Teaching Against the Odds: What do you mean you didn’t get through the entire textbook?

Students in Mongolia are currently on fall break. Originally, when the vacation dates were set by the Ministry of Education, students were supposed to be on vacation for one week: November 9th to 18th. I remember in the beginning of the school year mentioning to my husband that I thought those dates were a recipe for disaster given that November 21st would be local election day and November 26th would be Independence Day-both national holidays and excuses for parents and students to extend the vacation. It turns out that I was not the only one who came to that conclusion, because three weeks ago an official decree came that vacation would now be from November 9th to 26th.

Never ending vacations are the norm in Mongolia. Students officially start school September 1st and finish May 31st with breaks between each semester, at New Years, and at Tsaagan Sar (usually late January or February). These breaks are very fluid, though, and often seem arbitrarily shifted or extended. For example, last spring was a very good season for herders in the Gobi and at the request of parents, vacation for schools in the countryside was extended from the original length of two weeks to three weeks.

All these breaks make teaching and lesson planning very difficult. At the beginning of each school year all teachers are told exactly how many class hours are required for each subject, which is also something that changes from year to year. For example, the Ministry of Education decreed that 9th, 10th, and 11th grades must attend English class three times a week for a total of 105 class hours this year. The official requirement is that the entire textbook is covered during those hours, so in order to write evenly paced lesson plans, I take the number of classes, divide it by the number of chapters in each textbook and arrive at how many classes I can dedicate to each chapter or topic. The number of classes dictated by the Ministry of Education of course does not take into account the arbitrary changes to vacation dates and random days when students have to participate in unscheduled concerts or take state mandated tests during their regular class times. As the year progresses it is exceedingly easy lose an entire month of teaching to attrition in the schedule, yet the entire textbook must be covered.

Last year I only made it through 85-90 percent of the material I was expected to teach even though I taught at a much faster pace than I would have liked to or was appropriate for the students. I also held numerous make up classes on Saturdays and still failed to meet the textbook requirements. Teachers can only do so much until the Ministry of Education actually enforces the number of school days required to cover the material that they mandate. As it stands, teachers and students are given a moving target in which to achieve unrealistic educational objectives. Few would disagree with the argument the education system is failing to produce effective outcomes, and this failure seems to often be addressed by change, change, and more change in the form of new and exciting curricula or methodologies. A focus on consistency, however, would actually do more to promote a better education system by giving teachers and students a fighting chance to succeed.

About the author

Sadie Munson currently lives and works in Umnugobi Province as an English teacher. She holds a bachelors degree from the University of Montana and a Masters of Human Ecology from the University of Wisconsin. Her professional interests and experiences include primary and secondary education, child development and family education, and community development. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

(Brian White contributed to this post).