One of my favorite quotes from a high school coach went something like this: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
While this might seem ominous to some, it made perfect sense to this perfection-seeking overachiever. I never felt proud or accomplished after a sports practice or academic event if I left feeling like I had not perfected something. I knew rationally that we learn through making mistakes, and I never faulted anyone else for their own mistakes; but I always felt better if I could achieve perfection the first time.
Thankfully, this side of me has relaxed over time. The high-school me would certainly not survive Peace Corps Pre-Service Training (PST). Every day was a flurry of mistakes, from language misunderstandings in the home at breakfasts to not following the proper etiquette on local public transportation.
Monday through Friday, the Health Education volunteers situated in Rusestii Noi followed this schedule more or less every day:
6:00-7:00am – Wake up, drink some tea or instant coffee
8:00am-12:00pm – Language Class
12:00pm – Lunch Break
12:30-1:15 – Walk to the center of the village and flag down a rutiera (a van that says max occupancy 15, but really you pack it until people are standing chest to chest or sitting on the dashboard)
1:30-5:30 – Health Education/ Teaching/Lesson Planning Skills (For context: Health Education volunteers plan and co-teach with two Moldovan teachers)
5:30-6:00 – Catch the rutiera back to Rusestii Noi
~6:30-7:00 – All back at our respective homes
7:00 – ??? – Language homework, prepping for interviews with Peace Corps staff, eating dinner, Skype with family/friends, lesson planning, etc.
~4:30am – someone’s rooster would inevitably become active
Most Thursdays all of the trainees from the different sectors were together, learning about medical and safety policies. These, too, were all day events, but at least we got to check up on how other volunteers were doing and gain a larger perspective of life in Moldova. Saturdays we all had language class from 8:00am- 12:30pm. We had most Saturday afternoons and Sundays to ourselves, although usually these were taken up with cultural events, host family parties, or lesson planning. As you can imagine, the mistakes and misunderstandings were plentiful.
We had the opportunity to practice working with our future partners by teaching (in Romanian!) to Moldovan students in “Practice School.” We had two total weeks of practice school (one with each teaching partner), and these were by far the most intense weeks of training. First, these were the first days where we almost exclusively spoke and heard Romanian. I never realized how much brain power and focus it takes to listen so attentively and still only understand 10-50% of the conversation. Second, we had to build trust with our partners. This involved both sides being involved in planning interesting lessons, explaining our thought processes, and being open to suggestions and new ideas.
Third, there was the actual teaching. Each pair taught three classes total over the course of three days to children of different age groups. For us, this was the first time many of us had stood up in front of a classroom of children and tried to convey information while managing the room. For our partners, it must have been an odd experience to no longer have the classroom completely under their control or decision-making. Additionally, we used scripts that the volunteers prepared to allow us to keep track of the Romanian, and to read our grammatically-correct, triple checked, language-instructor-approved sentences. For many of the Moldovan teachers, it was a difficult balance to use a script in their own language for our benefit, yet refrain from jumping in and answering every student question. Our partnership requires our teaching partners to trust that we have the language skills to understand most of the questions, but also requires that we know when and how to ask for assistance.
Fourth, each pair had to participate in a feedback session. This involved us talking about our own feelings, our observations from the lessons, and received feedback from mentors who watched our lessons. For many partners, feedback was a very difficult part of practice school. We have been told that many Moldovans do not reveal their true feelings right away. For example, many past volunteers have told us that they didn’t even know that their partners liked or appreciated them until their last day in the village. The same goes for negative feedback; quite a few partners admitted that they were afraid to offend us by offering ideas or changes to our lesson plans. Thus, feedback sessions (depending on the partner) could be long and arduous.
Finally, we spent the afternoons editing our lesson plans for the next age group and did it all over again.
And suddenly, it was done. I remember looking at the calendar of training events at the beginning of June, thinking there was no way I could survive the experience. How was I supposed to pass a language exam in 10 weeks? How was I supposed to be teaching with a Moldovan in Romanian by week 8? How? How? HOW?
Through the mistakes.
Both of my partners were open to my ideas, but willing to express their own. We built a new sense of professional and personal trust. We discussed our families, our homes, our likes and dislikes, and our strengths and weaknesses in teaching. We misunderstood each other, asked for help, laughed, and made many mistakes. However, we accomplished the most important goal: Moldovan students learned a little bit more about how to live a healthy life.
I suppose practice school did allow us to begin down a road of “perfect practice makes perfect.” But more importantly, practice school put our service back into perspective. It really doesn’t matter how many verbs we conjugated slightly incorrectly. It doesn’t matter how many times we stumble over those difficult words with several “ș” (shh) and “ț” (ts) sounds. It doesn’t matter if our final activity is cut short by time constraints. Perfection in the way I used to view it will never exist. Instead, what matters is that we work well with our Moldovan partners. What matters is that we bring a new perspective to the school, and are open enough to be changed in response. But what matters most is if—by the end of a lesson—Moldovan students are able to remember and put into practice a simple health message.
That is my new perfect.