Experiencing Azeri Hospitality

Experiencing Azeri Hospitality

Mount Vernon teachers travel to Azerbaijan over Spring Break.

What opinion do students in the United States have of Azerbaijan? The question created an awkward moment several weeks ago, when five Fairfax county teachers who had traveled to Azerbaijan over spring break were asked this by a group of Azeri students. How do you tell someone that the vast majority of people in your country have never for one moment given a single thought to their homeland or its people?

“The first time I brought it up in class [students] were saying, ‘Where is Azerbaijan? Where is Azerbaijan? What is that?’” said Kelly Sharbel, a history and government teacher at Mount Vernon High School who participates in the sponsoring program but did not go on the trip.

To lay those questions to rest: Azerbaijan is a country of about eight million people. It lies on the western edge of the Caspian Sea. Its northern border is Russia and its southern border is Iran. Oil exports drive the economy of the former Soviet state.

As part of the Deliberating Democracy project, Lynnette Russo from Mount Vernon High School and Hassan Mims and Emily Millians from West Potomac traveled to Azerbaijan for one week with two other teachers from Fairfax. They spent most of their time in Baku, the capitol, interacting with Azeri teacher and student counterparts.

Millians said she was struck by the “two-fold” aspects of Azerbaijan’s economic situation. “They’re an emerging economy but they’re emerging incredibly rapidly,” mainly because of oil revenues. She said that although over 90 percent of Azerbaijanis are Muslim, the atmosphere is predominantly secular, due in part to the religious repression that occurred under Soviet Rule. The transition from communism to democracy has occurred slowly, and the changes are subtle. “For Americans it’s very deceptive,” Millians said. You hear ‘authoritarian’ and images go through your head. [But] it’s not Italy under Mussolini … there’s not this ominous presence … there’s a McDonalds on the corner … and people are out late at night. [But] when you talk to people about politics [they say.] ‘We would never ask this question,’ [or,] ‘Oh no, we would never do that.’ It looks like one thing but under the surface it's something else.”

“FROM AN EDUCATION perspective, definitely they do not have the same resources,” said Mims. “They are still writing on chalkboards … Teachers are actually in the poverty category - less than fifty dollars a month.” But despite these handicaps, “the professionalism of teachers over there is just absolutely amazing,” he said.

Most Azeri teachers are female, Mims said. “Male teachers were frowned upon. They thought I was a basketball player. [Students] were really, really disappointed to learn I was a teacher.”

Millians said most teachers teach to the test and most students learn by rote. “Students come in. The teacher tells them what they’re supposed to know, talks at them for 45 minutes. Then the students go away.” “It’s incredibly high stakes testing … The better you score the better university you go to. And the better university you go to, the less you’re paying. It’s got that Soviet elite structure of education.”

Millians described a typical class. Students sit perfectly straight with their arms crossed on their desks. Their hands pop up automatically to ask a question, as if on a spring-loaded hinge. They stand rigidly beside their desks whenever they speak. “It’s very formal,” Millians said. She added that students’ ambitions are often as restrictive as their education. They either hope to “be engineers and go work for the oil companies, be businessmen and go work for the oil companies, or learn English and get out of Azerbaijan.”

“Deliberating in a Democracy,” the program that connected Fairfax teachers and students in Azerbaijan is an experimental effort underway in six cities across the country, each matched with one former Soviet state. The program shows teachers how to incorporate a “deliberation” approach into their classrooms. Deliberation is a highly structured discussion method in which students read evidence for both sides of an argument then follow a framework for respectful debate with the goal of finding shared points of consensus.

“It’s a good example of what Fairfax County is moving towards,” said Mims. “The days of teachers standing in front of the classroom and just lecturing 40-45 minutes are over … With [this] method you have to read about the opposite point of view and respectfully listen to others talk about their points of view, which is a huge step forward because you don’t see a lot of adults doing that.”

“I think the students have risen to this project because they’re not just given this subject and regurgitating it,” said Sharbel.

“It makes them step out of their comfort zone. I think it’s a great process,” said Russo.

“It dawns on them that there’s another perspective,” added Sharbel.

IN AZERBAIJAN, the teachers were able to gain a more nuanced view of Azeri opinion than they could have from a distance. They described seeing the issue of compulsory national service being deliberated in Fairfax County, and two different Azeri schools. All three deliberations revealed different aspects of the argument. Most Fairfax students were against compulsory service to the country, whether military or otherwise. But, said Russo at a deliberation in a school in an upper middle-class Azeri neighborhood, “the whole tone of it and the result of the end were completely different than the deliberation in the United States … The majority of them thought national service was important … They felt being involved in the military … was very important to their survival as a nation.” But Millians said the opinion was much different in another Azeri school. At the wealthier school, the students never said “‘Why should I serve in the military when someone who’s rich can pay and get out of it?’ Whereas in lower income schools … one of the most important arguments the kids found against mandatory national service was that for them it would be military service.”

The teachers also had the opportunity to experience other aspects of Azeri life. Russo said she still drinks tea every morning, as is Azeri custom. “The food there was fantastic,” she said. “We ate like it was a Thanksgiving meal for lunch and dinner every single day.” On one evening, a teacher hosted them for a traditional Azeri feast. “And when I say feast I mean like five courses,” said Russo. After dinner everyone joined in traditional dances. “We were dancing in their living rooms … so we learned about their culture and they invited us into their homes.”

“At first you’re like I don’t think I could ever live here, then you see the culture and the people and you think, oh yeah I could live here,” said Russo, though she added she would have to ignore the corrupt government and the under-funded schools.

Millians said the opportunity to visit Azerbaijan taught her lessons she could have learned in no other way. “Any time you travel and experience another culture and another way of learning, you not only learn about the place that you’re in, but you end up learning a lot about yourself.”

Citing one of her Azeri friends, who protested in the streets over flawed elections, she added, “I think it’s given me a very tangible sense of how foreign policy can be perceived totally different than what the intentions might be. When it impacts somebody I know in a very direct way … It’s no longer an intellectual question. Nobody asked me to defend the policy of my government but it made me think about how that policy really impacts this individual.”

Millians said she learned professional lessons as well. Deliberation may be a difficult concept for American teachers, but it is even more alien to the Azeri school system. But Azeri teachers not only mastered the lessons, they expanding on them. “At the end of [one] lesson we’d done this debrief,” said Millians, “and [an Azeri teacher] gave everybody in the room a post-it note and said, ‘I want you to write on this post-it note one thing you can do every day that’s positive for the environment.’ Everyone went around the room and said what they had done and then she put [each note] on the board in the shape of a sun. On the one hand, its kind of silly and cheesy, but on the other hand, no one in the room has forgotten Anna’s sun.”