How I managed to teach in a very different culture
By Jessica Burke
PARTIZAN Orce Nikolov Gymnastics Club in Skopje, Macedonia, seems to be frozen in time. Located in the heart of the capital city, Partizan was
fashioned by the communist era. Due to the small
size of the gym, many of the events have to share
space. The equipment is more than 40 years old
with the exception of the vault table, an anachro-
nism pushed up against the ancient bars wrapped
I longed to get on the equipment, even in its dilapidated state. I wanted to swing on the bars, though
I questioned the security of the cables. I wanted to
tumble on mats held together loosely with lacing.
About 15 years ago, I was a decent Level 10 in
the Virginia area, and later during college I
coached a Level 6 team. Even when I haven’t
been involved in the sport, I’ve loved it.
My husband and I had decided that Brian would
try the class, hoping it would provide a fun opportunity to learn some Macedonian, to exercise and
to help him grow in character.
After a few weeks of watching each boy have
only two or three turns during the whole class, I
couldn’t resist telling one of the moms that I was
qualified to help. She encouraged me to offer
assistance, but I was initially too intimidated by the
Naumovski has always been very kind to our
son, gentle even, but he yells often at the other
boys. He sometimes conducts class with a meter-long rod in his hands, to switch the back of the
boys’ legs when they aren’t behaving or when
their technique needs correction. While we’ve
always kept a close eye on our son to ensure he
isn’t disciplined physically, the other parents seem
to accept it.
From the beginning, though, Angel has been
welcoming to me. He has allowed me freedom to
conduct class how I like. We split the boys in half
and alternate events. When I have the group of
more advanced boys, he can’t help but come over
to correct them. But I don’t mind as I can’t always
fully express my thoughts in Macedonian.
The language barrier can be very difficult for
me. During warm-ups once I became flustered
when I realized that I had been skipping the number 6 during each count. I’ve had to learn a lot of
new vocabulary, but when it comes to skills, I find
it easier to just show the kids. I struggle at times to
pronounce words and to use proper tenses.
I don’t always agree with the technique Angel is
trying to teach, but it makes sense within the context of the Macedonian compulsory program. He
knows how to handle a large group of young
boys, and though he comes across as gruff, I have
seen him care tenderly for them.
Naumovski understands, at least to a certain
degree, that gymnastics should be fun. I see it in
the way he allows my son, the youngest and only
non-Macedonian speaker, to do things for enjoyment’s sake. He’ll spin Brian around in circles on
the rings and help him swing high on the bars. I
see it in how he lets my preschool-aged daughter
participate with the boys when numbers are low. I
see it in his effort to plan fun parties for his classes during holidays.
Yet on any given day, you’ll find the atmosphere in the gym to be heavy. A parent calls his
son over to fuss at him for not doing well on
rings. A boy slams his fist against the ground after
At right, Jessica Burke leads warm-ups with
Angel Naumovski, and her kids—Brian, 5,
and Lorelai, 3—stand outside Partizan Orce
Nikolov in Skopje, Macedonia (above).