Staying balanced by teaching English
After 15 years of teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Prague (with a few gaps for birthing babies), this year I decided to quit. In lieu of teaching, I planned more writing, researching, and proofreading assignments – jobs I could do waiting at sports practices, after I put the children to bed, or in the mornings when they were at school.
I had been teaching the same afternoon conversation lessons to the same group of students (elementary school learners in first – fifth grades) for the past four years. I believed both my students (and I) needed a change.
Also, I needed more flexibility to provide better support (i.e. transportation, cheer leading, and homework help) for my own children during the hours when I had previously taught. Radek worked away from home during the school week, and I was the primary caretaker. The responsibility took its toll.
At the end of the summer, I informed the school and my students that my English conversation courses wouldn’t be held this year. I turned down offers for private lessons and arranged my schedule to be available when my children needed me. Then, I tried to work. But, I couldn’t focus.
During the month of September, I nearly drove my children (and Radek) mad with my inability to settle. I felt guilty when I greeted the parents of the children I had previously taught, and I tried to explain (again) why I couldn’t even teach private lessons this year.
When I expressed my frustration to friends, they replied, “But wasn’t that what you wanted? Freedom from teaching?” I nodded, but every time I said no to an offer to teach, I felt a bit empty myself.
Could it be that teaching was what I needed to make the rest of my life balanced?
Each night when I packed my children’s snacks, I put a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a sweet treat (i.e. a muffin or a muesli bar) into their snack boxes. My two older children were willing to experiment with the fruits I gave them. Oliver liked grapes, plums, and pomegranates, while Anna favored bananas, kiwis, and berries. Samuel always wanted an apple. When I tried to substitute a different fruit, he brought me his snack box after school saying, “My svačina was good, but where was my jabko, Mommy?”
I tried to explain to Samuel that he needed to diversify his palate and eat different fruits. He nodded and said, “I really like apples, Mommy.”
To get inspiration for the memoir I was writing, I reread my journals from arriving in Prague in the winter of 2002. Back then, teaching English was THE reason I had come to the Czech Republic, and my gateway to Czech culture.
On January 11, 2002, I wrote, “It is late, and I am exhausted. We taught our first lesson today. I was nervous. The 40-minute lesson flew by. In an instant, we were saying thank you and goodbye. The students are delightful. I am looking forward to developing a relationship with them over the coming weeks. I think I could become attached to teaching. So much planning. Then, your work is done. You are a bit like a zoo animal on stage during class. But, if you walk around, direct attention to the students, encourage interaction, then you disappear.”
I recorded my students’ words in my journal. Jarka, an adult student in my 7:00 a.m. morning class described her Prince Charming. “My prince has a beautiful, butterfly tie.” Miroslav, an engineer, wrote, “I learning English for five years in university but I learn English whitch brakes.”
In response to Miroslav, I wrote, “Cheers to that. If we could all speak a little more English, ‘whtich brakes’ and convey the essence of our thoughts, it would not be bad at all.”
When I reread my journals, I remembered how much I had loved my beginner students. I wrote, “I can feel their pain, see the grimaces on their faces as they strain to understand me or watch as their cheeks flush and they stammer their words – slowly, painfully releasing them into the air. Waiting for a nod of approval from me, their teacher.”
In some lessons, particularly those with children, I felt much like a student myself. From teaching the preschool-aged Novak children, I learned more Czech than I did in my once-a-week “Czech For Foreigners Course.”
Before our English lessons, five-year-old Honzík said, “I am a Czech man. I speak only Czech, no English.”
His mother, answered, “Oh, if we want to be smart Czech, we must learn English.”
Sometimes she stayed during the lessons. “Where are your feets?” she would ask Honzík. “Tickly, tickly on your feets.”
While Honzík and his brothers chattered in Czech to me, I used hand gestures, symbols, and games to teach them colors, numbers, and basic phrases in English. I taught them the words for “hands” and “arms” since the children used the Czech word ruky for both; “feet” and “legs” since they said simply nohy; and I explained that in English there is a different word for “fingers” (prsty) than “toes” (prsty na nohách).
And, when it was the right time, I told Honzík’s mother that the plural form of “foot” is “feet.”
The Novak family seemed to like my playful approach, and I appreciated being in a Czech home and getting a taste of Czech family life. Not to mention all the Czech vocabulary I learned.
It wasn’t only my lessons with children where learning went beyond the language school. Once I hosted a “potluck” party for my high school students. Each student surprised me with a favorite homemade dish. We feasted on jaternice (sauasage), salty mushroom pastries, sweet poppy seed cake, apple strudel, and a homemade beránek (an almond flavored cake baked in the shape of a lamb). I made chocolate chip cookies, hot spinach artichoke dip, and deviled eggs. At first, everyone watched me eat and drink, a situation which I described in my journal as “funny” and “slightly uncomfortable.” Eventually, my students (and I) relaxed, and we spoke both English and Czech together.
For me, teaching English had always been an exchange – of languages, cultures, ideas, and words. Even though more than a decade had passed since my first lesson, nothing had changed about my desire to connect with Czech culture (and Czechs) by teaching English. Even though I now had my own children to look after, I realized (only by not teaching) what an important role teaching English played in my life.
I might not have been able to teach in the classroom this year, but the answer to my time-management dilemma was not to quit teaching altogether.
In late September, when an adult student that I had taught a few years ago wanted to start up private morning lessons again, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Teaching adult learners was something I had missed in recent years. Then, I went back to the first parents who had approached me about small group conversation lessons. I told them I was willing to try.
These days, instead of teaching in a classroom, I tote my teacher’s bag around Prague. It’s a black canvas bag from Books-A-Million. It’s filled with stickers, paperback First Readers, Highlights Magazines, and other tools to encourage English conversation. Like I used to 15 years ago, I teach in the public library and at my students’ homes.
My children were so disappointed when they learned I wouldn’t be teaching at their school (even if they had been the motivation for the change), they agreed to do all they could to help me continue teaching. When my lessons run into the afternoon, Oliver walks to the library where he reads while I teach. Anna has learned to take the bus home from school on her own. Samuel plays in družina until I can pick him up. On occasion, I may have to pause my lesson to take a call from a child who has forgotten what time practice starts or one who needs a lift. However, interruptions are minimal.
The week I started teaching again, Radek was working from home, which was a rare treat. He remarked what a good mood I was in, saying, “I’ve never seen you this happy before. Usually, only when your parents are here visiting.”
I told Radek I was in a good mood because he was home during the week, which was true. We all enjoy family life more together than apart.
However, I also knew that the energy I had been missing was coming back. For me, teaching wasn’t just a job, it was an essential component in my balanced life. I needed my students as much as they needed me.
On the days I teach, I eat lunch on-the-go. Like Sam, along with my sandwich and my treat, I’ve got an apple in my lunch bag.
Sometimes, sticking to what you like, may be the best way forward.