Indiana State University Newsroom

Keirn student teaches in Siberia

February 1, 2012

Christin Keirn wanted a challenge and she does enjoy winter. So for her, it seemed an obvious choice.

"I wanted to see what it could offer me, winter in Siberia," she said.

A Bayh College of Education collaboration with Indiana University's Cultural Immersions Project allows Indiana State University education majors to do part of their student teaching internationally in more than a dozen countries made Siberia an option for Keirn. The Terre Haute resident chose to travel to the city of Tomsk, home to 700,000 people.

As an elementary and special education major with a love of traveling and meeting new people, Keirn saw the student teaching abroad possibility as a perfect opportunity to go somewhere many Americans would not.

"When you go places that all the Americans don't go, you see the real people and they invite you into their homes for soup," said the traveler who has already visited Peru, Poland and Ukraine. From her time in Ukraine, she found that she enjoyed hearing the language. She also liked the Soviet-style buildings.

"History's so tragic in Russia," she said.

Keirn, who graduated in December, also saw it as a good career move.

"I thought it would be a good opportunity to grow as a teacher, to see another school and culture," she said. "It would help me towards understanding another culture and to be aware of different cultures in my own classroom."

She and her husband, Joshua, also hope that it will set her apart in a competitive job market.

"I think it was a growing experience for me," she said. "I learned from every experience, every interaction."

For Keirn, who married after graduating from high school, living in the dorm at the Tomsk State Pedagogical University offered her the experience of living as a single woman and allowed her to make friends with students from around the globe.

She also learned that communication doesn't only take place with words.

"Not speaking the language, I had to sit back and watch and try to figure out what they're saying with their bodies," she said. She knows she will be able to use that new-found skill in her classroom and in life. "It's good because you can think, this is what they are saying, but what are they really saying?"

Keirn taught at Gymnasia No. 24 - an English-language school for students from first through 11th grade. The school split its day as its buildings couldn't hold all of the students with half of the school's 800 students arrived for classes during the morning. The other 400 students attended classes during the second half of a day that stretched to 6 p.m. On Saturdays, all of the students crowded into the school for a half day of classes.

Although Keirn was assigned to one teacher, others would often ask her to teach different sections of their English classes. That meant she often had to quickly think through how to teach the topic.

"They would say, ‘Here's the book' and say, ‘Go through these pages,'" she said.

When Keirn chose Tomsk, she did so knowing she wouldn't do much sight-seeing. Instead, she knew she would focus on the school and classes.

"If I was in a small town in Siberia, I wouldn't want to go out and visit," she said. "I'd be going to school every day."

Distances also made sightseeing difficult. The closest city, Novosobirsk, lay 10 hours by bus to the south.

As part of the Cultural Immersions program, Keirn had to perform community service in Tomsk, but she had a hard time finding an opportunity.

"In Russia you have to be a citizen of the city to do community service and you have to have a thorough background check," she said.

Finally, she asked nuns associated with the Missionaries of Charity if she could volunteer with them at their soup kitchen for the homeless.

"They said, ‘Come.' I washed dishes and cut up cabbage," she said. "Seeing the homeless people was this whole other side of the city that I wouldn't normally see."

In that experience, she met homeless people who had limbs frozen and amputated because of the bitter Siberian winters. When Keirn first arrived for October in Russia she found it to be warmer than Terre Haute. That changed. When she left in late December the temperature was 25-degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

"One day it was 30 below. I almost froze during the half-mile walk from the bus stop to the school," she said. "They told me this winter was very mild."

Christin Keirn poses with a statue of Anton Chekov near the Tom River in Tomsk, Russia. ISU/Courtesy photo
Christin Keirn volunteered in the soup kitchen run by the nuns with the Missionaries of Charity. ISU/Courtesy Photo
Christin Keirn poses with seventh grade students at Gymnasia No. 24 in Tomsk, Russia. ISU/Courtesy photo

Writer/Contact: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or