The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 4, 2014

Pocahontas teacher goes global on an exchange trip

From a rural high school to a Russian Lyceum, Mary Sue Burns learns at lot from her students

By Pamela Pritt
Register-Herald Reporter

— For Pocahontas County High School chemistry teacher Mary Sue Burns, studying changes in matter is nothing new. But making changes that matter has become part of her teaching strategy, and not just in the rural county’s one high school surrounded by farmland and mountains.

Burns recently traveled to Russia as a part of a global exchange for educators, spending time in Tambovskaya oblast, Michurinsk, at a Lyceum for university-bound students.  

“I feel like I have made a lot of connections and a lot of friends,” Burns said. “(It was) a pretty short time, but I think it was very intense.”

Burns said host teacher Yaroslava Samusenko has become a lifelong friend, and one of the faces of Russia that comes to mind when the country is on the news.

“When you can put a face on something (like Russia), it makes the world a friendlier place,” she said.

And Russia is in the news, as Russian troops are on the Crimean Peninsula, and the American government has reacted with verbal denouncements and sanctions against the government and associates of President Vladimir Putin.

Burns says questions about that are difficult waters to navigate.

Americans enjoy freedom of speech, but that is not true of Russians. Burns said the cohort went as educators, not as diplomats or politicians. So Burns held — and still holds — her opinion of the Russian moves to herself. Privately, she said, some of the Russians she met did express views that disagreed with their government, but sharing that view in public was out of the question.

“We saw the real Russia,” Burns said. “Some of the other folks went to bigger places, where Americans go all the time. We met hundreds of Russians who had never seen an American before.”

The school where she taught is a seldom-visited “small town” of about 100,000, more than five hours southwest of Moscow.

Her first-hand observations provide a picture of a more variegated Russia than the gray monolith most Americans envision.

The main economic driver is agriculture, and Burns said the farmland is deeply rich, black and productive. Frito-Lay gets potatoes through the local grower, Green Valley, for chips that supply European markets, and for McDonald’s french fries in the American company’s European stores.

American investments in and on Russian soil are part of the catalyst for the exchange program, where, Burns said, the “whole point is to build goodwill among countries” for a couple of reasons.

Economics is one of those reasons, she said, and students need global competencies to be competitive in an increasingly global market. Technology skills, communication skills and data collecting should be in every curriculum across the planet, Burns said.

The other angle, the environment, she said, is an issue no country can afford to ignore.

“Some problems in the world are increasingly global — ozone depletion, global warming,” Burns said. “We have these increasingly global problems that need to be solved, and we have increasingly global situations in the world.

“You can’t just bury your head in the sand and not recognize that in order to solve today’s problems or to be successful in today’s business world.”

No stranger to being “exchanged” with other countries, Burns was a college exchange student in Iran in the late 1970s before the Shah was exiled and more than 60 American hostages were held captive in the American Embassy for 444 days. Her world view broadened by that experience, and by more recent travels to Europe and the Czech Republic, she saw the opportunity to further explore the world, enhance her teaching experience and put an American face into the Eurasian country where none had before been seen.

In order to do that, Burns applied, was vetted by IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board) and, once selected, took an eight-week online course that was “quite rigorous.” The program, Teachers for Global Classrooms, is implemented by IREX for the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

And part of the preparation for teaching in Russia was not just learning about the culture there, but also analyzing American teaching methods and how the culture contributes to “the way we do things.”

For instance, Burns’ American classroom is interactive, and she expects participation from her students, who don’t sit in traditional classroom rows. She particularly wants questions from her students, especially questions about how and why things act, interact and react the way they do.

But in other cultures, a student question is seen as an affront to authority and disrespectful.

“We had to recognize things like that — the different views of power and authority, the different emphasis on individuals and groups,” she continued.

Once she completed the training and traveled for hours, first to get to an airport, and then more than half a day in the air to get to Moscow, Burns landed in yet another country where friction with the American government is the stuff of daily news reports.

“There is a lot of tension between the two countries,” Burns said. “As far as people-to-people, we were greeted with the warmest welcome you could ever imagine.”

The warmth continued throughout their stay, as they were treated to a potluck lunch at a local Russian Orthodox Church, which Burns said rivaled any Lutheran potluck she’s seen. Lenten restrictions forbade the use of red meat, dairy and eggs, but Burns said the traditional dishes were delicious just the same.

Burns and fellow American teachers John Kenlein of Washington and Cyndi Oberle-Dahm from Illinois spent a few days observing classes in math, chemistry, geography and computer science as well as art and physical education classes.

On the one hand, she said, school is a very formal setting where students wear uniforms, sit quietly in their seats with their arms crossed in front of them and raise their right hands from the elbow only to be recognized by their teacher. They rise from those seats when an adult walks into the room.

Then again, those students call their teachers by their first names, often show their appreciation with hugs and attend school on Saturdays, even though it’s a free day.

Likewise, teachers take deep interest in their students, knowing that their performance on final tests will set the course for their futures.

Burns said a sign outside the school emphasizes the word “our” in describing the students. And, she said, teachers sincerely look at those students as their own children and encourage them in their studies, knowing the all-important placement test at the end of school means the difference in going to university or not.

Russian students have several choices when it comes to schools. Lyceums have rigorous academic curricula, while other schools have specialties for the arts, vocations and even sports. Lyceums are less common than “normal” schools, and Michurinsk had several students who were boarders in homes in the city.

The American teachers taught English classes, but did lessons in their respective fields, so that students gained experience in both the language and the science. For the second half of the class, the teachers took questions about life and school in America.

Burns videoed her students asking questions about the Russian teenage experience. What music do they like? What sports do they play? Do they know about baseball? To her surprise, Russian students had some similar questions for American students. Except for baseball, some of the questions centered on the same teenage themes, and so did the answers.

“We presented professional development for English teachers; a lot of methods we use are similar across the board,” she said. “(The Russian teachers) were an incredible group of educators and they’re looking to broaden their strategies. There are good things happening.”

The school in Michurinsk so jealously guarded Burns’ and her companion teachers’ time that they only allowed a neighboring school in Tambov to have them visit on a Saturday. In Tambov, Burns and the other teachers were privy to cultural presentations in English and a walking tour of the town, directed by older students speaking English.

“It was really fun,” she said. “They went out of their way to spend the day with us.”

Burns and 11 other American educators from around the country are now the “face of America” for Russian students and teachers.

“It’s sort of an awesome responsibility to be that person,” she said.

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Story updated on 5.7.14