Saturday, January 10, 2009

My First Week of Teaching English

I have just completed my first week of teaching English and it's been really fun. My class load is twenty hours a week, which is just right for me. It makes me full-time in my company. Usually teachers teach between 23-30 hours, but since I'm new to lesson planning, I would like to stay at this level for awhile until I speed up. In our TEFL course, we averaged about six hours of planning for every hour taught. Obviously, that's not sustainable in the real world!

My friends who have visited Prague or the Czech Republic during communism or shortly afterwards always use the word 'bleak' to describe the place. The beauty of arriving here twenty years after the end of totalitarianism is there have been twenty intervening years for the place to be fixed up. I must say, my classes are in beautiful, stunning locations.

One class is in an ancient building with castle type doors overlooking formal gardens. Several others are in a brand new corporate headquarters with wonderful light. Yet another is in the Czech Republic's tallest building on the highest floors.

Everyone is nice. They are surprised when I display any knowledge of Czech culture (like knowing who Svejk or Smetana are). The beauty is, with such a homogeneous culture, that everyone sitting around the table knows the name of their classic book character or who their classic composer is. Not everyone around an American business table would have the same cultural knowledge and background.

A couple of my students need to talk and be understood by native speakers in Britain or America but most need to speak to other people in countries like Spain or India who are speaking English as a second language. The first time I confronted this, I was so stunned and impressed that one of my students needed to speak English as a second language (her first language being Czech) to someone else in another country who was speaking it as a second language (their first language being Finnish) that I couldn't help but admire the level of commitment it would take to not only know the second language but the linguistic quirks of the other first language spoken (an example is Czechs always forget to use definite and indefinite articles in English because they don't have them in their language).

I told that to other teachers and both said, "oh no, it's much harder for someone speaking English as a second language to talk to a native speaker than to someone else speaking English as a second language. When they both have it as a second language, they use ESL English in conversation which is slower and less complex than a native speaker's language." Still, when you see people 40-60 years old valiantly working on their 15th year of learning English, often learned in bits and pieces along the way, you can't help but be impressed by their commitment. They are lucky that their companies are paying for them to learn English (it is the official language of all sorts of companies) but that also makes it harder to learn because they can't completely leave work behind in the classroom and relax. They are liable to be pulled out or called away in the middle of a lesson.

I'm really excited to learn from my students all about their culture and their interests. Czechs are the most well-travelled people I have ever met. One student told me that their parents constantly goad them to travel because the parents couldn't do so under communism. I routinely meet people who have been to exotic places like Cuba, Nepal, Tibet, Bolivia (pretty darn far away for a Czech!), and even the Kamchatka Penninsula (you mean, that's a place you're actually allowed to go visit??? I thought it was a Russian military zone!).

Their version of Mexico (an inexpensive place to visit for a week of sun) is Egypt. Visiting Egypt for a week of sun sounds incredibly exotic to me. Going there would be a major undertaking for an American leaving from America but apparently there are all sorts of cheap and routine flights from Prague. It's all in where you're starting out from.

One downside when beginning teaching is directions are often incomplete. The first thing I did was assign all of my students homework creating a written description of how to get to their office because anyone substituting for me is not going to go through what I did trying to find these places! This week has also been freezing cold so I'm running around Prague in heels, lost, with frozen fingertips and a runny nose while carrying a laptop. Next week calls for some adjustment!

I will also forever be nicer to foreign people because of my experience here. I will pop into an office asking for directions and the lady or man there will sit me down while they print me out a map of exactly where I'm going. Day after day, ordinary Czechs show me lovely kindnesses without a second thought. Czechs make this experience fun.


Sher said...

I can relate to foreigners speaking English to one another! My husband is Czech, and when we are out on trips in Europe he and the natives of the country we are visiting can understand one another very well! They understand my husband better than they do me! They really do use a simplified English--one that might be called pigeon English--with one another--and they do just great!

Anonymous said...

Hi Karen,

I found your blog through expat-blog and I think what you're doing is fantastic. I am from Europe (France and Switzerland but have been living in the US and now Canada for the last 13 years. Also, I got a Master's and a PhD in ESL and have been teaching ESL for many many years! The one thing I wanted to tell you is that I'm really impressed you took the time to learn about TESL/TESOL/ESL/EFL before you started teaching. So many people think that they can be great English teachers just because they are native speakers of English! So, kudos to you! And keep having fun and doing a great job :)

Karen said...

Thank you Sher and Dr. CaSo for your comments. It's a pity, Dr. CaSo that I can't read or speak French so that I can understand your blog but I appreciate your support! Teaching English is fun and a great way to learn the culture of the country where one is residing. With your credentials, you would be welcomed with open arms anywhere!

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