My experience teaching English in Europe is something I get more questions about than anything else besides going back to school to become an RD. I recently asked via Facebook if anyone would be interested in reading a post about my time teaching in Prague and the answer came back immediately — yes. If you have zero interest in this post, I’m sorry and please come back tomorrow. For the rest of you — enjoy!
Whenever fall is in the air, I think of Prague.
If you’ve read my “About Me” page, you know that in October 2008, I headed over to Prague, Czech Republic to teach English.
For years, pretty much since graduating college in 2004, I wanted to teach English abroad. Anytime someone told me they had taught abroad I would pepper them with a million questions, jealousy dripping from my voice. But still I didn’t go. I was scared. It was easier to stay and work in D.C., among friends and family and everything that was familiar. But deep down I knew I wanted the challenge. To me, there’s nothing more exciting than living abroad. Sure, it’s scary — but that’s why it’s exciting. Learning about other cultures is one of the best ways to learn about yourself.
Finally, in early 2008 after a particularly inspiring lunch break conversation with a similarly disgruntled coworker about how we felt like we were just “treading water,” not really growing or going anywhere, I decided it was time for my big adventure. At this point, I was starting to think I might want to go back to grad school, but I knew that once I did that I would need to focus on building a career. It was now or never for my dreams of teaching abroad. When else would I have such an opportunity to take a risk without having to worry about a husband, or kids, or a career job I couldn’t leave? I determined I had enough money saved from working to fund my way until I started teaching — and so it was finally time. I was going abroad.
For the next couple months, while still at my office job, I researched Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) programs. This was the most frustrating part of the whole process — I knew I needed a TEFL certificate to teach in Europe because I had zero teaching experience, but it was so hard to tell which programs were legit. After a billion emails to programs, former students at said programs, and a lot of Google searching to check program legitimacy, I finally narrowed it down to Oxford TEFL or TtMadrid. It was between Czech Republic and Spain. Where to go? After much debate, I decided on eastern Europe. I’d been to western Europe before backpacking with a friend after college, but had never been that far east and had heard amazing things about Prague. Oxford TEFL it was! I signed up for a course in October, gave notice at my job, and started packing.
Finally, the day to leave for Europe came. I was terrified and excited at the same time. My adventure had begun.
The next 5 weeks were a whirlwind; there wasn’t much time to be homesick. My roommates, 3 others taking the TEFL course, were awesome as were a bunch of others in our course, and we had a blast exploring the city amidst studying for our TEFL certificates.
With my friend Jackie, also in our course (we were watching the Prague Marathon!):
I quickly fell in love with Prague. Not only was the scenery stunning, but it was so small and walk-able that I didn’t even need to learn how to use the trams or metro until I started working.
Before we knew it, we were done with the training course and it was time to find a job. My roommate Bec and I rented a cheap one room hotel for a couple weeks while we interviewed for jobs and figured out more long-term housing.
This was a bit of a stressful time, as you can imagine, but we made the most of it. I interviewed at a few different places to teach adults, but I really wanted to teach kids, so when I heard from a friend about an opening at a nearby primary school I jumped on it. I went in for an interview with a woman named Blanka at a staffing agency that the school had hired to find English teachers. Apparently the guy who they currently had in the job was super flaky, so my interview was basically like this:
- Blanka: “Will you be reliable and show up on time?”
- Me: “Yes, of course.”
- Blanka: “Okay, you will start after Christmas.”
!!!! And with that, I had a job.
It was early December at this point, so that meant I had a few weeks off before starting work. Or so I thought. One morning a few days later, I got a call at 8 a.m. from Blanka. “Can you be at the school by 10 a.m.? The English teacher called in sick again. They are desperate.” Me, freaking out: “Um… yes… okay, sure. I’ll see you soon.” Blanka: “Okay, you will be teaching 4 classes.”
GAH!!!!!!!! We had only taught adults as practice during the TEFL course, so I literally had never taught kids before in my life, let alone those who didn’t speak English, let alone an ENTIRE CLASS of them. I hurriedly threw on clothes while quizzing Bec about what the heck to do with these kids (she taught kids back in Australia), and 1 hour later I was in the metro trying to figure out how to get to the school.
Here’s an excerpt that I wrote to family and friends about the experience — it’s long but worth a read.
I meet Blanka at the metro station at 9:45 a.m. and we walk to the school together, it’s about 3 blocks away. The school is HUGE. We head inside and go into the administrator’s (I assume?) office. Blanka and the lady start speaking rapidly in Czech and gesturing wildly, looking at me every few seconds. I have no idea what is going on. I’m told an English teacher will come in to translate. The teacher finally comes, and then proceeds to talk rapidly to them in Czech. I still have no idea what is going on. Blanka stands up and says, “Okay! Bye!” I’m like…. what?!?! The English teacher says she will take me to her classroom then, and she will be in the room with me, but I can do whatever I want. This should be interesting.
All I can say is, thank god for hangman. I taught four classes, all 45 minutes long. The first group was older kids (12 or 13?), the second was about 11 year olds, and the last two sessions were with 9 ish year olds. I started out with hangman. The response is very enthusiastic (Whew, they know the game!) I spell “My name is Anne”, the kids are all jumping up in their seats trying to call out letters. After this, I do an exercise Bec suggested this morning during my panic (she has taught kids in Australia and Japan), where I have the students line up one by one in alphabetical order by first name. I improvise and have them each say their name and write it onto the board. They seem into it. Next up: more hangman, this time related to holidays. I introduce Thanksgiving, have them talk about their favorite holidays, favorite food (meat and potatoes, obvs… oh and pizza!), etc etc. During one part one of the girls jumps up to clean the board for me. Adorable. One group down, three more to go.
I get herded back to the teacher’s room and am told to wait for someone to come get me. The second group is more of the same activities. The group is rowdier. I have to split up two boys, banishing one to the back of the room. He pouts. The Czech teacher in the back of the room seems impressed. Keeping the kids under control proves challenging but I move things along well. There is a small mishap when I say a letter isn’t in one of the hangman sentences and at the end we realize it was. I tell them they can hang me. They enjoy that.
The last two groups were the littler kids. I was told I would have no other teacher in the room with me to help translate or keep things under control. Eeek. I start out with the obligatory name hangman and line up game. I then move on to families, asking them what are the names of people in families (e.g. mother, father, sister, brother…). I do a “My brother’s name is Stephen” hangman activity and I have them tell me their brother and sister’s names and then draw their whole families. During all this, I have students running up to show me pictures of their moms, dads, sisters, etc. on their cell phones. Yes, these 9 year olds have cell phones. What has happened to the world?! I start running out of things to do. Crap. The kids are starting to get rowdy. Time to have them list types of pets, draw them, and tell me their names! Good times. There is some confusion when the kids speak in Czech and expect me to understand. I try to act like I understand but want them to speak in English. I’m scared to think what they might do when they realize I don’t have a clue what they are saying to each other. And then, saved by the bell. I’m out of there at 1:30. Quite the day.
After getting off to a rocky start (the second day of substitute teaching had me confiscating a dirty magazine from a 9th grader), I ended up really loving my job there. Obviously, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses; some days were harder than others, and some classes were more fun than others, but teaching was a great experience. I learned to think quickly on my feet but to speak slowly, to use body language well (especially with the little kids when trying to explain/start a game), to be more patient, to listen very carefully, and that yelling was only effective when used VERY sparingly. I also learned that while kids can be total devils at times (especially once they learn you can’t understand their native language), they can also be amazingly cute and funny.
(Yes, a lot of them were as tall as or taller than me.)
Here was my school:
As I said, it was a primary school, which is 3rd through 9th grade in the Czech Republic, although their grades start earlier than ours — for example, their 9th graders were 16 instead of about 14 in the U.S. Since I was the only native English teacher at the school, I taught 22 unique classes per week, ages 8 through 16, and never had the same kids twice in a week.
Something that was both scary and very exciting about teaching there was that I literally was given the choice to do whatever I wanted in terms of teaching. It was basically a teaching job without any of the annoyance. I didn’t have to go to meetings, I didn’t have to do hallway duty, I didn’t have to assign or grade homework, I didn’t have to talk to parents, and I didn’t have any sort of curriculum to go by. If I wanted to, I could coordinate with the Czech English teachers and use some lessons from the books they were working through with the kids, and I did do this sometimes, especially near the end when I started running out of ideas. But a lot of the time I tried to come up with my own activities to make things more interesting and fun, doing games, having the kids interact in English, etc.
I was so sad to say goodbye to all my kids when I left. On my last day, a bunch of the little kids drew me pictures — how cute are these?
And one of my 9th grade classes baked me cookies that spelled “PRAGUE”!
Isn’t this the cutest? They also made a little sheet with some pictures of Prague, them, and the school, and all signed it. I was definitely teary eyed.
In addition to teaching kids, I also had a few adult students that I met up with once a week for private conversational English lessons, as well as a weekly meeting with someone for a Czech-English language exchange so I could learn some basic Czech (hardest language ever, btw). The conversational lessons were fun because, in addition to being a way to learn some extra money, I also got to learn more about the Czech Republic and its culture. Here’s one of my favorite students, Marcel. We became good friends and still keep in touch now via email. He also reads my blog as a good way to keep up with his slang English. (Hi Marcel!)
(Yes, they even had Starbucks in Prague.)
Outside of teaching, I had a blast exploring Prague, the Czech Republic, and Europe. The Old Town Square in Prague was my absolute favorite part of the city — I walked through it every day on my way to teach and relished being there in the early mornings before the crowds came. It was magical.
My favorite part of the Old Town Square was the Tyn Cathedral — it was lit up at night and absolutely stunning. Pictures don’t do it justice at all.
During Christmas time, a huge Christmas tree was set up in the middle of the Old Town Square and vendors appeared selling knick knacks and Christmas gifts, hot mulled wine, Trdelnik (the most amazing pastries EVER… I still dream of them), sausages, etc.
On Christmas Eve, it’s customary for Czechs to have a big dinner of fish (usually carp), and nearing the holidays, vendors are set up along the streets selling live carp. You can imagine my surprise when I came home from work one day to see a guy chopping off a carp’s head right at the end of my street. Eek!
Here are some other memorable moments:
- Traveling to Poland with a Polish friend for her sister’s birthday party and teaching everyone how to play flip cup.
- Taking exercise classes in Czech. I got really good at reading body language, to say the least.
- Seeing Obama give his first European speech of his presidency, right outside the Prague castle. Michelle had a cute outfit on, of course.
- Hanging out at the beer gardens overlooking the whole city.
- Almost getting arrested on the tram for not having a valid pass. I bought a monthly pass and mine had run out the day before — I tried to get a new one but they shut right when I made it to the window. Of course the one day I didn’t have a pass was the day they came on and checked. The Czech cops came, it was a debacle. I finally got off with just a large fine. Yikes.
- Buying sour cream instead of yogurt at the grocery store and not realizing it until I started eating it with my cereal. FAIL.
There are so many stories, memories, amazing trips, and good friends that came out of my time in Prague that there’s no way I can do it justice in one post, or even a bunch of posts. I miss my friends, I miss my students, I miss walking through the Old Town Square in the early mornings and late evenings, I miss riding the tram to work with the beautiful views of the river and Prague Castle, I miss going for runs over the Charles Bridge, and I miss being on my big adventure. Hopefully, some day I’ll return for a visit. Until then — I’ll just remember my time there happily, knowing that I made the most of it.
Have you ever lived abroad? Where and why? I lived in Germany and Belgium for a year each with my family, but I was really little. I also studied abroad in Australia for 5 months in college. Obsessed with that place and I credit that experience for giving me the travel bug.