From teacher to teacher: ‘You are doing someone good by simply being there and communicating!’

In March this year, the Integration Foundation started organising language missions for people with another mother tongue working in the public sector to provide them with Estonian language practice in an Estonian-speaking work environment. The language missions take place during 12–30 calendar days in an organisation in the same field in another county or city. The language missions are for people who wish to improve their Estonian language skills to fulfil their work tasks. The language missions, or the labour mission programme for language learning, is financed by the European Social Fund.

At the beginning of April, Tatiana Podpovedkina, a class teacher at the Soldino School in Narva, spent two intense and exciting work weeks at the Pärnu Kuninga Street Basic School, where she was mentored by one of the school’s class teachers Katrin Kurvits. Both teachers have kindly agreed to share their experiences, emotions, and plans for the future.

What inspired you to join the language mission programme?

Tatiana Podpovedkina (TP): First and foremost, I wanted to improve my Estonian language skills. However, my class in Narva is also a language immersion class, so I really wanted to create opportunities for the future, to bring my students together with children from other Estonian schools, so that they could improve their language skills by playing and communicating with each other. It is difficult to achieve this locally in Narva.

Katrin Kurvits (KK): Our school joined this programme for the first time. I am usually open to new challenges, which is why I decided to participate in the programme. As a quick responder, I immediately grabbed the first (and only) class teacher from the list. This turned out to be Tatiana. To be honest: at first, I had no idea what was in store for me. It just seemed exciting, something I had not done before. Tatiana’s expectations became clear to me only when we met.

Do schools in Pärnu and Narva differ a lot – in terms of their teaching methods, work culture, or something else?

TP: I had always had the impression that children in Estonian schools are generally more restrained and do not run around as much as here. In fact, children are the same everywhere, especially the younger ones. In terms of teaching, however, it was noticeable that Estonian teachers, for example, try to calm down the children who were just playing outside as the lesson starts, so that they could focus better. Katrin, for example, says hello to each child separately in the morning and wishes them a good school day. This alone immediately helps the children adjust to the day of learning. At first, it seemed like a waste of class time, but later, I realised how useful it really is. And in class, the children truly are really polite and obedient. However, all of this very much depends on the teacher. It was quite amazing to see how patient both the teachers and other school staff can be with the children. Children are taught discipline from the ground up and it shows in the school, especially in older students.

Now that the language mission is over, how do you see it in retrospect – was it all worth the trouble?

KK: At this point, I am extremely happy that I made this decision and that it happened to be Tatiana who I ended up working with. The kind of energy that Tatiana has, was very much needed. The children in my class liked Tatiana straight away and quickly accepted her. The presence of a guest in the class was not unusual because we often have interns or other guests in class.

Those two weeks with Tatiana were what I always dreamed of. I was not alone with my burden of responsibility, but had another teacher by my side with whom I could discuss things. Tatiana was a real help and we got along very well. She came and stayed as if we were old friends.

Our schedule was very packed and it was not only confined within school walls. There were only a few days when we did not do something together after class. Walking home from the theatre late one night, I admitted to Tatiana that I would have a class at 8 in the morning, but I had not had time to prepare anything and needed to improvise. I used an Estonian expression (puusalt tulistama) to describe my situation, but Tatiana was not familiar with it. Once I explained what it meant, Tatiana immediately offered to deal with the students herself in the morning, so that I could prepare the next lessons I had that day.

During the lessons, Tatiana diligently wrote down various Estonian expressions that I used, and then I had to explain them to her during breaks. However, it often happened that I had to go to our Estonian language teacher myself and ask her why some expressions are the way they are. There were lessons for everyone! That is how breaks turned out to be some of the best language lessons for us.

TP: My time in Pärnu gave me much more than I could have hoped for. I had the opportunity to communicate with many other primary school teachers and gain a lot of valuable experience and get advice and language practice, of course. I wanted to communicate with the children as much as possible as well. In the first days, it was difficult for us to make contact, because our language barrier was still hindering us at first, but we got over it pretty quickly. Communicating with children in particular opens you up to a so-called living language – one that you can never get from textbooks alone. Katrin and I really spent a lot of time together outside of school. We went to the theatre, exhibitions, and museums several times. I can only be grateful and happy that I received a mentor like Katrin!

On my last day in Pärnu, Katrin asked her students to write me letters to take with me. We read them in Narva together with my class. It was very warm and touching.

Does this method work for language learning and for bringing different communities together?

KK: Before Tatiana’s arrival, I had heard about the issues of language education in Ida Viru County only from the TV. It was a problem that I was aware of, but it was so far away. It was only when I was directly communicating with Tatiana that I realised how difficult the situation really is. Thanks to her, I have more motivation to visit Narva and Ida Viru County more. I have done this in the past too, but as I did not have any personal connections there until now, it has not been a priority. Hence, communication at this level will certainly contribute to the convergence of our different communities and the better understanding of one another.

Have you made plans for future cooperation?

TP: Just recently, we organised a joint online class for our students. We sang songs together; I made a presentation about the city of Narva and Katrin about Pärnu. Afterwards, we made a quiz about each other’s knowledge based on what people from Narva and Pärnu remembered about the other cities. In the end, the children shared phone numbers with each other to communicate more in the future. While we were in Pärnu, Katrin, and I also went to the Jõulumäe sports centre and made plans on how we could bring our students for joint events there.

KK: Our cooperation in Pärnu turned out so well that now, we are planning to visit Narva and Ida Viru County for four days in August with all the teachers from Pärnu who participated in this programme. I have a definite plan to see Tatiana teaching at her school sometime in the autumn and to shadow her. This programme could also work the other way around – teachers from all over Estonia could go to Ida Viru County and help their colleagues in learning the Estonian language.

TP: I am also planning to go to Pärnu again this autumn and continue my studies with the help of Katrin.

KK: It would be ideal if all language learners could have such a personal mentor in their field of work with whom they could discuss work matters even every day, if necessary, and who would be there and offer support when needed. It is a good feeling to know that you are doing someone good by simply being there and talking to them!

Urve Krause, the principal of the Pärnu Kuninga Street Basic School:

Pärnu Kuninga Street Basic School has hosted teachers from Narva Soldino School, Jõhvi Central School, Narva Central School, and Narva Kreenholm School as part of the Language Swallows’ Project. All the teachers at these schools have been very friendly and interested in the teaching and educational work done in our school. Their interest in the Estonian language, culture, and customs makes us really happy. We had long conversations about the culture of our school, work with parents, and creating a cooperative school team. The whole school welcomed the guests and they became members of our family. They participated actively in school life and events. The whole school was happy that we could share our experiences with our colleagues. We are certainly willing to host truly motivated teachers, who will share our experiences in other schools in the future. Participating in a language mission gives the school new experiences and acquaintances, as well as opportunities to learn from other schools.

The Integration Foundation awaits public sector organisations – schools, kindergartens, hospitals, etc. – that employ people with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds who need Estonian language practice to join the language mission programme. We ask that the head of the organisation or the employee themselves notify us of their desire to participate in the language dispatch. Read more about language missions on the Integration Foundation’s website:

The language mission is funded by the European Social Fund’s programme ‘Activities supporting the competitiveness of people with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds and returnees on the labour market’ as a sub-activity ‘Offering a labour force mission programme for language learning’.