Thursday, July 13, 2017

My heart nearly stopped the first time I stepped foot into an EFL classroom in Iran. Besides the room being small, there were only 4 students. I was sure the others were just late or stuck in traffic as the usual excuse goes in Tehran, but, alas, four students was it. In the US, I was accustomed to teaching classes of 25-30 students until they started being capped at 20, and I could handle them with no problem. But what on earth was I supposed to do with just four students? And on top of that, they were teenagers! I had specifically stated that I only taught adults. I thought I could regroup while they spent some time on my ice breaker activity, ‘2 truths and a lie’. After I explained what they were supposed to do, they looked at each other and then at me and said, “But we already know everything about each other.” Turns out that unlike the US where there was a mix of new and old students every semester, students here move up together semester after semester and therefore do really know everything about each other. But the same way that I was la gringa when I taught in Chile, I was the khâreji (foreign) teacher here, and so they humored me. 

I found out that in fact only two of them were teenagers and two were university students (they looked younger), and I was impressed not just by their advanced-level English skills but also by their interests and hobbies. One showed me photos of her paintings, another was in a band and both sang and rapped for me. They were equally as curious about me and what brought me here. By the end of the class, they were begging me to speak some Persian, and squealed, “She’s so goo-gooli (cute)” when I did. They insisted I write something in Persian on the board, and after warning them of my childlike handwriting, one of them oohed and ahed claiming that I wrote better than she did. I can state categorically that I did not. This first session was going so well that the secretary had to practically kick the students out so that I could get to my next class… a class of three university guys who were not curious but baffled by my mere presence in Iran. In a nutshell, it wasn’t nearly as fun or successful as the first class. 

There are a few things that are quite different about teaching here. For one, I can get thrown into a class with little notice and sometimes no time to prep. (I’ve gotten pretty good at winging it when I have to, I must say.) Another thing is that there is little materials development, a change which I gladly welcomed because God knows it’s the most time-consuming part of teaching. But perhaps the strangest thing for me was the student-teacher relationship.

You see, in the US, we kept it strictly business. The one time per semester we took classes on a field trip, we gave students our phone numbers in case they got lost or were running late, but made it very clear they were not to be used at any other time. And even then, I’d get the annoying ‘what was our homework?’ or ‘I don’t understand pg. 54’ text at 10:30pm, to which I would reply frustratedly ‘Send me an email!’ In Iran, though, it seems students and teachers often form friendships. I would see my co-workers posting pictures with students on Instagram. I’ve even had a couple of students tell me they married their university professors! Whaaaaat? It was all so strange to me. So when students asked for my number, I was extremely hesitant, but I gave it to them. When they asked me to hang out, I was even more reserved, but I went out and tried to keep the vibe professional. But eventually, I altogether gave up because I realized these friendships are the norm here. When in Iran, do as the Iranians. Besides, I didn’t have any friends yet, so who was I to reject an outing? And I actually did make friends this way. Good friends. Today, one of the students from that very first class of mine is one of my closest friends here.

I also found Iranian students to be beyond hospitable and helpful. They always offered to drive me home at night, take me grocery shopping if I didn’t have a car, or contact them if I needed anything in general. There are a few who still offer me rides when they can, telling me that spending just a few extra minutes speaking English is totally worth it. 

Because learning languages is a ‘thing’ here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a high demand for language classes anywhere else. (Ok, maybe I wasn’t looking, but still…) I have countless students who’ve been learning English since they were 5, numerous others who are simultaneously learning French (probably the second language in demand), and it seems that everyone is always looking for a private tutor (that’s also a ‘thing’) or trying to find the best institute to learn at. So many want to take the IELTS or TOEFL exam either for study or work, and though some want to immigrate, I find it incredibly refreshing when others tell me, “I love my country. I don’t want to live anywhere else.” 

There’s never a dull moment in teaching, especially ESL/EFL. With the exception of a few northern European countries, I can say pretty confidently that I’ve had at least one student from almost every country in the world. But Iranians are by far my favorite. Biased? Perhaps, but why shouldn’t I be? 

I’ll leave you with my very first memory of the EFL classroom in Iran, which was during a class observation. The topic was stereotypes of different nationalities, and before doing a listening activity, the students had to discuss what they thought the stereotypes were. I was sitting close to two young college students who were talking about the British and Americans. 

“The British are cold, I think.”

“Yah, cold and unfriendly.”

“But I think Americans are like us. They are friendly, outgoing, and have heart of gold [sic].”

My heart broke a little when I heard them liken Americans to Iranians because of their “heart of gold.” I was sure that no American anywhere in the country would ever say an Iranian had a “heart of gold”, let alone have that be their common denominator.

But anything is possible. 

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  1. Well, I just wanted to say that you're wrong when you write that no American would describe Iranians as having hearts of gold. People are people everywhere but in my personal experience none have been sweeter than Persians. Real gentle men. Capable of emotional upset but usually very reserved, kind and generous to a fault. Is this called "javanmardi"?

    1. I hope you're right :) And that's very sweet of you. Definitely appropriate usage of the word javanmardi!


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