an Teacher in Albania

We’ve been in school for a month now. Overall, I am still loving life, extremely happy, and highly satisfied with the authentic joy I find in teaching. But, that’s not to say there aren’t very real, vivid challenges that I deal with on a daily basis. In this blog post, I will explore the unique triumphs and minute tragedies I have encountered here so far.

First, I will say, I LOVE teaching. This, of course, isn’t new—but I love it even more now. In some ways, my teaching situation here is utopia compared to that of the US. First, the schedule of the students is very humane: for every 80 minutes of class time, they have a 20 minute break. That’s three breaks a day (breakfast, recess, and lunch). This has multiple advantages: first, I don’t waste time in my classes because kids constantly interrupt me asking for the restroom—they actually have time to go between classes. (My last school had 90 minute classes with 7-minute breaks between them. Could you as an adult keep up that schedule all day?) Furthermore, the kids are actually intellectually prepared to learn, instead of constantly being fried out like the US school systems do. (keep in mind that even elementary schools in the US are phasing out recess…thank God my students still get it here!!)

The second benefit to my schedule is that I actually have enough prep time at school that I don’t have to work 12-hour-days like 99% of first-year US teachers. I have a moderate workload Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Thursdays I teach a single 80 minute class. Fridays I teach for 120 minutes of the day. The rest of the time is to myself. (The reason my schedule is so light is because we are not yet at capacity in terms of student enrollment. Next year I will have a heavier workload, but I’ll also have much more infrastructure in place in terms of curriculum and resources, so that will help.)
Now, If you’re not a teacher, you probably assume I’m just rolling in all that free time that leaves me plenty of time to check Facebook. But, if you are a teacher, you will immediately understand that I use EVERY single second of that prep time. For the first time ever, I can give meaningful feedback on student assignments— because I actually have time to do so. For the first time ever, I’ve had time to differentiate my lessons in order to selectively target, challenge, or assist handpicked students in my classes. Implementing differentiation is often extremely challenging because sometimes it means creating different work for different students, which doubles a teacher’s plan time. But since I actually have time to do it, I’ve had the extremely rewarding experience of working with students on a more meaningful, individualized basis. This serves to reinforce my love for teaching and the joy I find in it. As a new teacher, I also desperately need this extra planning time. I am learning a brand new curriculum for 2 of my 3 classes. Do you know how hard it is to start from scratch, having no gameplan in place, and generate an entirely new curriculum? I am building a plane while I’m flying it over here! Thank GOD for having enough time at school to accomplish this somewhat successfully.

The final benefit to my schedule is the class sizes. I have a class of 10, a class of 8, a class of 9, and a class of 17. When my kids struggle, I actually have small enough classes that I can provide individualized instruction and personalized attention. So many US kids fall through the cracks in a classroom of 35 kids, especially the quiet ones who suffer silently. In my classes, I am able to aid my students more readily, because they’re so much smaller. All a teacher wants is meaningful connections and authentic education to occur in his or her class. I do feel as if this is happening in my rooms, at least sometimes.

My teaching style has already changed a lot in the past month. With no End-Of-Course exam federally mandated and hanging over our heads, I am doing more engaging teaching. My school heavily emphasizes individual student inquiry and class-wide collaboration. (US schools think these things sound wonderful and love to pretend that they implement them too…annnndddd then they give their kids another practice test before the EOC.)
I’ll give you a concrete example: in basic biology: I have to teach students the difference between DNA and RNA. In a US school, I would teach this in about 7 minutes with a simple chart: “these are the similarities, these are the differences, let’s move on—the clock is ticking before the EOC”. To teach this topic to my students here, I set out myriad types of resources, and basically told them, “go research DNA and RNA. Figure out a way to convey your new knowledge with the resources I’ve given you. Present your findings to the class.” This method took 5x as long—but theres no way to measure or compare how much more meaningful and engaging this lesson was compared to a simple lecture. I told them what I wanted and gave them basically free range for how to do it—in return, I got Powerpoints, venn diagrams, drawings, 3D models, charts, and posters to hang on the wall. This, in a nutshell, is why I find my job more meaningful here.

I have already had some fantastic successes this month that have warmed my heart. On the third class of the semester, one of my 10th graders told me, “I would come to school on Saturday if it would be like this class.”  We have students so committed to this education that they are considering delaying college and staying in high school for a fifth year in order to graduate with the IB diploma. (We are currently only a candidate school; next year we’ll be able to offer the diploma program). I have students emailing me very specific Biology questions on the weekend, and I swear to you today I had an 8th grader tell me she LIKED homework. Meanwhile, in my 7th grade, I have a student who speaks and understands *literally* no English. Every day for the past month, I look at her, smile and pat her in the back, knowing she must be overwhelmed to be trapped in a school where she can’t understand anything. I know she tries hard because she neatly copies every single thing I put on the board—but she comprehends none of it. But yesterday, for the first time in a month, I said something to her in English, and she actually understood me! That’s progress—I communicated with one of my students for the first time! And, in that same class, I singled out a boy to receive a differentiated assignment. While his peers worked on a simple graphing assignment, I gave him a much harder one. I watched him struggle over it. After a few minutes, I started to panic, thinking I had set him up to fail. He struggled and struggled, as his other peers with easier assignments finished before him. And then, as I watched with bated breath, it clicked, and he got it. He worked diligently on his assignment, finishing each question meticulously. And when he finished and handed it to me, I told him he’d completed the work of an 8th grade student—and you’d have thought I gave him a Congressional Medal of Honor. I swear he held his head up so high and strutted out of my classroom with so much pride, I knew every person in the school could tell with a single glance that he was something special.

So, at the end of the day, these are the things that matter the most to me. But, there are definitely still significant challenges. Without going into too much detail, my leadership hierarchy shifted again this week. My yearlong curriculum for 2 of my 3 classes was transformed in the course of an hour, which resulted in an immediate lesson plan change about a half-hour before my rowdiest class walked in. (General reminder for all my non-teacher friends…rowdy classes need precisely organized lesson plans, and starting over from scratch 30 minutes before they arrive is NOT the way to do that!) Of course, when I went to ran copies, all the machines were down, because we live in a developing country where most products are complete crap and repairmen may or may not even exist for that matter. I still don’t have a projector. I still don’t have electric plugs to run my basic equipment. I’m still working my butt off to design engaging lessons with little more than a whiteboard. It may sound so simple—“just think outside the box, Briana!” And yes, I’m doing that—but don’t for a second think that such a simplified answer can solve something as complex as the intricate world of teaching. (especially when you’re teaching an entire room full of ESL students)

We are, as a whole, still struggling with behavior problems.  At first I thought the reason I was struggling is because I’m a new teacher—but I’m hearing extremely experienced teachers talk about their challenges, and I know I’m not alone. The kids simply don’t know how to behave at the standards we are expecting of them, because they’ve never been in a school culture that expected it. They don’t know not to blurt out. They don’t know not to interrupt. No one has ever told them that. I can be in the middle of talking to one student, and another student will run up to me and start talking. In the US, that is considered extremely rude behavior– you should never interrupt a teacher when she’s speaking privately with another student. But here, it’s commonplace. My students also have a bad habit of loudly announcing to the class, “DONE!” every time they finish an assignment. Can you imagine a chorus of “TEACHER, I’M DONE”s from 18 students every time you give them work?
The younger the class of students is, the more challenging their behavior is. All of our teachers describe the students here as “chatty”, especially in the middle grades. You can politely ask the class to quiet down, utilize every attention-grabbing technique you know, firmly reiterate the importance of being silent when the teacher is talking–and they will still chatter through your entire class if you don’t stay on them. It’s going to take several years attending our school before the students integrate the new classroom expectations that  we hold for them. These behaviors, like talking incessantly and interrupting others, may have been acceptable in the average Albanian public school—but they are not acceptable here, and our entire staff is working to reverse this.
The elementary teachers have a unique set of challenges related to student discipline that I can only begin to fathom. First off, I would like to say, that I would struggle endlessly if I were asked to be an elementary teacher–I have SO much respect for them and the seemingly impossible tasks they they do. Sometimes I envy them, when I’m up studying the mechanism of oxidative phosphorylation so that I can deliver my lecture accurately and I know they’re preparing to teach the alphabet—and then they tell me the horror stories of temper tantrums, potty accidents, and spastic children, and I go right back to standing in awe that they can do that job every single day and not pull their hair out.
As for the students here, the elementary teachers are telling me that the lack of structure at the students’ former elementary schools, and possibly the lack of structure at home, have made the classes incredibly unruly. While our class sizes are, as a whole, much smaller than the US, the students here are, as a whole, less responsible, less responsive to teacher directions, and more unwieldy. Several elementary teachers have said they successfully managed class sizes with twice the number of students as here–and it was much easier, because the students were better behaved.

As for me, I’m getting better at classroom management and constructive discipline. I don’t enjoy it, but it’s necessary for a teacher. I have a particularly defiant student in one of my older classes; apparently he was kicked out of his last school and sent away to boarding school here with us. He’s challenging, but it’s nothing that I wouldn’t see in a public school in the US. He lies and pretends he doesn’t understand English in order to get out of doing work. We’ll see what we can do with him. Like all my troubled students, I naively believe he has potential.  But most days, he blankly refuses to do his work. (However, on the bright side, this is an advantage of teaching in a private school. In a public school, a defiant student who refuses to do any work would still take the end-of-course standardized test, and his low marks would reflect directly on my teacher evaluation scores. Now that I’m here, if I have a student who doesn’t want to pick up his pencil the whole class period, I tell him to go sit in the back where at least he won’t disrupt my other students who are working their knickers off to be at this school and make something of their lives.

Another challenge that our teachers are facing is related to our special education students, or students who have undiagnosed learning disabilities. Special Education services do not exist in Albania, so when our kids took our placement exam, we had very little evidence to diagnose whether or not students needed additional academic supports. Are they struggling because it’s a new school? Are they struggling with the language? Or is there something deeper, a cognitive process, that isn’t computing properly for these students? It’s very difficult for us to tell, and that makes it difficult to support the student. Additionally, we had no resources or documentations on these students from their previous schools, because again, SPED services do not exist. So, for example, my respected coworker retired from teaching in US schools for the past 30 years, and came here to teach. She has a class of 12 elementary students, and she is absolutely certain that one of her students is on the autism spectrum. I haven’t met this kid, but I respect her decades of experience well enough to believe her when she says this kid is differently-abled. But, in a country without 504 Plans or IEPs or even a philosophy about how to support special education students, she has almost no support in the classroom to help her help him.

So, as you can see, there are both AMAZING things about teaching here, and very real challenges. I don’t write about these challenges to espouse negativity; I write about them to tell a complete story.  Even though I’m very happy, it’s simply not accurate to pretend like my life is one big fairy tale of awesomeness. But, to close this blog post, I’d like to quit doing all the talking, and finish with some words of my coworkers. Both of these were shared on our staff page, and were intended to lift us up during our challenging first weeks…

“6-11th graders were asked to describe a time in which they were successful. Many students wrote about winning at sports or getting a good grade on a project they did in the past. But many more wrote about the joy of getting into AC Durres, and what that meant to them in terms of their futures. One girl wanted to be a dancer since she was very young, and she was in a dancing program at her last school. She loved it, it was her passion, but she was faced with the decision- stay in dancing, or come to AC Durres. She chose us, because she wanted an IB education. The fact that she is with us reminds me that we are offering life changing opportunities in our school, and for many, we are the catalysts through which their dreams can become reality.” -English teacher

“Everytime I see the faces of the kids at this school it reminds me of the feelings I had when Albania became an open country and dictatorship ended. I think that true democracy starts in the minds of people and after 25 years Albanians are still communists in their mindset. When this school opened, I thought, “The Democracy has come only now. And these kids are free at last.” Kids look as they have seen the light for the first time.” -Albanian staff member


Originally Published on my Private Blog, October 2015

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