As I write this, I am sitting in an office that I share with two other English teachers, Romana and David. I have four massive floor to ceiling windows that bracket my desk and offer up a glimpse of the elementary school next door. The sky may be cloudy and grey, but my experience in Gymnasium Soběslav has been replete with sunshine! The teachers and the students have all been extraordinarily welcoming and kind.
Before school officially started, I went in a few days early and met the English teachers— Romana, David, Petra, and Vladka. We set up my schedule, the office space, and I got to meet all the other teachers in the school as well.
The start of the school year for all Czech primary and secondary students is September 1st, no matter what day of the week it is. This year, that date fell on a Wednesday. The first day is rather different than an American first day of school. Students here only attend for a few hours, meeting their “class teacher,” a mentor who looks out for the students and resolves conflicts as they come up, and then leaving for the day.
On the first day of school, Romana and I took advantage of the shortened school day to take a day trip to České Budějovice, the capital of Southern Bohemia consisting of nearly 100,000 inhabitants and a popular regional university. We walked around the square, one of the largest in the Czech Republic, and took in the sights! I would definitely recommend coming to visit this city; there is lots to do from eating at great restaurants to shopping in the large stores. We saw the hockey arena, large churches and gardens, ate lunch at a cute cafe, and then headed back to Soběslav.
The second day of school was really my first day actually seeing and interacting with students in classes. I had worked out my schedule with the English teachers the previous week so I carried that paper with me as I attempted to find my classes. In between classes, we also took a group picture of all the teachers in the school!
Some differences between Czech and American schools that confused me at first: the teachers do not have a classroom of their own, they have offices instead. What this means is that the teachers are rotating between classrooms and the students are too. There is also not a standard schedule of classes. For example, I have 5 classes on Monday, but only two on Thursday and while my schedule is unique in some ways, it is typical for teachers to have different starting and ending times every day. One more added element of confusion is that my school has two parallel programs running: a six year program and a four year program. For the six year program, the students start at this grammar school at age 13 and finish at 19. For the four year program, the students start at age 15 and finish at 19. The four year program is denoted by the letter A (1A, 2A, 3A, 4A) and the six year program is denoted by the letter B (1B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B). Each of these classes is split into two groups for the English lessons and if you’re still following along, that means that there are 20 groups for English classes.
It took me awhile to realize and understand these key points, but now that I have, it all feels very natural. Every week, I attend 20 lessons and see all 300 students studying at the grammar school. As a native speaker of English, the goal is for me to be able to help students with speaking and listening practice, while also sharing my own experiences of living in the States. While it can be overwhelming at times for me to see so many students and learn so many names, I know that my schedule was created with equity in mind: so that every student in the school has the opportunity to interact with me once a week.
For lunches, I had been told that the school canteen may have some vegetarian lunches, maybe once a week. However, the women at the canteen have been extraordinary in being able to find ways to replace the meat in the menu most days for some vegetarian alternative— whether that is using soy products or vegetables or eggs, I have been able to eat at the canteen nearly every day for lunch. The canteen is actually operated by the elementary school, but students and teachers from both the elementary and secondary schools come there for lunches every day. It is only a 2-3 minute walk from the school, and we have electronic chips that we scan whenever we get lunch that day so that our accounts are charged. It looks basically like an American school cafeteria, but much smaller and more intimate.
The first two weeks of the school year were marked by me observing the English teachers and participating in the lessons they had created. This meant that I spoke to lots of students in smaller groups, helped out in group speaking activities, and worked with individual students for extra speaking and pronunciation practice. It was nice to get a feel for the various classes’ English levels and see how typical classes are structured. Each teacher I work with has a different teaching style, and it is fun for me to see how the students respond.
More recently, I have had the chance to start building my own lesson plans and activities. The first lesson plan I created was on teaching about the September 11th attacks, as the 20th anniversary passed by. While the topic is sobering, I knew it was important for me to have a conversation with the students about the impact that the attacks had in America in 2001, but also what the legacy has been 20 years later. We discussed what they already knew about 9/11 from social media and the Internet, and I helped fill in the gaps with pictures and information. I showed a video of Jon Stewart returning to his late night show after 9/11, and his emotional monologue to highlight just how visceral the memory of that day was. But after, we dug into the aftermath: the Patriot Act, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, increased discrimination of minorities in America. As an ETA, I feel it is my responsibility to teach them about America in a way that is objective and encourages critical thinking. I want them to understand the rationale for specific actions, but allow them to have the proper information to come to their own conclusions.
Since then, I have created lessons on Texas, the American education system, and American housing trends. For each of these, I have tried to find different ways to keep the students engaged while also giving them relevant and useful information. As someone who doesn’t come from a teaching background, I was a little concerned about leading classes on my own, but after these lessons, I feel much more confident and even excited to be creative in the ways that I can present the information and knowledge I have!
See you in the next one.