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This Peace Corps Life – Armenia

Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world!  This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Armenia.

Susan Spano – Age 61

Thanksgiving, 2014, at Proshyan School.

Thanksgiving, 2014, at Proshyan School.

Where are you from?
I was born in St. Louis, Mo., and have lived all over, including New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Beijing and Rome.  I’m a former travel writer. [You can see Susan’s writing here!]

Where country do you serve in?
Armenia. I’ve been serving in Armenia for a little over a year.  Per Peace Corps policy, I should mention that the things I say are my thoughts and observations only, and that they do not reflect those of the Peace Corps.

What program do you work with in Armenia?
Peace Corps has two programs in this country: Teaching English and Community Youth Development.

I teach English in a public base school (grades 1-9) in the town of Ashtarak, with a population of about 20,000—unofficially much lower due to people leaving to find work in Russia or the Ukraine. Like towns all over Armenia, it’s dilapidated with unreliable gas and electric and water only two hours a day, boarded up shops and factories, empty houses, overflowing dumpsters, bad roads and uneven sidewalks. All this reflects hard times since the break-up of the Soviet Union and Armenian independence.

My school has about 150 kids and a staff of about 30, almost all women, as teaching is one of the few careers here that welcomes them. But salaries are pathetic, as low as $50 a month, and most teachers must tutor at home after school for extra money.

I work with three Armenian English teachers, only one of whom speaks what I’d call good English; only one is a truly dedicated teacher, and of course I love her.

TEFL volunteers are supposed to guide the teachers with whom they collaborate in the use of new methodologies—group work, communicative language instruction, etc. I’m PCMI, half-way through my Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and Armenia is a test case country for the development of a PC TEFL Certificate. So I’m well equipped. But my teaching colleagues must get through the textbooks (which are hideously outdated and full of mistakes), meaning that I can only introduce new things when there are a few spare minutes. Otherwise, I just assist the teacher; sometimes I think of myself as the Vanna White of Armenian TEFL.

Kids start English in the 3rd grade, but it’s not taken very seriously because most young people can’t begin to dream about finding the kind of good work that requires it and even children can sense that the quality of English language instruction is poor. In class they are a big behavior management challenge, talking out of turn, paying no attention, seldom doing homework. Of course, there’s a thin top margin of students who work and care. Though we’re taught in our PC TEFL Certificate Program that teachers need to address all kids, the reality is that only the highest performers will need/use English. Sometimes, though, a child who doesn’t sit in front and answer questions will suddenly reveal him or herself to me as a potential achiever and I get excited.

All that said, the kids are endearing. Even when they’ve behaved terribly in class they win me back by shouting Hello, Miss Susan as they run past in the hall, or they buy me a cake to apologize.

And it’s fun sitting in the nurse’s office with fellow teachers during breaks; we all drink soorch (Turkish coffee) and eat chocolates. My Armenian is pretty rudimentary—despite excellent PST language training—but I can understand enough of the coffee-klatch conversation to contribute and enjoy.

What are the teaching conditions like?
There are no dining or toilet facilities for teachers; there isn’t even water. So I’m pretty pleased to have gotten a PCPP grant, with funding from California-based Water Charities, to put water tanks in the student bathrooms, which means students will be able to wash their hands. Later this fall I’ll be organizing health and hygiene workshops to introduce the importance of hand-washing to the kids.

Waterless bathrooms.

Waterless bathrooms.

With the help of the Armenian School Foundation, also from California, we’re getting new desks, chairs, bookcases, blackboards, etc., later this month.  The big remaining problem is heat. It’s so cold in the classrooms all winter that we wear coats and gloves during lessons.

I go one day a week to the local branch of the National Institute of Education where staff members chat and prepare for classes. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do there, so I offered to teach English to anyone who wanted. Everyone said yes, but gradually people stopped coming. Now I teach to one very funny math instructor and the cleaning lady, who’s a terrific student.  I also teach on Friday nights at a local NGO—mostly high school students, from zero English to fairly proficient, which is another challenge.

Do you work on any secondary projects?
Over the summer I found my secondary project niche, working with an NGO which is trying to develop tourism in Armenia. I consult, speak at travel agent seminars and write for the website. I love to travel, so I was overjoyed when they took me to far eastern and southern Turkey—amazing places now off-the-charts because of spiraling Kurdish rebel violence and proximity to the war in Syria.

I also teamed up with a Response Volunteer to create a walking tour brochure for Ashtarak and am now trying to get it around. Take a look.

Brochure (1/2)

Brochure (1/2). Click image for closer view.

Brochure (2/2)

Brochure (2/2).  Click image for closer view.

Do you feel supported by your country staff?
Peace Corps Armenia has supported me tremendously in all this, giving me latitude to do different sorts of things. As an older volunteer, I have skills I can transfer quite apart from TEFL. I think that helping senior volunteers find ways to use their rich life and work experiences is a continuing challenge for Peace Corps.

What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
During PST I lived with a host family, then moved to another host family when posted to Ashtarak. They are the world’s dearest people—generous, tolerant, funny—but quarters were tight and the food greasy and salty; I lived during that period on yogurt and chocolate, and lost 15 pounds (not a bad thing, at all). Moreover, I am by nature a loner; I really need alone time. As soon as we were allowed to move to our own places, I found an apartment in the center of town. It’s a one-bedroom in a very ugly Soviet Era building; the landlady won’t make repairs and often shows up at the doorstep asking for a loan. I put a lot of work into the place and am now very happy here. I can see Mount Ararat (of Noah’s Ark fame) from my kitchen window and most of the time I have hot water, electricity and Wi-Fi.

Currently, I’m the only PCV in Ashtarak, but I see colleagues often. Last weekend my friend Lorrie [PCV] came to visit and we discovered a winery in a village near my town. We also taught a class at my NGO on American folk music and dance, as she’s a Contra Dance caller and fiddler. It was a hit.

Armenian students learning to contra dance.

Armenian students learning to contra dance.

What is Armenia like?
Armenia is a confounding place—a tiny country with an unhappy past, wedged into the Caucasus Mountains. It’s currently at war with neighboring Azerbaijan and the border with Turkey is closed, partly due to the Armenian genocide which took the lives of 1.5 Armenians in 1915. There are no jobs; men leave their families to find work abroad or sit at home, depressed, with their heads in their hands. The government is corrupt. Family units are strong, but psychologically tribal, meaning that there’s no sense of broader community or civic responsibility. The lovely countryside is strewn with trash and the ruins of buildings abandoned when the economy tanked.

Has Peace Corps service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
My service here is nothing like the grass-hut Peace Corps cliché. Armenia is a developing country, not third-world, so I guess you’d say I’m in the Posh Corps. But it’s a deeply depressed and depressing place, entrenched in Armenian genocide victimhood and turned toward the neighborhood bully, Russia, for work, hope and inspiration.

What are your greatest challenges?
My greatest challenge is staying positive, trying to remember that simply by being here I might be making a difference. As an older volunteer, I get considerable respect and can expose my female friends to such outlandish American behaviors as wearing flats when teaching instead of high, stiletto heels. Sheesh, who can teach effectively in high heels?

In the “autumn of my life,” and as a post-career adventurer, I’m very happy with my Peace Corps service. Honestly, I really wanted to go to Southeast Asia. I got placed in Armenia, like other oldsters, because of health considerations. What I’ve found here are subtleties and questions. Do we want developing nations to go their own way instead of following western patterns, even when we can foresee problems? Is it better to teach to a room full of misbehaving kids or to a class with one kid carrying a gun? What makes strong people, happy families or forward-thinking communities? Is it better to hold fast to a tragic past, or let it go?

How has Peace Corps affected you?
As for me, I’m a little more tolerant now, and a little more able to let go.

What about after Peace Corps?
When I COS, I’ll probably go back to Monterey to finish my TESOL Master’s and then look for a teaching job abroad.

 Thanks Susan!