Teaching English in a Czech elementary school in Covid times
*NOTE: In the following essay, I have changed my students’ names to protect their privacy. I doubt they ever thought they would be mentioned in their English teacher’s blog. The authenticity of their story remains.
To teach is to learn twice. – Joseph Joubert
I peered over my student’s shoulder. I saw the black inked letters J-O-N-Y printed on the white nametag I’d folded and placed on each student’s desk. My student, otherwise known to his Czech classmates as Jonáš,* looked at me for approval. I am Johnny, he told me. Is it right? I grinned. Yes, that’s right. Just add an “H” and double the “N.” Johnny looked puzzled. H like horse, I said. N like nose. I pointed to the letters on the ABC chart I’d stuck to the magnetic white board. Johnny nodded.
It was my first class on my first day of teaching at a local village school, a school I passed every day on my morning runs but I’d only recently entered as an employee. And Johnny was my first Czech student to give himself a nickname.
A few minutes before, I’d said, Write your name on your name tag. I held up my Emily name tag, which was adorned with an open book and a blue bicycle. I like reading. I mimed opening a book. I like riding on my blue bike. I mimed pedaling. What do you like? Do you like cats? Or playing football? Draw something you like.
I felt 12 pairs of eyes staring back at me. No one picked up his or her pencil. These students were in the 5th grade. According to their Oxford leveled course books, they have should been able to respond to even more complicated phrases. However, as I gauged from their questioning expressions, they weren’t used to their English teacher giving them directions in English.
They looked, how I felt. Scared.
As a long-term language learner, I knew fear wasn’t the best motivator. I needed to earn their trust. Or, at least, to keep them from sliding out of their seats toward the floor. But, first, they had to understand me.
I picked up my pencil and started tracing over the letters in my name. Johnny caught on. Others followed. I reminded myself to speak even slower. The next phrase I taught them was, Emily, I don’t understand. Can you say it again, please?
When I told my friends and family that I had accepted a new job as an elementary English teacher in a state-run Czech school, many of them asked Why? For years, I’d taught after-school English lessons to small groups and one-to-one lessons for adults and younger learners. I had the privilege of working with students whose parents had the motivation and the means to invest in their children’s linguistic future. I also had the freedom to set my own schedule.
Yet, after spending a year, dressed in leggings, not caring whether it was Wednesday or Sunday, I craved the discipline (and perhaps the thrill) of entering an unknown space with a beginner’s mindset. I wanted to put on a real pair of trousers, to connect face-to-face with new learners, and to get feedback from other educators. Returning to the public school system seemed like my ideal next adventure.
When the principal of a nearby village school called in mid-June eager to fill an unexpected opening for an English teacher for grades 1-5, it felt like a sign. I knew my decision seemed a bit counterintuitive – I could make more money in less time teaching private lessons, and I would lose the freedom of scheduling my own day.
Plus, when Covid restrictions, school closures and the challenges of distance learning have made teachers’ jobs even more difficult, my re-entry into the Czech state school system wasn’t especially well-timed. I didn’t care. Or rather, I believed that the personal benefits of changing my routine (and my place of work) would outweigh the disadvantages.
During teacher training, the school’s assistant teachers gave me photocopies of last year’s class pictures so I could learn the names of my 70-some students. And they told me stories. There was Zdenek who cried when he didn’t understand. Honža who raised his hand first but never knew the answer. Tereza whose parents didn’t speak Czech. There was tiny Sara who sat next to the assistant and whose voice could barely be heard. Marta who never had her homework. Tadeas who threw tantrums. In the older grades, no one liked to write.
I heard the words from my soon-to-be colleagues over and over. He doesn’t like English. She doesn’t like English. It is a difficult group.
I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
And, then I met my students.
Johnny was the first student to greet me. Hello, Mrs. Teacher. I asked the class to call me Emily. They filled out their name tags, and we practiced saying, Can I go to the toilet please? Together, we read aloud the classroom rules in English and in Czech. They smiled at #5 Make Your Teacher Happy. I asked them if my rules seemed fair. They nodded.
One month into teaching, this is what I know.
My students aren’t always attentive. Sometimes they are antsy, sleepy or bored. Often, they don’t understand my instructions but don’t remember how to tell me in English. Sometimes, they peer too far out the window or run too fast around the room during the break. One day, I speak Czech to get their attention. Whispers buzz around the classroom.
I want to teach them how to communicate on the fly with a native English speaker. I want to chat with them about their weekend or to ask them about their favorite classes. I want them to be able to ask me questions, too.
But I remember my own journey to learn Czech years ago. When I finally mastered a handful of words, only to discover I still needed to conjugate them to make a sentence. Fluency seemed an impossibility.
Reminded of this, I try to help my students firm up the basics. Each lesson, we practice the pronunciation of the alphabet, especially the trickier letters like A, J, G, I, H and Y. When the lesson ends, I note what I could have done differently. How I could have streamlined my spoken English, given my directions clearer, chosen a different game. The day I explain the game, “Mother May I,” no one, not even the assistant, understands. We play “Simon Says” instead. I remind myself to keep a beginner’s mind.
When someone raises his hand and says, I don’t understand you, in English instead of, Já Vám nerozumim, I’m thrilled. Though I have known my students only a few weeks, I am fiercely protective of their efforts to speak English, to repeat after me, to participate in the lesson.
In the Czech language, there is an old proverb, Kolik jazyků umíš, tolikrát jsi člověkem. Translated directly, it means, The more languages you speak, the more times you are human.
While I don’t know how to measure how many times a person can be human, I like the idea that by learning to communicate in a different language, we can discover a part of ourselves we didn’t know existed. We can discover that being human means we are more alike than different.