Griffin Canfield: A Few Words for New ETAs

I was recently asked by Andrea to make a post regarding my time in the Czech Republic. To make the most of my post I tried to think back to when I was first notified of my selection as a Fulbright ETA and my site placement in the Czech Republic. Besides the normal questions about plane tickets (Generationfly.com) and what to pack (ski jacket and waterproof winter boots), I was worried about what my role would be as an ETA and being too isolated in my new hometown for the next ten months.

If you’re anything like me your only experience with teaching is the conversations you had with your teachers after class and a few tutoring sessions you did to beef up your Fulbright application.  Furthermore, you most likely majored in something other than Education, like Political Science, and your career goals never included teaching.  I have found that the key to being a good ETA is not having a background in education and knowing every grammar rule, but being a good conversationalist and motivator.  Most of your students will have minimal English speaking experience, having spent the majority of their English learning careers listening to a teacher lecturing on the intricacies of English grammar.  Your job is to get your students talking and using their knowledge of grammar and vocabulary in everyday conversation.  I found that my students were hesitant to speak the first couple of months, but they became much more talkative as the year progressed and they had more opportunities to engage with me.

Everyone has their own method for getting students to speak and feel comfortable, but for me it’s pretty simple, sports, sports, and more sports.  Throughout the course of the year I’ve participated in gym classes, weightlifting sessions, tennis lessons, ice hockey practices, dance classes, yoga lessons, two ski trips, a week long sports course, and an endless number of soccer and floorball matches.  While a lot of the contact I had with my students came during school hours and weekly lessons, I found that the most meaningful interactions with my students came while skating down the ice or trying a new yoga pose.  It was during these interactions that my students were able to relax and speak without fear of being reprimanded for every grammatical mistake.  While my method of connecting with my students was through sports, I’m sure that the same connections could be achieved through other extracurricular activities, like movie clubs or video game and music groups.  To sum up, don’t get too hung up on being a grammar whiz or knowing the latest teaching practices, focus instead on finding a way to get your students to speak, that’s the primary objective.

If you’re not worried about your teaching ability you might be concerned about where you have been placed in the Czech Republic.  I know that when I first applied to serve in the Czech Republic I envisioned working and living in Prague, only to be informed that I would be based in Chotebor, a town of 9,500 that you can walk through within five minutes.  I was initially concerned that I would become too isolated living in Chotebor and that I would die from boredom, however, I quickly realized how fortunate I was to be placed in a small town as opposed to a big city.  The quaintness of Chotebor has been ideal when it comes to achieving my goals as an ETA.  The interactions I’ve had with my students are not limited to within the premises of the school, but occur throughout the community.  It’s hard to go anywhere in Chotebor; the gym, tennis courts, Tesco, Drobrava Valley, or the town square, without bumping into a student and striking up a conversation.

Another benefit of living in a small town is that it has been fairly easy to make friends my own age.  Unlike in the United States, the majority of college age students and even young professionals return home on the weekends to spend time with friends and family, which in Chotebor means spending time at the VV Bar, an establishment owned by my landlord and located directly behind my apartment.  One of the first outings I went on with my mentor was to the VV Bar where he introduced me to a group of guys (mid to late twenties) who have become my core group of friends.  We play floorball on Friday and Saturday evenings and on Thursdays we go swimming.  In addition to playing sports, we’ve met up in Prague for long weekends and we recently completed a four day rafting trip down the Vltava River.

Having a group of friends that you can go out and socialize with really helps during those short winter days when it’s dark when you leave for school and even darker when you return home, but it’s only possible if you’re willing to put yourself out there and take part in all the opportunities presented to you.  Don’t skip an opportunity to take part in a sporting event, a weekend trip, or an invitation to enjoy a beer at your local pub because it’s those opportunities that will lead to the friendships which help you to make the most out of your time as a Fulbright ETA in the Czech Republic.

I hope you enjoy your time in the Czech Republic and that by the end of your stay you feel just as sad about leaving as I do now.
Griffin Canfield
Chotebor, Czech Republic

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