From Far East to Middle East
From Far East to Middle East

A long time ago, I began these blogs about my experiences living abroad. One of my first articles discussed my impressions of the Korean education system. So far, I’ve been in Turkiye for just over 4 months and I’ve waited to write about the schools here for a number of reasons. First, I wanted to make sure I spoke to other native teachers in an effort to gain a bit of objectivity (after all, what happens at my school, may not occur at other schools). Second, I needed to ensure I had enough time to get over the culture shock of living and working in this very different culture.

The education systems of Turkiye and Korea are literally night and day – they couldn’t possibly be more polar opposites than they are. What’s important to grasp is that while Asian nations in general have highly valued education for centuries, Middle Eastern countries haven’t. In fact, until 1997 children in Turkiye were only obligated to attend school for 5 years. That law extended the minimum to 12 years in 2012 – that was one year ago. I’ll give that statistic a moment to sink in…

Soon as I turn my back...
Soon as I turn my back…

The bottom line is: kids don’t like school. They aren’t used to school. And even the parents aren’t accustomed to going themselves or shepherding their offspring to care about education. The result is classrooms full of children between the ages of 5 and 17 who have very short attention spans, almost zero respect for the teacher, and a work ethic that permanently resides in the basement. Couple all of that with the way the administration runs the schools, and you’ve created the proverbial powder keg of a nightmare scenario for any teacher used to the discipline, order, and attention to detail found in western schools.

Which in turn, brings me to my next point. With few exceptions (I happen to work in a school with a great deal of support), the administration doesn’t understand how to run their schools. Private schools – the world over – are run more like centers of profit than centers of education, and Turkiye is no different. The teachers have little to no supplies, resources, faculty and administration support. The money goes directly into the owners’ pockets instead of into goods and services that would ultimately improve the quality of the students’ and teachers’ experiences. To go one step further, the native English teachers are often looked upon as second-class citizens by many of their Turkish counterparts.

The English Department at Necip Fazil High School
The English Department at Necip Fazil High School

Additionally, the organization and communication is non-existent for the most part (again, my school is very good but I find this is the exception and not the rule). Meetings are unproductive and last-minute. Class schedules are in a constant state of upheaval (since Jen’s been working here, hers changed 3 times within a single week). There is zero new teacher orientation and most of us are simply thrown to the wolves on our very first day. Some of these aspects were the same in Korea, but compared to the Middle East, the Asian countries run their foreign teacher programs like well-made Swiss watches.

Unlike in Korea – where I worked in a language academy – the school here in Turkiye offers general coursework and therefore, I’m surrounded by faculty who do not speak English. The Korean teachers’ abilities communicating with me left much to be desired; however, it was light years better than trying to find common ground with a roomful of men who only know how to say thank you, hello, how are you, and good morning. Not that they aren’t jovial and generous, but when the students are exposed to grown men who haven’t bothered to learn English, you can guess how eager the kids are to put in any effort in the native teachers’ classes (I remember believing Spanish was much less important than math or science when I was a teenager – so I can hardly blame my kids now).

Ataturk always looks angry
Ataturk always looks angry

Furthermore – and this may be the single worst aspect of the job – the students are given 10-15 minute breaks between every single class period, regardless of level or age. Basically, after every 40 minute block, hundreds of 6 year olds, 10 year olds, 15 year olds (whichever group the school caters to) run amok, getting themselves even more riled up and preventing the teacher of the following lesson from calming them down to begin the class. Students buy chocolate bars, sugary drinks, and other snacks and if they don’t finish them in the allotted time, they bring them into the classroom. They’re eating all day. It’s too much food. It’s too much sugar. And too much energy.

Imagine being an educator in a system that does everything it can to shorten the students’ attention spans? Adolescents simply do not need that much food during the day; nor do they need that many breaks. The breaks do significantly more harm than good. The breaks teach the students they don’t have to sit still, pay attention, listen to the teacher, or focus for longer than a half hour at a time. Turkiye is breeding entire generations of ADHD kids. I don’t really want to think about how this will translate into other aspects of their upcoming adult lives (career, relationships, family, etc.).

Students are rarely this well-behaved
Students are rarely this well-behaved

The Samanyolu network of schools – a very conservative, religious, private system – consists of a dozen campuses in Ankara alone; however, you can find them all over Turkiye and the world. After the typical subjects (math, science, language, history), students must take a class called Religious Studies. I find nothing wrong with this, but what is intriguing is how often the daily schedule is altered due to the Salat – one of the five pillars of Islam that requires all males over the age of 14 to pray 5 times between sunrise and sunset.

Apart from the many challenges present, there are some interesting elements to the Turkish educational system as well. For instance, once the students reach the high school (or secondary school) level, they choose one of four tracks: Science, SocialSciences, Foreign Languages, or TurkishMath. The chosen track determines the students’ schedule during the semesters and over the course of their whole high school career. If a student chooses the Foreign Language track, they’ll have more hours of English, German, and Arabic than a student in the Turkish-Math track who may have more hours of algebra, geometry, and calculus. After high school, they follow into the universities along the same track they’ve already chosen.

Yet Another brick in the wall
Yet Another brick in the wall

It’s very similar to the European style of education and one that the United States should seriously consider adopting. The truth is that not all students are cut out for college and not all students thrive in an academic environment. In Turkiye, this is the unfortunately the rule – not the exception. The US might benefit from such a system in which children who would succeed taking a technical path as opposed to further classrooms. Therefore, while teaching in Turkiye offers obstacles to native English teachers, policy makers in America might be able to improve our classrooms by taking a page out of the Turkish way of doing organizing the students into different paths (only a page… not the entire book).

Until Next Time…



One thought on “…Another Brick in the Wall – Part II

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