Michele Whaley is a high school Russian teacher in Anchorage, Alaska. She recently took some time to tell us of her personal travels to Russia and the USSR, the many paths her students have taken with their Russian after graduation and what it takes to be a good teacher.
SRAS: How did you get into teaching? How long have you been doing it?
Michele Whaley: I thought I was going to be in economics or banking, but always volunteered to teach wherever I lived (Seattle/college, New York City/first jobs), and when I was casting about for something to do with my life at a point of change, a friend said he was getting his certificate. I realized it was the perfect thing for me to do as well.
SRAS: What’s the most enjoyable thing about teaching? What’s the most frustrating?
MW: There are so many things… just today I was at a memorial service for a fellow musician who was also a teacher. Many of the young adults who attended, either local or who flew in, were my former students. They had a lot of memories that I’d left behind. Teaching keeps giving back. It is also incredibly exhilarating when it’s going right–it feels as though you’re walking on water. It’s wonderful when a student suddenly catches fire and starts wanting to learn on his own, and it’s terrific when a project is complete and the kids realize that they’ve accomplished something big. I also love the day-to-day meeting with young people. They are all the same in some ways, yet they keep surprising me with their humanity and creativity. A teacher can never despair for the state of the world, because there are wonderful young people growing up into it.
What is frustrating is when I can’t get through to a kid, either because we somehow push each other’s buttons in a negative way or when that child has been abused by the world he lives in to the extent that he is continuing to make things worse. The typical person is curious about the world and wants to learn and succeed. When that desire is missing, something has gone terribly wrong, and when I can’t help fix it, I feel like beating the walls.
SRAS: It can certainly be hard. Have you yourself traveled to Russia before?
MW: As a student, I went first on a three-week trip to Moscow, Leningrad, Yerevan and Yalta! Then in college, I studied in Leningrad for a summer semester.
SRAS: I assume this was pre-glasnost? Can you give us an idea of exactly when this was and what programs you used to make these trips? Any particular stories you remember this – difficulties with bureaucracy, etc?
MW: That first trip was in 1975, as part of a high school and college travel group from Alaska, but I’m not sure what program it was. The group leader was a teacher from the school where I am now working. We were marched around in and out of perfect places in each area, though one of the boys (who is now the parent of one of my current students) managed to sneak out and have “real” discussions with people on the beach in Yalta. I remember that his disappearance was of major concern to all the hotel personnel, but at the time I didn’t really know enough to understand why and how they all knew that one kid was missing, or why it should have been important to them. We were all impressed that there were armed soldiers on the tarmac at the airport, but we thought that the kids who hosted us at our one meeting with teens our own age were awfully stiff and focused on politics. Again, I was pretty naïve and uninformed at that age, and kept working to use my language.
During my Leningrad summer (the same one that America boycotted the Russian summer Olympics), we lived in the dormitory across from the Hermitage, looking wistfully across the water at it each day. I finally decided to just give up my classes on Fridays and basically called in sick for the last four or five of them to go visiting museums and parks that I otherwise would never have been able to see enough of. That was pretty radical for me. What is now funny is that I ended up with a bunch of friends who trailed me and “educated” me. I realized later that they were Russians, making sure I wasn’t involved in any espionage. It was pretty obvious who we were when we were out in public, because the Soviets had cleansed the town of bad types, and there were almost no tourists. They were also cleaning the city itself–painting bridges, refurbishing brick, and shining up statues of Lenin, among others. That summer I also fell in love, but my visits to the apartment where my boyfriend and his mother lived might have been what got him harassed to the point of feeling he had to leave the country.
We were repeatedly told not to write down names, phone numbers, or addresses of anyone we met or, for that matter, to bring lists of names into the country to begin with. All of us developed elaborate code systems to be able to save that information, but we were all horrified when several of the group’s address books were confiscated at the airport as we left. Others’ books disappeared from dorm rooms. We never knew whether we were just paranoid, or whether it was really true that the government had bugged our dorm rooms, the telephone on the floor, and the table in the cafeteria where we ate. We all tried to be careful, but we were young, and I wonder whether our desire to have fun put a number of those who associated with us into danger.
So many things were different in those days–the lines in shops, the difficulty of communication, the restrictions.
SRAS: Wow, that’s amazing. Have you been back to Russia since the fall of the USSR?
MW: After becoming a teacher, I went on an IREX program to Moscow for two months. During those programs, I traveled to Lithuania and Latvia, as well as Odessa and Kiev.
SRAS: IREX offers several programs – do you recall what program this was specifically? I’m sure that readers would also be interested to know what its goals are, about how much it funded, and what you learned while traveling on these programs.
MW: IREX was administered by ACTR, and its goals are to improve the knowledge of Russian and Slavic area instructors in America. I attended classes of all sorts there, including language classes, history, and teaching programs.
During that trip, I realized how language acquisition starts to happen during immersion. On the first day in our history class, I was terribly downhearted because I could understand only words. But by the next week, I realized I was catching whole sentences at a time. Soon I could understand paragraph-length communication, and by about the third week, I could sit back and listen to an entire lecture. But that meant going to the dorm and reading a lot, looking up words, then hanging out in the cafeteria listening to all the Russian speakers, trying to just get used to the language at speed.
During that summer, one of our many excursions was to a palace of culture in Moscow. I was heading down the circular staircase as a curly-headed woman with a violin case was making her way up. I was startled to see a picture of people with recorders and crumhorns playing early music, and I said out loud, “Old music!” with some emotion. She answered back, “Early music.” My shyness evaporated, and I stopped her to talk with her. She ended up introducing me to a group of musicians who welcomed me (after an audition) and I played music and drank tea late into the night almost every night after that. Years later, I bought a lute from one of the primary members of the company, bringing it home disguised as a balalaika, to give to my husband. Karl still plays the instrument today, and its maker is now well-known in early music circles!
It’s possible that all those nights of playing music and talking and riding buses back late in the morning were a large part of the reason my Russian improved!
SRAS: It sounds like you’ve certainly taken full advantage of study abroad opportunities. Have you encouraged your students to take (or lead them on) on such trips?
MW: One year, I took a group of students on a ten-day trip to Leningrad and Moscow, and realized that it was just too short. After that, I wrote successful proposals to ACTR and had three, three-year, month-long exchanges with schools in Kishinev, Chernogolovka, and Novomoscovsk, during which my students and I lived with families and attended school. I am anxiously awaiting the chance to see part of the Far East.
SRAS: What is a “three-year, month-long” program? Does it last one month for three years? I’m a little confused. Also, can you say what program it was exactly? Is this basically a pen-pal program that ACTR sets up?
MW: ACTR started a series of home-stay/exchanges in the late 1980’s, and East High was honored to be one of the first schools participating in the arrangement after Reagan and Gorbachev signed an agreement to let high school students exchange between Russia and America. Ten to fifteen students and their teacher traveled each way for about a month for a three-year period. The grants involved made it possible for the Russians to come here, and dramatically reduced the cost for Americans. Those were wonderful exchanges, taking place as they did during the school year, so that the trips were not typical tourist excursions, but they allowed us all to live with families. Some of those exchanges yielded friendships that are ongoing.
At the memorial service I mentioned earlier, one of the families whose parents were in attendance told me that they had visited their Moldovan “grandchildren” just last summer. Other American parents have sent students to visit a second time, or traveled themselves; some have financed college educations.
SRAS: Do you think that Russian programs in Alaska, given the proximity to Russia, have an advantage over programs in other states?
MW: I know that I as a teacher have access to a lot of Russians, and now that we have a National Park Service grant with their Beringia program, we may finally benefit from being close to Russia. We hope to go to Anadyr this summer and work on ecological matters with students in Chukotka. That will be a trip of only about five total hours of travel!
SRAS: Sounds exciting! You mentioned to us in email before that you’ve had several students go on to make interesting careers with their Russian knowledge. First, could you give us some idea of the range of careers they have found? Second, could you give perhaps some detail (maybe a couple of good stories you’ve heard from students) about two or three of those careers?
MW: One of my students worked in the American Embassy in Moscow. Many different firms kept offering her more money to go to work for them, and she kept going back to her bosses at the Embassy, and they would raise her salary every time. Another student became an agent for a balalaika orchestra and was traveling the world with them the last time I saw him. I would never have known, but I was the cutoff person standing in line to get my CD signed, and he told the group I was a VIP whom they had to let through. Then he introduced me (in perfect Russian). A third student is with the Navy in some sort of top-secret situation. His mom told me that was all she could say. Another girl is a lawyer helping Russians fight progress and improve the ecology of Lake Baikal. And yet another is now working full time for the Olympic Committee as a Russian interpreter. Others are teachers of either Russian or German. I don’t hear too many stories about their lives now, but they tell how when they get together, they all recite all the poems and songs I taught them during their years of Russian study.
SRAS: As a final question, I would like to come back to teaching. Would you recommend your profession to your students?
MW: I always tell kids not to go into teaching unless it is what they have to do. That’s to protect both them as potential teachers and their potential students. People can’t be good teachers unless they have the drive and the desire to spend the necessary hours and take the extra steps to excel. This is true of any profession, so I am always telling kids to follow their hearts–to try out many opportunities so that they know what makes them happy, and to follow that path. My father had a sign on his desk for many years: “Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.” I’m not sure that I always make others happy, but when I succeed in school, I know that I am blissful.