Our experiences from a spontaneous day of teaching English in Iran, in the small town of Mobarakeh. The students weren’t the only ones who learned a thing or two!
A mob of googly-eyed teenage girls surrounded us. As they surged forward, notebooks and writing pads were eagerly thrust out, and pens circulated the crowd. Glowing phones were visible through the tangle of arms and legs, ready to take advantage of prime selfie opportunities the next time a gap opened up in the jostling throng.
The scene wouldn’t have been out of place at a Justin Bieber concert, but the reality was far from: this is what happened when we spent a day teaching at English schools in a tiny Iranian town.
Teaching English in Iran
English teaching throughout much of Iran is in a sorry state. Though all students undergo several years of English in school–more, if they attend university afterwards–their quality of English at graduation is dubious at best.
During our visit, we met a girl who was on track to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in English in several months’ time. She had to tell us this in Farsi, then have one of her English teachers translate. Her final assignment for university: transcribing 15-minutes of news clips–in accented non-native English–from the Japanese NHK television channel. She couldn’t even spell “Iranian” correctly.
This isn’t the students’ fault, but rather a lack of quality teaching… and a lack of teachers that can actually speak English. Because of the strict policies regarding visitors to Iran, particularly for American/British/Canadian citizens, there aren’t many native English teachers to go around!
Superstars from afar
Given the lack of native instructors, you can imagine the excitement of the teachers and students when we were shepherded into their classes. Not only were Sebastiaan and I respectively fluent and native English speakers, we were also the first foreigners that some of them had ever seen. The reaction wouldn’t have been much different if we were aliens that had just disembarked from their space ship from a distant galaxy.
(An English-speaking galaxy, of course.)
Timid at first, then gradually relaxing as they realized we could indeed understand their questions, the students began to flex their English skills. Throughout the day, we had to answer a plethora of standard “How old are you?” and “What is your favorite food?” questions… but occasionally we were confronted with more frank queries:
“What do you think of chador?” one girl in the first class asked, referencing the long black cloaks that conservative Muslim women wear in Iran. I think they make women look like Batman was the first thought that came to mind, but that’s probably not the best response to give to a stranger wearing a chador.
A few minutes later, the girls played dress-up with me, cloaking my body with one of their chador. The same girl looked at me and burst out laughing. “How do you feel? You look like Batman!”
Hard questions and heavy answers
Though we were there so the students could learn from us, we ended up learning a bit about them, too. Most of the questions and answers were met with giggles and grins, but not all were so lighthearted.
At one point, Sebastiaan asked the class of teenage girls what other countries they would like to visit, if they could go anywhere in the world. One shy girl held up her hand to respond.
“I want go to… America,” she answered slowly, taking time to find her words.
“… so I no… have… wear hijab.” Hijab is a head scarf that women are required to wear in Iran by law.
The other girls nodded vigorously in agreement, and started speaking in Farsi. The teacher stepped in to translate for us: “The girls just want to travel to any country where they do not have to wear their hijabs.” Oh.
The last question of the day came late that evening, when relaxing at a man’s house. Students and newfound friends were honoring our arrival by jamming on a mixture of traditional and modern instruments. In the meantime, Sebastiaan and I were still taking questions from the ever-curious and eager crowd.
After some prodding by her English teacher, the host’s teenage daughter approached me to practice her speaking. Most of her questions were standard textbook questions, but the last one was heavy on my heart.
“Why are Americans so afraid of Iranians?” she asked hesitantly, nothing but innocence in her eyes.
After these past few weeks of traveling in Iran, and the endless amounts of help, hospitality, friendliness and love we’ve received… I can’t say I know the answer to that one. Why are they, indeed?
Have you ever taught a language in a foreign country? What was your experience like?