Teacher Spotlight: English Teacher Mr. Nathan Houston Discusses His Time in the Peace Corps

By Gabby Cress | Editor-In-Chief 

Q: When did you join the Peace Corps and how old were you?

I joined Peace Corps in 2004 when I was 30 years old, and stayed through the entire service (until December 2006.)

Q: Why did you join the Peace Corps?

I wanted the experience of living in a foreign country and learning a new culture, language, and customs.  I had already taught high school English in the States, and wanted to teach English as a foreign language overseas and share instructional methodologies with Ukrainian teachers.

Q: How did you join, and had anyone you known been in it before?

I visited the Peace Corps website and embarked on the admissions process.  A friend from college had already served in both Mauritania and Mali, and her Peace Corps service had transformed her life.

Q: How long did you volunteer for and where did you go?

The entire Peace Corps service is 2 years and 3 months, but not all volunteers finish.  I was assigned to Lutsk, Ukraine (near the Polish border) and finished my service.

Q: What was your most cherished memory about being in the Peace Corps?

On a personal level, it was dating and marrying my wife, who is Ukrainian.  On a professional level, I really enjoyed learning from my colleagues and host families during my time there.  It’s difficult to narrow it down to one cherished memory, but the best moments involved exploring the country and getting invited over to the homes of Ukrainian families for wonderful, home-cooked meals.

Q: How did it change you as a person overall?

I think it enabled me to understand my own culture better, in relation to other parts of the world.  It made me more flexible in my thinking, and gave me great stories to share with people who also love traveling.

Q: What are some of the emotions that you first felt as you left your home to go overseas for 2 years?
I felt mostly excitement, because I was ready for an adventure. Most of my anxiety centered around what to bring with me, but as it turns out, just about anything was available to buy in the shops—except Mexican food!

Mr. Nathaniel Houston has been teaching at Avon High School for almost 10 years, and is currently teaching VU Composition and Literature. 

Q: What grade did you teach in Ukraine, did you get to choose the grade?

Most volunteers taught in village schools, elementary and secondary, but I taught at the university level because of my teaching degree and experience. No, I didn’t choose the assignment, but knew from the beginning that I would probably be in a college or serve as a teacher trainer.

Q: What was your perspective of Ukraine before going, and what was it afterwards?

I thought it would look a lot like what I imagined about the Soviet Union when I grew up, during the end of the Cold War. I thought that the people would be harsh and not particularly friendly. Afterwards I realized that the picture is much more complex. To an American, it does appear that Ukrainians are very reserved and serious in public, but their households and some workplaces are a completely different story. In those environments, they are warm, generous, and sociable. Ukraine is a country in transition, but its progress is hindered by the remnants of its Communist past. Corruption throughout all levels of government is a major problem, but Ukrainians are extremely resourceful and know how to get through hard times. They are survivors.

Q: Did you get to choose where you wanted to go to, if so, what are some other places that you requested?

Applicants can list preferences, but there are no guarantees. Three regions were offered to me, but countries were not specified. Two of the assignments were in Africa, and one in Eastern Europe. I chose Eastern Europe because that region has always been fascinating to me.

Q: How long had you been teaching before joining the Peace Corps and how did it affect you as a teacher afterwards?

I had been a teacher for about three years before I went. Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) really expanded my knowledge of grammar, the rules and terminology. I didn’t learn that in college. TEFL forced me to break the language down to the nuts and bolts in order to explain it to non-native speakers. Also, I gained a renewed appreciation for diversity in the classroom, not just nationalities but backgrounds in general. Everyone has a unique story to tell.

Q: In what ways were the culture different? How was it similar?

The culture is different in so many ways, that it would be difficult to sum it up in a paragraph. Sometimes I felt like I had taken a time machine back to 1950’s America. Overall, Ukrainians are more sentimental than most Americans, and they always make themselves look presentable before they go out. Women love receiving flowers and often wear high heels, and men keep their shoes shined. Fast food is a fairly new concept there and “meals on the go” are not common. Ukrainians prefer to dine together, and they take their time; eating is a social activity. The most popular programs on TV are variety shows. Sounds like the 50’s, doesn’t it? All of that is gradually changing, though, as Ukrainians pick up more “Western” habits. Kind of sad to see, actually.

Q: Have you always been interested in traveling? If so, where else have you traveled?

I love traveling and was lucky to do so much of it while I was young. I studied for a year in England and backpacked around Western Europe, took a cruise through the Caribbean, taught in Chile for a year and visited Argentina. I’ve never been to Asia, Africa, or Australia, though, so there’s plenty more to see.

Q: Would you recommend this experience to students contemplating volunteering after high school?

Yes, if they go in with the right attitude and don’t get homesick easily. Living in a foreign country is not a vacation. There are many highs and lows, but the rewards just can’t be matched by any other experience. Also, Peace Corps prefers college graduates to applicants with only a high school diploma, although there may be a few exceptions. Most of my fellow volunteers were aged 22-25. Not all Peace Corps volunteers teach English. Some are involved in HIV awareness and prevention, business, agriculture, community organizing—the assignments run the gamut, and often depend on what the particular country’s needs are.

Photo by Gabby Cress


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