28 July 2014

Teaching at Musa Zajmi

The following originally appeared in the blog "Musings of a Factotum" on June 6, 2009

Serving a peacekeeping mission to Kosovo has given me many opportunities, and a recent one I had was to reconnect with my civilian profession: teaching.

I never realized how much I enjoyed teaching, especially math, until I began a career as a full-time professional Soldier. I left the classroom over two years ago, just days before I shipped to Basic Training. Since then I have worked as a consultant, visiting many classrooms and students, but not having any to call my own.

Last Friday visited another classroom, at a school called Musa Zajmi in Gjilane, Kosovo. I had asked the month before if I could teach a math class, and the teachers there graciously assented. It was a bit unnerving—I had never taught to a classroom full of Albanian-speaking students—but I feel very at ease teaching, so I quickly found myself lost in the moment.

Soldiers looking for improvement would conduct an After Action Review following any drill, exercise, or mission. Good teachers do the same thing. Here are a few things that I noted.

Three things I did well were in the areas of preparation and presentation. First, I followed a lesson plan that has served me well in my years of teaching my own students and evaluating other teachers. It consisted of a warm up phase, a short presentation, practice, and a closure. Even in the short classes (30 minutes) I was able to keep students interested by moving from one activity to the next frequently and efficiently.

My second strength was to have everything written for the students. I had everything translated into Albanian (I even learned a few phrases myself) so that student could check what I was saying against the written version.

Finally, I had a specific objective that corresponded with our activity and end-of-lesson exercise. Students understood that my expectations of them were very narrow, and they didn’t have to concern themselves with peripheral facts and formulas.

A few things I could improve on are: creating a small homework task that was more tightly-aligned to the objective, having students identify themselves, and being clearer about instructions during the lesson.

The last point is a particularly important one. Clarity is the most important trait instruction can have (after accuracy, I suppose). I did my best, given the circumstances, to make my intentions crystal clear to these Kosovar students. But even small things, like asking for volunteers, can get muddled and have cumulatively detrimental effects on learning. For instance, in an attempt to get a variety of students up to the board I employed a simple strategy that I have used in the U.S., which was to require the student at the board to choose the next participant. In my experience, students choose their friends or others who might not want to go to the board. 

What happened at Musa Zajmi was that students chose their classmates who also raised their hands. Thus, only the most confident students got to the board. I could have been more explicit about my desire to see a greater variety of students demonstrating at the chalkboard.

I had a lot of fun, and practiced a skill that is too easily lost in my case. I want to remain sharp, reflective, and progressive. Teaching at Musa Zajmi helped me do it.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting experience. On that last point, I wonder if there are some cultural reasons, not just clarify of instructions, that accounted for some of the different reaction. i.e. US kids like to put their friends on the spot, Albanians may be more "respectful."