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.

My first (disaster) field trip

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It’s only been in the last few months, as I continue to make gains in my Czech language ability and as staff becomes more short-handed, that the school has given me responsibilities that I would previously have been considered unequipped for. These include lunchroom duty, subbing classes and, most recently, leading a field trip.

The eighth and ninth grade classes were “going to the theater” on Friday and as 9.B’s class teacher was unavailable to accompany them, I was chosen to go instead.

This was an incredibly huge deal for me. Not that I haven’t been on field trips before. I have helped on zoo visits, amusement park trips and museum tours. But I was never in charge, see. I was never fully and solely responsible for the health and safety of the students.

And that is kind of a big deal.

I suppose some of my worry was born out of the fact that it had been a tough week. I really don’t want to go into details, but it included a ping-pong table during a class I was subbing and a sharp reprimand from the Vice Head (mortifying for someone who is a strict abider of rules). To make matters worse, the Vice Head speaks no English, so when I went to her office to apologize, I had to write the Czech word for “irresponsible” on the palm of my hand and refer back to it during the peak of my contrite confession which sort of took away the “umph” of my speech and added to the “aaawwkward.”

Anyway, it was with this stressful, I-must-prove-myself monster crawling up my backbone that I ran into school on Friday morning. I had no sooner buzzed myself through the teacher’s entrance that I realized, in my haste to arrive on-time, I had completely forgotten that trips to the theater usually have a dress-code. Looking down at my jeans, I could feel the monster inside me groaning exasperatedly.

In my defense, when I first heard about the trip I assumed it was to the movies. It’s fairly common for class teachers to take their students to see a film a few times a year and when we say, “I’m going to the theater” in America, we really mean the movies (because, let’s be honest, who actually goes to the theater? We’re just not that cultured). Czechs, however, call ‘the movies’ the cinema and save ‘theater’ for the actual theater. Even though I knew this, and I knew it was a theater-theater we were going to, my brain had already locked “movies” into my brain under the wardrobe file.

If I am anything besides a strict abider of rules, it is an over-dresser. Ask anyone who went to high school with me. In fact, I’d been dressing nicely all week (and thought to myself on Friday morning, Wow, it’s been such a long time since I’ve worn jeans!). The horror, the sheer horror, of greeting the other teachers in their nice, black dresses while wearing jeans . . . Words fail me.

The students couldn’t have cared less and the other teachers were nice about it. Like, no one judged me, but I’m sure they subconsciously made note of my ineptitude in their mental files the way I had stored “movie theater” in mine.

I collected my kids – there were twelve of them – and we set off after the other classes towards the bus stop. They weren’t dressed for the theater either, but then they are just students. “We are supposed to be the examples,” said one teacher, sweetly, in what was meant to be a comforting reassurance. She went on to explain all the rules of being a field trip leader. “If you’re going up the escalator, they go first, but if you’re going down, you go first. If you’re getting on the metro, they go first, but you should be the first one off. You walk in front unless you’re crossing a street…” The list seemed endless and suddenly my jeans weren’t the only thing I was worried about.

I could feel myself crusting over. It’s a sad side-effect of a bad week. Whenever I feel like I’ve been failing as a teacher I become a little stricter, a little more sullen, just to prove that I can do the job. I’m not sure if it does anything except frustrate my students and make me feel more miserable.

The new teacher got her eighth graders onto the bus without a problem (yes, I’m not the new teacher anymore. There goes my last excuse for not being able to do this job well). She’s lovely, by the way. Young, but not as young as me. Pretty, but in a casual way. Strict and funny. Experienced and fresh. And, of course, dressed like someone taking their class to the theater, which I was not. I like her a lot, but in this moment, I felt my inner monster turning green with pathetic envy.

Half my students hadn’t eaten breakfast and begged me to let them grab a to-go slice of pizza once we got off the bus at the metro station. I said ‘no.’

Heads were counted and then we set off into the underground.

The question was the same at our stop on the red line as we crawled back into the sunlight.

“Please can we grab a slice really quickly? Please can we stop in the potraviny?”

“No.”

I was determined not to screw this up. No allowances. No toes were to come even CLOSE to the line. We would not have another ping-pong incident on our hands.

A small boy who we call the little dragon – Dračík – went running up the escalator. I called out for him to wait for the group but he just shot me a mischievous glance and kept going, two other boys trailing in his wake. I couldn’t honestly remember the rule – was I supposed to go up first or were the students? My kids were already headed in that direction but he was nearly out of sight so I tore up the escalator after him.

For those who don’t know, the escalators in Prague’s metros are extremely long and not to be messed with.

We were all out of breath when I finally caught up to him. He looked extremely satisfied with himself.

“I just want to get a piece of pizza,” he said with his snarling, lisping accent. We call him the little dragon because he acts like one. He’s always snapping his jaws at someone, licking his reptilian tongue over his pale mouth and growling under his breath. We love him, but we don’t poke him.

“You ran away after I told you to stop three times,” I managed between gasps. “There are other teachers here watching us and I have to prove that I can do this job. After the ping-pong stunt you guys pulled this week, I’d expect you’d cut me a little slack. No. You may not have pizza.

At this time, the other groups caught up with us and we all got swept away. I did notice that a few of the boys from the other classes managed to get their hands on food. My students noticed too.

We waited outside the theater for ten minutes (“Plenty of time to get pizza,” several students muttered to each other in Czech – no one realizes how much I understand these days). Finally, we all piled into the theater with a dozen other schools.

I counted them as they went up the stairs to make sure all twelve of my students made it into the auditorium.

The play was mostly in English, but that didn’t make it comprehensible. Put on primarily by student actors, the watered-down script was the weirdest, most questionable, slightly racist thing I’ve ever seen performed on stage, which included songs that weren’t sure if they were dance numbers or just opportunities to leap around stage and props that were fifty-percent imaginary. For a low-budget performance, it wasn’t so bad, but I did felt personally offended when they made light of the U.S. national anthem. Our song is not a prop, mad’am.

But I tried to keep a straight face for the duration of the performance and only say neutral sounding things when people asked me what I thought afterwards.

The groups split up on the way back to school. My class wanted to go to KFC, which was along the metro line we took to school anyway, so I agreed. It’s pretty typical for teachers to let their kids get lunch on the return trip.

I counted heads. Twelve.

We wandered into a mall at Pankrac and I told them they had 45 minutes till we would meet back at the entrance. I followed some of the girls as they wandered around the mall. I even introduced them to the wonders of Frozen Yogurt which they were pretty enchanted by. Most of the kids got cheap lunch boxes at KFC or McDonalds on the top floor in the food court.

At last we all convened by the metro doors. I counted again and we headed down into the tunnel. Dračík still had a third of his McDonalds blizzard and was taking his sweet time in finishing it. Most of it had turned into creamy slush.

“I can’t take this on the metro,” he told me as ours pulled up. It was completely packed, thanks to the post-lunch rush.

“Then toss it,” I said as I shepherded my brood toward the doors. What was the rule again? Do I go on first?

“No, there’s still some left,” he said, his voice rippling with amused defiance.

“Then hide it,” I hissed, as we got on. There was barely enough space for us and my jacket got stuck in the doors as they closed. Face pressed against the glass, I struggled to free it. The monster inside my chest was heaving in angry breaths.

And that’s when I noticed.

There, on the other side of the window, just an arm’s length from my face, was Dračík, clutching his blizzard and waving slyly with the sickest grin of self-satisfaction I have ever seen in my life.

Our metro pulled away slowly and I watched him disappear on the platform.

Dračku?” the girls next to me asked as we rushed into the dark tunnel.

I gasped audibly, to the amusement of the adults packed in tightly around us.

“I lost him!” I moaned into my hands. “I lost a student! The Vice Head is going to kill me! …I will kill him.”

Amid my students’ reassurances and the grins my fellow passengers were failing to hide, I found myself hyperventilating against the cool glass of the metro car. The little green monster inside of me loaded a pistol and held it to its head. It’s all over now. You’ve lost a student.

Stay calm, stay calm, stay calm.

When the doors opened and my class and I spilled onto the platform, I let out the groan of agony which caused the remaining passengers to loose the laughter they had been holding in. My outburst – which I had not intended to happen out loud – attracted the attention of those on the platform as well, because if you’re going to lose a child on the metro system, you may as well make a huge scene of it.

The rest of the ninth graders thought it was hilarious. What a Dračík-thing to do. Class act, he was. Oh yes.

The problem was, it was funny. This whole year I’ve struggled with the fact that I have no teacherly instincts. I’d much rather be making paper airplanes with the kids in the back of class than be up in the front teaching. In fact, if we could have a class just for making paper airplanes, that would be ideal. That’s how the whole ping-pong thing got started in the first place.

But I can’t do that. I have to be the teacher. I have to have a little crust. I have to dress up for the theater. I have to be the example. It’s my job.

So I swallowed my smile and set it to rest with my fears that the Vice Head would never let me teach again if she found out about this incident (and so soon after the ping-pong catastrophe!). With a nerve-wracking stillness, we waited for the next car which carried our dear little rascal.

He was greeted by his friends and fans with much aplomb and it was a moment before the crowd cleared and we stood face-to-face. He looked at me a little sheepishly and I looked back at him, not cruelly, but certainly without my usual twinkle.

“So,” I said in Czech (because they know I’m serious when I stop using English), “Are you finished?”

He nodded silently and I asked him to give me his ice cream cup, which he did (it was empty by this point). I tossed it in the trash and then motioned silently for the kids to make their way up to the bus stop, which they did.

For a gorgeous two minutes, everyone behaved. We got to the bus stop and waited.

Dračík was fidgeting uncomfortably and I was having trouble keeping up my real-teacher act. So I pulled him aside and explained why he’s not allowed to run off. He explained that it was just a joke. And I made him promise that next time we’d both do better – I’ll be a better teacher, he’ll be a better student. He grinned.

Someone pulled out a phone and the next thing I knew, we were taking a huge, conspicuous group selfie. So much for maintaining a teacherly anything.

We got back to school – all of us, in one piece.

I met up with the other teachers in the cafeteria and sank into a chair. Grins were exchanged at my expense.

“The Vice Head was really worried when we said you took your group back alone,” said one. “Everything went okay, right?”

At first I nodded, then I shook my head and the whole story spilled out.

“Don’t worry,” came sympathetic responses. “Once I got everyone on the metro but myself,” or, “Today, two of my boys nearly missed the bus home. It happens. It’s school.”

It’s school.

That seems to be the motto we go by. That’s what the Vice Head told me after my pitiful apology in her office on Wednesday regarding the ping-pong incident (may it rest in peace).

It’s just school. It’s just life. We learn as we go. I rarely make the same mistake twice (though when I do, it’s usually grander and more cringe-worthy the second time).

On Friday I learned that I can get a dozen fourteen-year olds from school to the theater and back. I learned that more often we have things to prove to ourselves than to others. And I learned that it’s okay to get a little lost on the metro.

Making Spring Fever

REAL baseballs, taken in San Diego, 2009.

REAL baseballs, photographed in San Diego, 2009.

The little patch of field above the school, between the library, a lonely restaurant and the tram stop, doesn’t look much like a baseball field. A heavily graffitied concrete slab stands behind what we’ve made home plate and the slope just past rightfield melts into several blocks of winding streets and grey apartment buildings that stand like lifeless honeycombs. Laundry hangs on lines out the windows, providing the only other color to the neighborhood, save the cheery schoolyard and the dandelions and forsythia which grow in golden bursts along every sidewalk.

Arguably, the best thing about our little baseball field is our team of players.

On Thursday afternoons I help at our church’s kid’s club. About ten little munchkins show up to sing songs, play games, make crafts and hear a Bible story or message. Mostly I just co-pilot chaos control. After a full day at school, the kids are like unpinned grenades ready to go off. Keeping the tussling to a minimum and preventing any activity that might include throwing or sliding across desks – that’s basically my job description. We have a good time.

But with the arrival spring came the return of our wiffle ball season. Jerry is a big baseball guy and he painstakingly trains our club kids every year during our few precious weeks of sunshine and good weather.

What exactly does a wiffle ball game look like in our corner of the Czech Republic? Well, for starters, we only have one team and an inning is a complete cycle of all the players. Our games go for about two or three innings. Those not on a base or behind the plate mill around the infield watching, pretending to watch, or creating diversions.

Defense is weak. Only two boys on the team have fully grasped the concept of proactively “outing” someone – “výoutovat.” Their efforts to make a decent play is hindered by the fact that no one is every guarding the bases (though, occasionally helped by the fact that other infielders like to block the runners to keep them from rounding the mats). Wiffle ball is no gentleman’s game.

Very seldomly will Jerry, who plays pitcher, umpire and coach in one, throw someone out on strikes. We have to whittle down the clock for several minutes before Marilyn (our catcher and co-coach) switches from the thin yellow bat to the big blue one. If no hits emerge from the new “wood” then we say, “Great job! Your swing is getting so much better!” and shuffle them to the outfield.

“It’s just like tennis,” Jerry will encourage the kids before lobbing a ball at them.

“I don’t play tennis!” is always the reply.

Hitting the ball has been a work-in-progress from the start, though we’ve had marked improvement. Learning the difference between a hit and a foul has taken more time. It’s such a small difference, if you think about it, especially considering that our diamond doesn’t have white chalk and grass borders. Anytime the bat and ball make contact, everyone on every base and every corner of the field start moving rapidly (or not so rapidly, depending on who’s paying attention) in a counterclockwise direction. Jerry will loudly call, “FOUL!” and the news will trickle slowly backwards as Jerry and I try shuffling everyone back to their original spots. Sometime’s it’s as simple as Jerry saying, “FOUL. Zpátky!” (“Back!”). And sometimes we have to let them round all the bases before the excitement dies down and they realize the ball is missing or the runner never left home and resign themselves to dawdling back to their posts.

Some of our players are more competitive than others. The older boy (about ten years old?) has to breathe deeply and quickly wipe away tears everytime he gets tagged out. He’ll plaster the largest, fakest smile on his face and laugh at himself while his whole body shakes in the sob he’s trying to hide. I know exactly how he feels. I’ve worn that fake smile, I’ve laughed at myself until I feel like I’ve sufficiently disguised how painful it feels to lose. I just want to wrap him up and hug him, but I know that he needs to keep pretending it’s okay for now. Failing is part of life and learning how not to fall apart when it happens is a big step in human development. It’s never long before he’s back in the game, ready to try again.

We do have interruptions now and then, like the neighborhood boy’s little sister letting their puppy loose on the field. The game came to a complete stop as a dozen children scampered after the pup who was gayly chewing on its leash and dashing between legs.

Someone always needs to go to the bathroom, in which case I leave my position as the team’s only outfielder and escort them to the library bathrooms across the way. We get respectfully quiet inside and then tiptoe our way back out into the afternoon, but by the time we’ve made it to the field again they start running and shouting. And the game continues.

Our newest player, a brown-eyed boy from the second grade, kept me company in the outfield this week. He just joined the club and wiffle ball is a new experience for him. When someone took too long at the plate, he’d start walking in a circle around me like I was a Maypole. Not especially talkative, but very happy to be out in the sun with everyone else. His turn at bat finally came and after several misses, he hit a grounder. The field erupted in the usual pandemonium as runners took off and infielders scrambled after the ball. It would have been a perfect play if our little hitter hadn’t started running towards third base instead of first.

Baseball isn’t hugely popular in the Czech Republic yet, but those who do like the game love the game. There are no fair-weather fans in this country. And our wiffle ball games are no different. I wish we lived life a little bit more like we play wiffle ball – everyone on the same team, everyone pushing each other to be better, everyone cheering and shouting over wins and loses. Everyone enjoying the chance to play with their friends beneath a beautiful blue sky, no matter how the game turns out.