Encouraging and Complicating…

I have had the opportunity to teach formally for an entire year (last year in the Czech Republic) and informally in a wide amount of places and contexts. Until last week however I had never observed an actual trained teacher teaching an actual high school class. A requirement of two of my classes this semester is to observe a total of 15 hours of classes and write a short paper about what I saw.

Though I have only had a couple months of official grad school education it was really interesting seeing theories and practices I have been learning about being used (and not) in the classroom. Most encouraging was seeing multiple teachers appearing to have the exact type of personality I have. Some of you who know me well probably have a good idea of what I’m talking about but for those who don’t I mean the following: Loud, witty, sarcastic and knowledgeable on their subject matter. It is somewhat affirming to see other people like me having also come to the conclusion that teaching was a good career choice.

The head teacher who arranged my observations did a great job giving me a wide variety of subject matter and levels within the entire department.  I watched a couple high level and AP level classes and also saw a few lower-level and remedial courses for students who struggle a bit more with academics. What I took away from this was that whether or not a teacher was particularly engaging, the “smarter”, “better” students were almost invariably attentive, quiet and paid attention. On the other hand the lower level students were invariably louder and disruptive regardless of what the teacher was doing. At best many just tuned out to whatever the class was doing (cellphones in class=total fail 99% of the time).

I realize my descriptions above are troublesome and might even come off as a bit judgmental. To be fair one class that was middle of the road that appeared to be extremely ADHD at the start of the period calmed down remarkably once the main activity (a debate) began. My main point is observing makes my goal of being an excellent teacher one day much more complicated. I’m learning all these great theories and practices that should result in the vast majority of students learning and excelling. My observations show that teaching some students is infinitely more difficult than any classroom discussion or book can relate. I don’t have any rock solid answers at this point except to note that observing actual classes was extremely worthwhile.

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I wasn’t expecting this…

Hard to believe but this is my last week teaching. After Thursday my classes are done. This past Friday I said goodbye to a few classes who I have only once a week and won’t see this coming Friday. I wasn’t expecting too much excitement. Some might have a slightly romantic of teaching. An apple on the desk with bright, smiling students obediently asking and answering questions. It really isn’t.

Teaching is shockingly tiring. Standing in front of a group of kids for 45 minutes telling them things and encouraging them to participate wears you out. Writing on a chalk board isn’t super fun. Waking up at 6:30 nearly daily also loses its charm pretty quick. But mostly the realization that, much of the time, your students really aren’t interested in what you are teaching can wear on your mind. After all if they don’t care, why am I trying so hard? I really enjoy teaching but its not all bubbles and cupcakes, to steal a line from a friend.

When I walked into my 3A class on Friday I noticed stickers on my desk. Some students have World Cup sticker books. It has every team and player to collect. A student had gotten me the USA emblem and team stickers. It was nice. We then played Mafia which Czechs call “The Town of Palermo” and it was pretty fun. Near the end I offered some final words of farewell and took any questions they had for me. When the bell rang the kids got up and to my surprise one, than all, came up to shake my hand. They told me I was a good “lektor” (what they call up native speaker teachers over here) and wished me well. I’m not one to show my emotions publicly and I didn’t at that moment but as I shook my students hand I felt surprisingly bittersweet. Bitter because I was sad to leave these young people but sweet because it reaffirmed that this year was truly worth it. I want to be a teacher. I want to influence and mentor young people. And I have been privileged to start doing that this year.

A Good Day to be a Teacher…

Working in a school I have been able to see how education is done from a different cultural perspective. This week I saw one of the most interesting things about the system here. The infamous Maturita (Graduation) Exams.

When you reach the final year of high school here you need to pass your Maturitas to graduate. They are done in 4 subjects: Czech Language, a foreign language (usually English or German), and 2 others of the students choosing. At the start of their final year the students are given a list of 30 topics for each of their four subjects. They are responsible for knowing ALL 30 topics. On the day of their exam, they are in groups of 4. The student picks one of the 30 topics from a bag. They then have 15 minutes to write and prepare to speak on the topic they picked. Then they are “examined” by two teachers. It is a 15-minute pressure-cooker where they have to say everything they know about the specific topic. They must answer any question the teacher throws at them best they can. The sense of stress and terror in the classroom is palpable. When they are finished they have about 30 minutes to reboot before doing in all again in their next subject. After four hours their grades are decided and announced and they either graduate or not.

I did not have any final year students in classes this year and only observed the Maturitas this year. However, back in October, I was asked to meet with a student named Hanka during my office hours each Tuesday to help her practice her English. I spent 45 minutes talking to her about whatever topic she wanted each week. She was very conversational but her confidence was somewhat lacking. Telling her how impressive it was that she could carry a conversation with me was something I found myself doing each week.

In April she had to discontinue our meetings in order to spend more time studying. I had no idea when her exam day would be this week. I showed up today thinking I would observe a few random exams and mostly sit in my office. When I walked in, one girl was being examined while another was preparing at a desk. Her back was to me though so I couldn’t tell who it was. When it was the desk girl’s turn I was beyond shocked to see it was none other than Hanka. I was a bit worried she would be nervous with me there but she gave a nervously excited smile and sat down.

Her topic was announced immediately as very difficult. No students want it. This was an immense challenge. Hanka nailed it. She did utterly fantastic. She was poised despite  understandable nervousness. She answered every question and her examiners noted that she had facts down that they didn’t even know.

When she finished she got up, completely spent. She sighed deeply as she slumped down briefly next to me. English had been her last subject. Her four hours of torture were complete. I told her she did fantastic and soon she left to go decompress in the hall for a few minutes before hearing her grades.

In the Czech Republic they do a number system for grades. 1 is an A and 5 is an F. You need to get at least a four to pass. This was the last day of exams so when everyone finished they all came into the classroom to have a “parade” and say good bye to their teachers. At the end we got to go down the line and congratulate all the students. When I got to Hanka, she said, with a grin from ear to ear, “I got four 1s.”

I am under no illusions about what my impact was to Hanka. She passed because she is a very smart young woman who studied very, very hard. I merely talked to her for a few minutes each week. But my role here is not really what’s important. What is important is Hanka passed. I am so happy for her success. I am happy I could share in it with her. And so today, more than any other previous, it was really, really great to be a teacher.

Student Notes

One of the fun things that almost everyone brings up but you never think of until you get over here is that the students don’t speak English. At least not fluently and certainly not confidently. To be fair I have to say the majority of my students can handle simple conversations and understand most of what I tell/teach them. However I have a few classes that quite literally know almost nothing. They speak to me in Czech without a second thought and have trouble reading short sentences in English properly. A fun challenge to say the least.

Another fun thing that Czech schools do is they substitute in-house. That means if a teacher is ill or absent they will just throw that teacher’s students into another teacher’s classroom. I would say this has happened about once every week or so on average here. Now if I spoke Czech this would be simply a mild annoyance of having an extra 10-15 kids in the classroom. But I don’t. And the students who get put in my class usually only take German, not English. Do you see where I’m going with this?

A funny side effect of this is students invariably have to go to the bathroom during class (heaven forbid they go in the 10 minutes before or after class…) But of course my German sub students have no clue how to ask this in English. One daring students however asked his english classmates for help and gave me this note a month ago,

“KAN AJ GOU TU FARMA”

I looked quizzically at this note for a second before I figured it out and students told me what he wanted. You, dear reader are probably confused. Let me break this down for you.

Kan=Can. “C” is very different in Czech. Whenever they have a hard “C” sound they put a “K” instead. For example California=Kalifornia. The English student probably told him “can” and he thought quite logically “kan.”

AJ=I. Czech is phonetic so every letter has the same pronunciation. “J” is always pronounced like “Y” in English. So when this student heard “I” again he logically produced “AJ.”

GOU=Go. Simple Mistake.

TU=To. Again simple mistake.

FARMA=?? Not a clue what he was going for here but perhaps it’s close to the German word for toilet? I kind of doubt it though.

The moral of the story is I often have to do as much thinking and deciphering as my students do when we are in the classroom. Oh, and I let him go to the bathroom.

A Little Czech goes a Long Way…

I have a class in my Basic School that if forced to describe them with a funny name it would be “The Super Beginners.” They have all of one year of English under their belts and are only halfway through their first-year book appropriately called “Project 1.”

At training we were told that just by speaking English it helps the students learn and not to use dictionaries much at all because things don’t always translate nicely and I agree. However about a week ago my school got an ENORMOUS English-Czech/Czech-English dictionary that now sits proudly on my desk at school. And it has been useful.

Last Tuesday with my super-beginners I decided to translate a few words just to make sure they understood the categories. I then said one of the words I’ve picked up recently, “Rozuminte?(Do you understand?)”, after explaining the topic for the day. Let’s be clear. I CANNOT speak Czech. But my students LOVE it when I try and throw words out to them.

My main point is this. There’s a girl in my class named Dendy. Sits in front row, seems like a nice girl. But for most part she doesn’t come off as that great of a student. Doesn’t volunteer much, seems like she is usually struggling in general with the material. After my brief foray into Czech however, her entire countenance changed. When I asked her questions she would say the sentences confidently. She was raising her hand. She was trying. She was smiling. It was a near 180-degree change in classroom behavior.

I’m not a great teacher. I don’t enjoy every lesson and neither do my students. But good things are happening, students are learning and God is working in the small things. I don’t think I can ask for more than that.