Everyone in the world wants to “Teach Like a Pirate.” Not me. It’s a great book. Dave Burgess is inspiring (read it!!). I don’t want to teach like a pirate, though. I want to “Teach Like a Soviet.”
Soviets were the most resourceful people on the planet. They had to be to avoid Stalin’s purges. Today’s Russians still have this entrepreneurial quality. Mysteriously, I even discovered a handful that loved Stalin. I wondered about this. Why would anyone like an autocrat that killed so many of his own people?
“Because,” someone informed me, “there was a lot more stuff for people who survived.” It all came down to simple economics.
Stalin aside–I’m not his biggest fan–I look to Soviet history for my teaching skills. A Soviet could make miracles with a single carrot. Russians still can. A holiday meal has something called “zakuski stol.” This is a table filled with a million things–a veritable smorgasboard. It’s amazing to behold–fish, vegetables, potatoes, salads, meats–a feast–all generated from a single carrot. Everyone takes a little of each and feasts all night. It’s the opposite of the American dinner plate, which contains a few items heaping over. Zakuski stol originated because Soviets never had anything. Urban dwellers procured food by searching every metro station where the farmers set up tables. You might go to three stations bartering for dinner. Maybe you’d get a handful of mushrooms, some cheese, carrots, and you’d transform them into something magical.
This is very much like teaching–there are few resources, yet we transform them like magic. If I wrote “Teach Like A Soviet” it would discuss the true resourcefulness of teachers. Here are a couple of chapters.
1. Chapter One: Never share. Barter. Soviets were masters of bartering–people skimmed 10% off the top from their jobs to circulate on the black market. They’d trade for things they really needed.
2. Hoard. In Corporate America, if I wanted a pencil, I got a pencil. I didn’t feel like I might never see a pencil again. This is how teachers feel. We hoard. Soviets hoarded everything. You might not need five irons–take them to trade later. Teachers learn this the hard way–when it takes months and eighty forms to get a box of paper, or when no one will give us pencils because “you got twenty in the beginning of the year,” we learn from the Soviets. Hoard. I currently have a lifetime supply of paperclips and enough staples to reorganize Stanley-Bosch. But maybe YOU don’t. I’ll trade.
3. Set Goals Carefully. The Soviet Five-Year Plan was the best use of numbers ever. It should be a required math class for teacher prep. When projecting results, NEVER project your real results because then you’ll have nothing to improve later. Soviets didn’t care what the goal was so long as the number kept improving. They got this down to a science–project as low as possible so next year, or when you feel a purge coming on, you have room to show amazing improvement. “See, Comrade, I doubled my results!” You might think, “But before the Soviets we all produced so much more,” Don’t. Collective memory gets us nowhere. Today’s results are what matters.
4. Pass on the credit. A good Soviet always passed the credit up the food chain. It’s what kept him alive. He never wanted to stand out too much, because then when something went wrong, he’d be the only man standing.
5. Avoid the Purge. This can be tough to do in teaching because the regulations change so much. In my dozen years in the classroom, teacher certification changed three times, always when I finished all the requirements. “Oh, that doesn’t count anymore. We’re doing this now.” I have wasted thousands of dollars on unnecessary graduate courses, spent hundreds of hours creating a portfolio that didn’t count, and now I spend days testing students and analyzing data I wish I understood better and logging everything I do into a system. Soviets have taught me to be flexible and open to change, and do so with panache, because you can’t do good in the world if you have been sent to Siberia. That’s a fact.
6. Have a side operation. Lenin did this best. “You can all have little plots of land on the side.” That was the basis of the New Economic Policy. The little plots of land kept the Soviets alive, because the system sure wasn’t providing food. People grew on their own time. They traded, sold, and ate. For me “side plots of land” represents continual learning–doing the professional development I want to do. I’ve met fascinating people and become a better teacher. For many teachers the “side plots of land” end up becoming second jobs to pay for classroom supplies, bills, or to get out of the classroom entirely.
If they just learned to “teach like a Soviet,” they wouldn’t have to leave the classroom. They’d be inspired. They’d stop complaining that “the system is broken.” Soviets didn’t complain. They became some of the best entrepreneurs in the world. If we all just “teach like a Soviet” we’ll find the creative classroom solutions we need to thrive, no matter what the conditions in the outside world.
—[images: counter-current.com and http://21900232.nhd.weebly.com/scars-left-by-the-october-revolution.html]