(MERIDIAN) - A room full of future teachers sat in their classroom at Mississippi State University – Meridian this week and watched a video of young Russians holding signs with the college students’ names.
The students here had never visited Russia, nor had the eastern European teenagers ever visited Mississippi. The only connection between the students in St. Petersburg, Russia and Meridian was Ksenia Zhbanova, an educator focused on exposing the future teachers to people they likely had never met.
“When we teachers work with our students, we need to be able to see how different and unique they are and see it as something to be celebrated,” said Zhbanova, an assistant professor of education at MSU-Meridian.
In an increasingly diverse world, chances are that most classrooms will include a student from a different country, background or culture. Awareness of students with different backgrounds helps teachers understand why a student may behave differently. Students in some countries and cultures may act more reserved, while in some places, making eye contact can be considered rude.
In a class on diversity and writing, the MSU-Meridian students, who all work as teaching assistants throughout the region, partnered with their Russian pen pals.
Student Ashley Breier said the experience of learning from her Russian pen pal helped her realize the importance of empathy for students from different backgrounds. Growing up in Texas, she said she observed some students judged for not knowing how to speak English. “I’ll definitely be more understanding with students who come in my classroom,” Breier said.
Generally, the class seemed to teach the future teachers lessons in caring about others.
“I feel like if I was to have an (English as a second language) student, I’ll have more patience with them,” said Ali Cochran. “I feel like I would put forth more effort with them as they learn.”
Future teacher Tera Yelverton said she will work to find connections with all of her students and credits her pen pal as a gift who helped her better understand why.
“I think about putting myself in their shoes and writing a letter in a different language,” Yelverton said.
Looking ahead, MSU students will write letters in English to their Russian pen pals and send a package of gifts to their new friends.
Zhbanova said the more connections people throughout the world make with each other, the more people can see how similar they are. She also wants the future teachers to help their students see their own unique backgrounds and qualities as strengths.
“They need to help their students appreciate how diverse they are,” Zhbanova said.
Story by Robbie Ward – The Meridian Star