This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
University/Major: Carthage College, Major: Great Ideas, Minor: Japanese
School in Czech Republic: Střední škola obchodní, České Budějovice
Favorite Quote: "Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves." –Rainer Maria Rilke
Favorite Czech food: “Anything with knedlíky, so everything.”
Can you give some personal background details, where you are from, what you studied, what your interests are?
I am originally form St. Louis, Missouri and I went to college near Chicago in Kenosha, Wisconsin at Carthage College. The short answer to what my major was is philosophy, and the long answer is that it is technically called Great Ideas. It’s basically philosophy and classics studies. I also minored in Japanese because I like languages. I did a lot of music too, although it wasn’t part of my degree. I played the flute in the college orchestra.
What are you passionate about?
Music is the big thing. I love playing music, I love being in ensembles, I love teaching flute lessons, I love going to concerts and the opera. It’s really exciting because music here has allowed me to really connect with a lot of people. I’m also really passionate about philosophy, art, history and sort of the squishy parts of human knowledge.
Why did you choose the Czech Republic?
It had a lot to do with these passions that I have, and it was kind of like an intuition because I didn’t know a whole lot about the Czech Republic, and I’d never been here before. But I knew a tiny bit from history class and I’m familiar with some composers like Dvořák, Smetana, and Martinů, and literature too. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is one of my favorite books. I felt like I was getting these little glimpses into a really amazing, complex culture and worldview and I really wanted to see what was going on here. I didn’t have a specific goal, but I just felt like this was the right place to be.
How did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
My college has been really pushing for students to apply in the past few years. Last year we had 5 ETA grantees, and one was a good friend of mine who went to Greece. I definitely knew this was a thing that I would be interested in! I had wanted to study abroad, and though I got a lot of chances to do short term trips, I never got to do a semester or year like I wanted. I thought this would be a good way to get all of these things in one: the teaching experience, living abroad and experiencing a different culture.
How did you prepare for your Fulbright grant to Czech Republic?
I studied the phonetic system of the Czech language; I practiced my “ř” a lot. I also spent some more time with diverse Czech classical composers for example, and a lot of the folk music traditions, to get into the atmosphere. I also immediately looked at realty websites to get an idea about housing and how much it would cost. That helped me to learn the layout of the area, looking at the maps on the realty websites, and then I had a general idea of where things were already when I arrived.
Tell me about your school that you’re working at this year.
The school I’m at is called Střední škola obchodní. It’s a commerce school with about 600 students, in areas like tourism, shop assistant or economics. There’s one really cool class where the name in Czech is literally ‘Fictive Firm,’ where the students run a pretend company. They’re running an imaginary hotel, so I’ve visited this class and done interviews with them. That’s a pretty cool atmosphere.
I’m also teaching a geography course right now. It’s part of the idea to have content classes in English. The class is with two third-year classes, and most of the week they learn about geography in Czech. Then, once a week I come in, and do the same topic in English so they get the vocabulary. So far we’ve done lessons on biomes, geographical features, and reading maps. It’s really interesting: I wasn’t expecting anything like that. It’s been a bit of a challenge to figure out how to teach that subject in an engaging way, but I’ve really liked it so far.
What kind of lessons do you prepare for your students?
Some classes I’ll prepare a presentation with activities like on “my hometown,” or on some of Shakespeare’s plays. But more often, I will come up with a series of games, exercises or activities to practice a particular skill or categories of things, such as jobs, or over a grammar point like present progressive. I always try to do many activities with multiple students talking and interacting at once because the teachers usually call on students one at a time, and I feel like that’s a) boring and b) not very efficient. I like to be more collaborative, and so far I think it’s working.
Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
Like a lot of other ETAs, I’ve organized an English club. A lot of the students want to talk to me outside of class, so I’m excited for that. I’m going to start an English club for the teachers too, so hopefully that will be coming up soon.
Also, one of my teacher’s friends knows someone who knows someone who plays the clarinet in the South Bohemia University orchestra. I got a text one day to come to their rehearsal, and so I showed up, played music and it’s been super fun! We had a concert two weeks ago at the library here, and a lot of people came. It’s been great to meet people who have my interest in music, and people who are close to my age, which can be hard to find. I have to practice the Czech alphabet and numbers so I can tell where we are in the music. But it really is amazing, when the director is describing to the trombone section how he wants them to play, I can understand what he’s saying, because it’s just like what my band director in Wisconsin would say. You know people joke that “music is the universal language,” but it is true.
I’ve also found out about a partner language-learning program with students at the university. It’s called Tandem Language Learning. I don’t know how much Czech I’ll be able to learn, but I can definitely help people with English.
What do you like about teaching English?
I’m a super language nerd, so I love helping students recognize, figure out and practice the weird quirks English has, and I also just love teaching in general. I’ve done tutoring all throughout my time in college. Giving students the space and the confidence to try things out is really rewarding, and I think that my students are appreciative of that. I’ve sat in so many language classes, I know how boring and frustrating it can be, and I just want to be someone positive that students don’t feel nervous around.
What do you hope to accomplish during your grant year?
I want my students to feel more confident and comfortable using English or any language really, because it’s not just a matter of the grammar and the vocabulary. Sometimes it’s a matter of “I don’t feel comfortable sharing my opinion,” or “I don’t even know how to formulate an opinion.” I really want to help them grow, and be more self-confident, self-aware and able to express that in [what are] sometimes scary ways. I’ve also met so many wonderful people in the community already, and I really want to build these connections, because that’s how you get to know a place and a way of life and I want to be able to give back in the same way.
What is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
Language is tough. It’s really stressful for me because I hate feeling like I’m inconveniencing people. I always try to do everything in what little bit of Czech I know, and sometimes it just doesn’t work, and sometimes the grocery store clerk gets annoyed with me. But it is making slow improvements, and for every person who makes me feel like I’m never going to figure this out, there are three people who are friendly and willing to help me figure out what I need. I like to think I’m normally a pretty flexible person, but when everything is so unknown, you just have to really be okay with whatever happens.
What is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
I get super excited when I do successfully navigate situations in Czech. The first time I came to this café, there was a German couple sitting at this table, and they were trying to ask for the Wi-Fi password. But the waiter didn’t know the word password, and I was like, “Oh, heslo!” I was able to help in that situation and it felt really good! And everyone is really just so kind, welcoming and willing to open up. It’s amazing: I’ve been invited to so many people’s houses. My mentor takes me to her house every weekend to do my laundry and have dinner. She’s the sweetest person.
What places in Czech Republic do you want to travel to?
A lot of places! I really want to go to Šumava, and do some hiking and exploring there, and I’d really like to visit Karlovy Vary. I’ve seen the other ETAs’ pictures from there, and it looks beautiful. Also Goethe used to go there too, and so that shares my interest in German poets. And I heard about Český ráj; I would love to spend a weekend exploring that area. I really like being out in nature, exploring and I really like castles. South Bohemia is great. I feel like I’ve seen seven different castles already, but I never get tired of it. Being in a place with history is really important to me and you can just feel it everywhere here. It’s amazing. I love it. I feel like I could just go by train to any random town here, and have a great experience. And I want to visit a lot of the other ETAs around the country as well, and they should come visit me!
What is something interesting you have learned about Czech culture?
That you say “goodbye” all the time! I’ve gotten very good at saying, “na schledanou!”
One of the first couple days I was here, one of the English teachers who is working closely with me, asked me every once in a while, “So, what’s something that’s surprised you?” And it has always been little things like that because you know daily life really isn’t that different. But just having sweet things for lunch at the school cafeteria, or even just that that lunch is your big meal of the day. There’s nothing profoundly, or earth-shatteringly different, but it’s these little things that make it Czech.
What does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I think it goes along with what I was talking about before: you can read a Wikipedia article and watch a video about whatever, but learning what the culture is is more about spending time with people and being a part of their daily lives. I hope that I can help my students with that as well. Everyone is like, “New York, L.A., Florida,” and yeah, that is a valid and important part to life in the U.S., but I’ve never been to New York, L.A., or Florida, but I’m still an American and a part of this culture. So [it’s about] helping expand students’ preconceptions to what being an American is really like. I’m not a hamburger fan either, sorry, I’m a bad American [laughs], but just sharing the cultural things, the unconscious cultural views that we have. I hope that there is some exchange happening on this very small level, because I think that’s where the most meaningful cultural differences are. It’s not just that we make really good Hollywood movies, and there are a lot of castles here. It’s more than that.
What do you hope to get out of your year here in Czech Republic?
It’s been really challenging for my flexibility and dealing with ambiguous and stressful situations. That’s a good life skill to have! Teaching in general, [because] I’m planning to become a professor. I love teaching, and I am so excited to have actual “I’m the one leading a class” experience, because it takes so much energy and concentration. You need to have a plan for everything, and a plan for when there’s not a plan. I’m hoping that if I can manage a classroom of Czech students, I can manage a classroom of Philosophy 101 students.
How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I feel like I’ll be ready for anything. If I can figure out how to live here, where I don’t speak the language, and I know like 20 people, I feel like I will have a much better perspective on how to deal with everyday challenges back in the states. I really hope that I’ll become a better teacher, and I hope I’ll become a better, more independent, self-aware and understanding person too. It’s really challenging in a rewarding way. I think there’s a lot of room for personal and professional growth.
What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
I’ll be starting graduate school. I don’t know yet where I will go, but definitely I’ll be doing a five-year plus Ph.D. program in Philosophy.
Would you like to apply for another Fulbright grant perhaps while you are pursuing your Ph.D.?
I definitely would! Yes, possibly! The area I’m really interested in is 18th and 19th century German romanticism and idealism. It would be cool if I could get some kind of Fulbright grant to do a project in Germany, but of course, I would love to come back to Czech Republic too. It’s not so far away.
|Taylor Kloha (far left) with students on a school trip to Karlstejn Castle.|