On November 13, 2013 my business partner and I held a 1.5 hour training for 25 local high school students on communication and negotiation skills. The first segment detailed proper communication skills when interviewing with an employer, greeting someone in business, and negotiating terms of a business deal. From the start I felt these topics were too complex for our group of 15-18 year old students in the rural city of Leova. Nonetheless, my business partner displayed really great energy and catered his presentation to the audience by making many jokes, using plenty of Moldovan slang, and attempting to put himself in their shoes. He commanded attention on a subject that was not necessarily fun and did his best to maintain their focus for as long as he could muster. By the twenty minute mark, however, interest waned, mobile phones appeared, and side conversations began. Granted it was 4:00pm, with a full day of school in the books. No matter what questions he asked the group, they fell on deaf ears. I attempted to encourage participation by laughing at his jokes and asking follow-up questions to my partner and the students. The efforts came to no avail. As I scrolled through the rest of the presentation I kept in mind that my segment of today’s presentation hung in the balance and that I would need to get creative in providing a strong jolt of enthusiasm to our lackluster audience. After one hour, it was my turn to present two themes I thought would be attractive to our young/IT savvy crowd: how to create a Gmail account and how to create a Facebook account. In the past week you may have seen (I could only hope you loved me so much) a couple of Romanian posts: Cum să Creați un Cont de Email and Cum să Creați un Cont de Facebook attached to my social media profiles. Both are guides for opening each type of communication account and were created to be training manuals during our session with the students.
It was my time to shine. I was at the helm with 25 disengaged students and two older women from the city’s wellness and youth development center. I stood up, introduced myself in Romanian, apologized for my goofy accent, gave them a brief background on my time in country, asked them if they wanted a brief pause, received the standard round of chuckles and jaw drops, and then asked my first relevant question,
“Show of hands, who here has an Odnoklassniki account?” All hands raised and all eyes rolled immediately. For those of you not from this side of the Atlantic, Odnoklassniki is the Facebook of Moldova.
“Ok… who here has an email account?” The older women raised their hands, zero students.
“Wow. Who here has a Facebook account?” Zero hands total. I was a little shocked but was understanding given its lack of perceived value with the overwhelming presence of Odnoklassniki in the rural regions of Moldova.
I continued to ask the students why an email address or Facebook account might be important. The buzzword that kept being thrown around amongst students was communication.
“With whom do we communicate through these forums and why?”Not many answers were provided.
I asked the two older women to tell me how they utilize email. They mentioned that they sent personal messages to family members abroad through email, which provided a good start for idea generation. I proceeded to ask them if they had any other examples. Both did not provide anything further. Knowing that both women were professionals at the wellness and development center, I was rather disappointed that they did not mention using their email addresses for work purposes but again I was not surprised. In Leova, it is commonplace for offices to do the majority of their work using fixed line phones, standard mail, computers without limited internet access, and by consulting the archives for documentation. Even with internet some organizations still keep all of their accounting records off Excel and on paper (but I digress).
Trying to elaborate on a concept few seemed to be familiar with was difficult, but I did my best. I mentioned that email and Facebook provided a means of communication between two people where ideas could be shared rapidly, documents and photos could be shared electronically, research and interaction amongst producers and consumers took place, and linkages with professionals or organizations could be made. The keys to these forms of communication were speed and ease of use. Email and Facebook make communication faster and easier. I offered the example that if I wanted to learn more about the women’s organization, I could write them a short electronic message (without needing to know them personally) in order to receive a response within minutes. The students understood the concept was similar to a text message but what they struggled to grasp was WHY do it? What does it matter if we engage with a business professional from Chișinau or an organization that interests us? Why do we need to communicate with people we do not know? Why is sending a resume or receiving new information important to our futures? I want to chalk the problem up to a lack of motivation or apathy, but it is more than that. I strongly believe it is a parenting issue and a responsibility that also falls on the Moldovan education system. Kids are not equipped or challenged to think critically. They are being steered backwards, if at all.
After thousands of conversations and 17 months spent in Leova, I have observed:
1) A strong lack of parental guidance: 38% of the active Moldovan population works abroad. Whenever I play basketball with youth, hold discussion clubs, visit schools, or speak to youth on the street I am always curious as to how many of their parents live and work abroad. I am interested in hearing their stories. The responses are staggering. The majority of kids that I speak with tell me that either their mother or father work abroad. In some cases, both. The countries vary: Russia, Italy, Greece, Canada, Germany, etc. Most of these kids live under the supervision of their grandparents. In one case, I spoke with a 17 year old girl who had been living alone in an apartment in Leova for two years. Her grandparents operated the family farm in a village within the Leova district while both parents worked in Germany year-round. All parties paid for her to rent an apartment and live on her own so that she could attend high school in the district capital. Under these conditions it forces her, someone so young and naive, to make complicated decisions and provides its share of household responsibilities. Succeeding in school is already difficult enough for teens. Add in all of these problems without the presence of role models, guidance, emotional support, and it becomes quite easy to identify why she may be behind the curve academically.
2) Mismanagement in the prioritization of responsibilities: My business partner and I discussed why our students showed a genuine lack of interest in learning or engaging with us. He told me that the children experience very tough upbringings. Most of them come from uneducated, agrarian households with superiors which can be under the influence of alcohol quite regularly. Most students that attended the workshop live in nearby villages, commute an hour to and from school each day, and are encouraged to do housework before homework. Their parents and grandparents understand productivity to be physical, not as much intellectual. After school it is not uncommon for a student to till land, feed animals, pick fruits and vegetables, prepare dinner, clean the house or property, and finish daily chores.
Given the awareness of these deficiencies and issues amongst the general populous, the responsibility to educate and motivate these children falls in the hands of the educational system. No one spends more time with local youth than their school teachers. The Ministry of Education of local educational administration shoulder these issues and need to find suitable ways in confronting them. If I may make two practical suggestions: 1) Give students more time to express themselves in classrooms. The majority of children I have met are incredibly shy and indecisive. It seems to me that they listen 95% of the day and voice themselves 5% based on my experiences working with local schools. Empower them by opening up topics for daily debate. 2) Give them problem solving activities. Everything in life does not come in simple question-answer format. Knowing the year Leova was founded is great, but what about deciding where to allocate money for the upcoming year: schools, water canalization, roads, job creation, extracurricular activities, etc. Students need to be equipped with reality a lot earlier, especially given the environment.
I was not under these assumptions pre-training session so I continued on with ignorance. I asked for one brave student to come to the front of the room to be the trainee and for another to co-pilot this endeavor. I asked for the rest of the students to take a piece of paper and pen from the conference table and keep notes of the visual guides. I began presenting each phase. As we moved forward, I checked in with the trainee to monitor his progress. The first observation I made was how slow it was for him to process the information on the screen. The Gmail settings were switched to Romanian and when asked to enter his personal information into the cells he had a tendency to pause for five seconds while clicking and navigating through each step. With the delays between instruction and follow-through by the trainee, I had to find ways to motivate the other participants to write on their note paper. After step 3 of 20 it became apparent to me that I had lost my audience. Some returned to their cell phones, others sat calmly, a few conversed. I am not sure if the subject was too difficult, if I was boring, if the instructions stunk, if they were exhibiting arrogance, or if they did not care. Any way you view the matter, I had lost just about everyone.
Fortunately, the two trainees were plugging away. I made a commitment to educate them for the remainder of the activity. We managed to finish registering his Gmail account within 15 minutes. I then gave him his first assignment: write me an email. I provided him with my email address and told him to write me anything he would like and press send. He did so and in return I vocalized to him and the entire class that I would be sending him the training guides for both Gmail and Facebook. I followed by mentioning that now our trainee was the “Gmail and Facebook Expert” and that any trainings or requests for materials would come from him. He smiled and I took it as a sign that he enjoyed being lauded in front of his peers. After a two minute break, the arduous process was ran for Facebook involving the same two trainees.
When class was dismissed and everyone had cleared out, I began cleaning the conference room. On the desk I found everyone’s slips of paper and pens placed on the table. I began collecting each slip and looked on the pieces of paper to view their notes. To my disappointment about 90% of the slips were kept blank, a few had wrote email at the top of the page, and some just left scribbles on their pieces of paper. I was strongly disappointed.
I felt that such a useful and interesting topic did not deliver any impact. I put that on myself. What could I have done better? How could I have been more clear? Is my audience incapable of understanding and utilizing these tools? The truth is I do not think they are. The majority of them spend their time wired to their computers and mobile phones. For me, it comes down to their interest and motivation; two attributes that are strongly lacking in Leova not just for students but for grownups and businessmen alike.
I did not write this post to include you all in a sulk session. This is a request for your input. I encourage your criticism and feedback in an attempt to change this mentality. If you have a moment, consult the guides I have created in the underlined posts above or provide your honest commentary on what you have read below.
These tools are not going to guarantee success or wealth for students, but learning them could open doors for more knowledge and awareness of opportunities at the national and local levels. The more effective we become in sending the message, the more hope I hold onto that our youth one day will become more receptive to it.