American English Teachers as Cultural Ambassadors in Russia

Published 11/07/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Benjamin Sorkin | 11/07/2022

My decision to focus on the experiences of Americans came as a result of heightened awareness and attention to U.S – Russia relations, yet there was little scholarship on how education programs in the modern era can act as a tool of soft diplomacy for fostering cross cultural awareness and understanding. My research specifically hoped to answer: How do American English teachers in Russia balance their dual roles as classroom teachers and cultural ambassadors?

This winter break [2019-2020], I travelled to Russia in order to conduct research relevant to my Educational Studies secondary concentration. As a requirement for this secondary, students are asked to complete a capstone project involving research of interest to them. Given my Russian family background and experience studying the language at Harvard as part of my coursework, this seemed like the perfect location to travel to and conduct educational research. I chose an international relations focus to open up research support opportunities at Harvard and focused on the experiences of American teachers in Russia.

My travel took to me to the major cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, where I was able to experience some elements of Russia culture for myself through sightseeing and informal conversations with other young people. It was important for me to come to my own understanding of Russian culture and values first, and I sought to do that through visits to key cultural sites, including sites of Soviet, pre-Soviet, and post-Soviet significance, given the preconceptions I came to the country with thanks to my Russian heritage and what I’ve learned about Russia secondhand. I’ve had limited interaction with native Russian people of my age, so getting connected to cousins and family friends while in Russia was really important to me. Through these conversations, I came to understand how complex life for young people in Russia can be given the country’s past and the increasing influence and awareness of Western culture. Traditional, conservative values still impact the lives of Russians, such as through expectations around their careers, relationships, and attachment to their country. However, liberal Western values were common among the young people I got to know, and they felt somewhat at odds with what they expected or desired for themselves, and what previous generations desired for them. Ultimately, it was really fascinating to get to know and become friends with Russians my age, and this trip gave me some lifelong connections that I’m immensely grateful for.

The teachers I interviewed were largely posted in secondary and tertiary cities in Russia, often hours away from Moscow by train or further east in Siberia. I exclusively interviewed teachers who were in Russia as part of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) program, a State Department initiative that allows recent graduates to live in a foreign country and assist in English teaching at schools and universities. Nearly all of them taught in universities, and most were working with students who had been studying English for multiple years. As a result, the teaching emphasis of their role, while still important, was less about teaching how to speak English and more so how to use it and understand American culture and media. Throughout my trip, I was able to interview 6 teachers, over a fifth of all the ETA’s in Russia, in a variety of cities and university settings.

Some of the questions I was interested in exploring through my interviews included: How have you been perceived as an American teacher in Russia? Particularly by your students and community members? Do you feel like you fit in in Russia? Are there things you've done to make yourself fit in more or to make yourself feel more comfortable? Have you found students to have misperceptions about American culture or people? What misperceptions, if any, have you had to or attempted to dispel in your classroom? Do you personally feel like an ambassador of American culture and values? Are you encouraged or discouraged to be an ambassador by your school/students/the Fulbright Program?

Unsurprisingly, I found it hard to generalize the experiences of ETAs in Russia given the variety of different environments they found themselves in. Some had total control over their classroom and curriculum, while others were always in the presence of a native Russian teacher who ran the classroom and the ETA merely helped. Some teachers were working with students who were themselves going to become English teachers, while others primarily worked with students just studying English recreationally and conversationally. However, there were a few overlapping themes that I found immensely interesting.

First, all of the teachers highlighted “scare tactics” and “fear-mongering” as a part of their orientation from the State Department. In this sense, the ambassadorial role is presented and displays itself as one of the more primary functions of the teacher’s role. The teachers’ orientation was only a few days long, and only a single day was devoted to teaching skills. A second theme was a sense of tension these teachers felt between dispelling myths about Americans or American culture, while also wanting to maintain rapport with students. Many teachers highlighted that they were the first and potentially only American some of their students knew, and therefore maintaining a relationship with them sometimes took precedence over correcting stereotypes. A final critical theme that emerged in my research was a feeling of standing out in their communities. Russian speakers sought them out for English tutoring, teachers had to make changes to their appearance and demeanor to blend into Russian society better, and cultivating relationships with students and faculty was difficult given their unique role and position in their environments. I hope to weave together some of these themes as part of my Capstone project after an evaluation of existing literature on the topic of education as a diplomacy tool and how my findings fit into these theories.

Apart from my research, this trip was personally fulfilling and extremely meaningful. I’ve always had an interest in Russia, but considered it separate from my own family heritage. To me, Russia is just an interesting and complex social, economic, and political phenomenon. Getting to see both sides of Russia, both through my intellectual interest in it and as a chance to connect with my heritage, was the perfect way to spend my winter break. I hope to return very soon, hopefully in a more temperate season, to reconnect with the relationships I’ve developed there and to learn and see more of this beautiful and fascinating country.