Teaching in Mongolia, some reflections almost 2 year on

I don’t like to be the kind of person who starts every conversation with, “Well, when I was in Mongolia….” It gets tired, fast, and it’s not like I’m an expert or have any special insights or anything. Nonetheless, it’s an important and formative factor of my experience, and that’s what I’m writing out of today.

For background, I was in Mongolia 2012-14 and a little bit in 15. Not very long really. In 2013, I started teaching in an interdenominational, evangelical seminary. Initially I taught a half-load (two subjects) for the semester, before teaching a full-load (four subjects) for the next three. They were almost always new-preps, and at least half were for a Masters level degree. In 2015, I returned twice and taught intensive courses. I was also trying to write a doctoral dissertation part-time during this whole period.

Mongolia is a high-power-distance culture, and I come from Australia, where I would say the power-distance is about as low as possible. To illustrate just on the “how you address your professor” front, in Australia I would always refer to them by first name, it would be socially awkward not to. In contrast, in Mongolia I was referred to as “Teacher” (bagsh, багш). Sometimes, to distinguish, “Seumas-Teacher”.

The teacher-student dynamic in Mongolia is one of respect, it tends to override other social relationships, and it’s lifelong. For example, I had some students who were older than me, pastors, and who in any other setting I would use a formal “you” form in speech (Mongolian has a T-V distinction, but it’s almost entirely age based). However, as their teacher, I had to speak to them with the informal/younger person pronoun.

In terms of lifelong, once you’ve entered into a teacher-student relationship with someone, even after that situation ends, they are still your teacher, and you will keep referring to them as teacher. So, even today I receive messages from students addressing me as teacher. In my own case, I always refer to my language teachers by the same title.

The high-power-distance was both easy and difficult to navigate. On the one hand, I appreciated that teachers were highly respected, and my students would go to considerable lengths to do things for me, take care of me, and even prevent me from doing certain things for myself. On the other hand, this was highly uncomfortable for me. Especially when students simply did not let me do certain things because they considered them too menial – this violates a deeply ingrained Australian cultural norm. At other times, I knew that the cost to them was significant, whereas as a foreigner I could well afford not to have them do/perform certain expectations. In some of these situations, the best approach for me was to circumvent the issue. It was never in my interests to try and alter/subvert their cultural paradigms. Indeed, I would consider that a cultural imperialism out of line with my role.

One of the particular benefits of my teaching situation was that I had very small classes, particularly for the Master’s program. Ten or so was my maximum class size, and I taught those students around half their program, as well as being something like a “form teacher” for them. So, the bond we developed was quite close, though it was, and is, always as teacher-to-students. I did form connections with other students, including the undergraduate year-cohort which I accompanied on a mission trip to rural Mongolia. Forming connections with other faculty was much more difficult for me, for a few different reasons.

There were other dynamics to teaching in Mongolia. The educational system my students were raised in, in state schools, was highly weighted towards rote-learning, and cheating was rife and normalised. They were studying now in a Christian context, in a curriculum and model set up upon Western lines. Plagiarism was sometimes a problem, though I think I somewhat circumvented that by assessments that were resistant to such issues. Critical thinking, though, is a hard skill to foster when you haven’t developed (for x many years) in an educational system that fosters it.

I don’t think I ever could, or would want to, try to replicate the Mongolia teacher-student dynamic in a different setting, but there are some things that I think are invaluable about it. Firstly, there is, in my view, a great value in seeing the teacher-student relationship as lifelong, and in embedding that in our language of respect. It engendered not only respect, but also responsibility – I was and remain ‘responsible’ for my students. Our relationship was not merely transactional, or worse commercial.

Secondly, that respect/responsibility dynamic also put onus on teachers for students’ learning. If a student fails to learn, that is much more my problem than theirs. I don’t think that’s an absolute, but I think the weighting should be much more to the teacher side of the equation than many Western paradigms in which teachers seem to provide material and students are responsible to learn or drown.

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