5 Things I learned from teaching 4th graders in the Czech Republic

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My first day teaching in Prague was probably one of the most nerve-racking of my short existence. I spoke exactly four words in Czech and knew my fourth graders would have limited English abilities. Because Murphy’s Laws about the universe are cringingly on-point, I got lost on my way to school, so the hallways were empty as I ran through them to find the fourth-grade classroom. Giggles erupted when I entered, disheveled, nervous and late. Twenty-two sets of eyes watched me with curiosity and amusement as I timidly made my way to the front of the room. I pulled out my vastly inadequate lesson plan, took a deep breath, and began the most torturous, terrifying, tremendous two years of my life.

When teaching, it is only natural that we also learn, but I had no idea just how much of an education I would get from those fourth-graders.

1. Words are our least important form of communication.

My first lesson was that words matter very little, although that’s strange to admit that as an English teacher. Children use their whole bodies to communicate, twisting themselves into knots as they tell stories and ask questions. Every movement is unchecked and unfiltered, the sincere, subconscious expressions of a child’s thoughts and feelings. It’s intimidating, only because as adults we spend so much time crafting our body language into socially appropriate constructs that mask those feelings. I learned quickly that I had to lose that mask, because saying, “Stop! Don’t do that!” or “Yes! Good job!” made no impact, even on students who vaguely understood what the phrases meant in English. Far more effective were the moments I knelt down next to a student and made eye-contact on their level, or gave someone’s hand a little squeeze when they seemed nervous about speaking in front of the class. Sincerity became our classroom translator.

2. A spoonful of sugar really does make a difference.

My teaching experience was minimal before taking the full-time position in the Czech elementary school. Aside from the ‘new job’ adjustments, there was the cultural learning curve. Things like ‘inside shoes’ and student-teacher etiquette, not to mention the vast array of Czech cuss words that I would learn from students all too quickly, had me frantically double-checking my every move. My greatest fear was that a teacher would walk in on one of my classes just in time to see my students playing toss with someone’s shoes, sandwich or school keys as I would be desperately trying to make everyone get off their desks and sit in chairs like normal people. Sometimes being a teacher feels like playing whack-a-mole – as soon as you get one kid down, another one pops up. Particularly endearing was their habit of hiding in the cupboards, behind the chalkboard or under my desk at the beginning of each lesson. One boy managed to remain undetected in a rolled-up wall map for half of class before he finally fell over and came spilling out. So when the school Head told me that a city inspector was coming to sit in on one of my classes, I justifiably panicked. Shockingly, when the inspector took a seat in the back of the classroom, all of my students suddenly became angels. Everyone stayed in their seats. Not a hair was pulled nor a pen thrown. They even got through singing the Hokey-Pokey without someone deciding to put “in” something inappropriate or dangerous. But as we finished the lesson, as the inspector gave me a smile on her way out the door, as the class exploded once again into chaos, releasing all the pent-up energy, I realized that our perfect lesson may also have been our most boring one. And I’d gladly sacrifice perfection for the sake of a little joy.

3. You can’t be everyone’s hero.

But that’s not to say that all of my ventures in teaching have been success stories. A hard truth about teaching – and about life – is that you can’t be everyone’s hero. You can’t swoop in and magically fix everything. Although most of my fourth-graders flocked around me like ducklings when I entered the cafeteria (as the only American teacher in school, I was the local celebrity), begging for high-fives and shouting out their much-rehearsed, “Hello!”s and “How are you?”s, there were a few who would turn their shoulders so I couldn’t see their faces. They were the same ones I struggled with in class and sent home with poor marks in their report books. I ignored it for a while – give it time, right? But one day, one of those students accused me of not being fair in a classroom squabble and had to hide his face in his sleeve, embarrassed by the tears streaming down his cheeks. Czechs have a very strong sense of ‘fairness’ and to allow violations to the balance of justice is a heavy crime. I sat down and tried to explain why I had to do what I did. I tried to tell him that I understand how hard it is to be a student sometimes, but when I reached over to give him a reassuring pat on the back, he jerked away. He wasn’t the only one who cried that afternoon. I was the bad guy in this situation and there was nothing I could do to change that for him. No amount of explaining would fix the image of the unfair teacher he saw me as. Alone in my office, I finally faced a fact I should have learned in high school. Not everyone is going to like you. Not everyone will want your help.

4. Everyday is a new start.

The amazing thing about ten-year olds is their ability to bounce back. I walked into one lesson to find all my little pupils up in arms because the class ‘sweetheart’ had unwisely told her best friend who her class-crush was, and her best friend proceeded to make the information public (proving that human nature is essentially the same, the world over). The jeers and tears had to be stopped and more than one broken-heart had to be mended before we could begin our regularly scheduled program. I assumed there would be a changing of the seating arrangements the next day – after such a political upheaval, I hadn’t expected any of the old alliances to be intact. But there they all were, laughing and sharing the last bites of their snacks, as if yesterday had never happened. That must be why kids are able to survive an institution as mentally and emotionally arduous as elementary school. You have to be able to start fresh everyday with the same innocence and trust and hope you had the day before, no matter what has happened.

5. If your heart doesn’t break a few times, you’re not using it right.

I knew I wasn’t going to be in Prague forever. I knew getting attached was a bad idea. The plan was to be distant, respectable, forgettable. But as I watched the teachers who remained aloof – whatever their reasons – and as I tried it myself, I realized how difficult it is to do what we do without putting our whole hearts out there. As a teacher, you have to be ready to listen to excited whispers, laugh at silly jokes you don’t understand, and hug little people who need to know that someone sees them. That’s just it. You have to see your students. You have to show them that you care, which means you have to actually care. It took me a year on the other side of the world to realize just how great our capacity is, as humans, to love. It took me a year with some very rowdy ten-year olds, who have hearts with ever-open doors and incalculable room for affection, to understand that some things cannot be lost, only added to. And that may be the most important thing I’ve learned from these children. Without even speaking the same language, twenty-two fourth-graders taught me the importance of loving people, no matter how briefly.

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4 thoughts on “5 Things I learned from teaching 4th graders in the Czech Republic

  1. A wonderful post, Mary. Tomorrow is our last Class Day of the year. Teaching a class full of seniors, it’s going to be “goodbye” for a lot of them…well, after graduation, anyway.

    And that reminds me…my son Jonathan owes your mom a revision of his graduation speech…. 😉

    • This time of year always makes me a little nostalgic for Heritage… Next year at least I’ll be in town for Graduation. Congrats to you and Jonathan! That’s a sweet milestone to pass. 🙂

  2. Dear Mary,

    My name is Ashlee. I’m co-founder of the Youshare Project, with the mission to connect people around the world through true, personal stories. I recently stumbled across your blog and read the above post entitled “5 Things I Learned From Teaching 4th Graders in the Czech Republic.” It’s beautifully written with a universal message everyone can learn from, no matter where in the world they live. I think it would make a wonderful youshare.

    If this sounds interesting to you, I would love to email you directly with more information and formally invite you to adapt your story to youshare and share it with the project. You have my email address and website. I hope to hear from you soon.

    Best,
    Ashlee
    http://www.youshareproject.com
    ashlee@youshareproject.com

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