They say that teaching is something that is in your blood. Well, my mother is a teacher, and as a result, in every country I travel to, sooner or later I find myself standing at the front of a classroom, while rows upon rows of expectant faces stare at me. I don’t quite know how it happens, but I seem to agree to teach foreign children about England on a regular basis. When I visit Germany every year to stay with friends, the mother of the family is a primary school teacher, and as a result there are years of German schoolchildren growing up with what I’m sure must be quite random view of what England is like; a mythical land where Old MacDonald and a lady called the Queen live, where people wear school uniform, and red buses are everywhere.
During my recent trip to Finland I spent two days accompanying a friend of my host family who was a travelling teacher, teaching English at all the rural village schools in the area. This was really rewarding, if a little terrifying, seeing as my Finnish language was limited to ‘kiitos’ (thank you) and the class of beginners had just mastered how old they were! I quickly learnt to speak very slowly and clearly, and to stop for questions on a frequent basis. A game at the beginning of the lesson (‘lotto’ is good if the children have recently learnt numbers in English) seems to make the children much more outgoing and receptive.
Teaching older children in secondary schools is a little more difficult, as European children seem to have a far better grasp of the English language than most English teenagers do! One battle that I always seem to end up fighting is the distinction between American English and English English. George Bernard Shaw seems to have been pretty accurate when he described England and America as ‘two nations divided by a common language’. In a German high school I was shocked to hear a teacher correcting a child from ‘really good’ to ‘real good’, something that never fails to infuriate me as the lesson was called English! Older children are often much better at asking questions, and therefore make the lessons easier.
Teaching in schools is a really good way to immerse yourself in local culture, and see how different countries are. Personally I’m a fan of the European system of starting early, finishing early, and wish they would implement it in England, as it gives you the whole afternoon to enjoy yourself. Perhaps I may change my mind getting up at six a.m. on a regular basis, but nevertheless it’s always a good topic for discussion in a secondary school classroom as everyone seems to have a vehement opinion which can lead to lively debate!
Teaching is a good way to make friends and get to know people in an area that you are staying for a while. After teaching in the local village in Finland, I became known as a sort of local celebrity (ah, my moment of fame!) and at any one time walking along the street would have a small hand slipped into mine, and a voice saying ‘hello Catherine’ before the child went running off.
Schools are always desperate for native speakers to come in and talk to the children, who previously may never have heard an English person talking, as it makes the lessons more interesting and offers a variety of activities for the teacher (preparation before the visit of something for the children to tell you about, follow up penpals etc). I personally always offer to be a penpal to the class for a while – writing one letter a term takes a few minutes of my time and provides the children with a host of activities; writing back, and being able to learn about ‘an English Christmas’ or event.
So my advice is to grasp any opportunity that comes your way to help out in a local school for a day or two. The teachers are always friendly and grateful, and the rewards can be surprising (having mentioned that I am a ‘Diddl’ fan (a German cartoon character) I was really touched that all the children in the class donated one piece of Diddl notepaper each to make me a thank you card.)
- Wherever you’re travelling to, take with you a selection of postcards with pictures of the main tourist attractions from your home country. A range of coins is also useful to pass around.
- Indulge in a lot of question asking and answering, involving going around the class giving each child the opportunity to say how many siblings they have/how old they are/their pet’s name etc. It gives everyone a chance to shine, and is a very clear indicator as to whether they actually understand what you have been asking, and are not just nodding obediently!
- Make sure you know all the words to at least one nursery rhyme in case you find yourself with a room full of children staring up at you expectantly and your mind goes blank! ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ seems to go down quite well as you’re technically teaching parts of the body, and it gives them a chance to jump up and down.
- Make sure you stick to talking about things within the child’s sphere of reference, (pets, school etc). I once tried to have a discussion about surfing which none of the children had ever heard of. Needless to say, it failed miserably!
- Wear child-friendly clothing. In Finland I ended up helping with an art class of six year olds (despite the fact that my art ability is limited to stick drawings!)
- Make sure you prepare a ‘blurb’ about yourself. When teaching in a secondary school, the normal teacher is very likely to ask you to ‘tell us a few things about yourself’. This is usually the point where my mind goes completely blank and I forget my own name!
- Take sandwiches! From my limited experience, I’ve concluded that German school dinners are actually worse than English ones (yes, it is possible!) so make sure you go prepared! A strange eating allergy is usually a good cover for why you’re not indulging in the ‘feast’.