2018/01/04

ETA Spotlight Interview: Kelsey Gerbec

by Sinia Amanonce

Kelsey Gerbec
Kelsey Gerbec is a 22-year-old, Indiana University graduate who has spent time teaching English in Peru and Rwanda. This year, she is continuing her experience with international education by serving as an English Teaching Assistant in Litomyšl, Czech Republic. Read below to find out what Kelsey has to say about language education and acquisition, conquering imposter syndrome, and her experience introducing the Cha Cha slide to Czech teens.





Fast Facts
Hometown: Geneva, Illinois
Age: 22
College, Major/Minor: Indiana University, Secondary Math Education/ Spanish and International and Comparative Education
School in the Czech Republic: Gymnázium A. Jiráska Litomyšl
Favorite Czech word and food: “Oh! Svíčková! I don’t know if that counts as a word because it is food, but it is my favorite Czech food.”
Favorite Quote: “Keep moving forward” - Walt Disney.

Please, tell me about yourself.
I am from the Chicago suburbs and I went to Indiana University where I studied Secondary Math Education with minors in Spanish and International Education.

My dad works for an international company so I grew up always fascinated with living abroad and teaching abroad. I taught abroad for two summers, once in Rwanda and another summer in Peru. I always knew, that when I graduate, I want to teach abroad.

That’s really cool that you can speak Spanish.
Yeah! Peru really helped but it’s been about a year and a half since.

Are you learning Czech?
Slowly here and there. Basically, I studied a bit before like numbers and greetings. I talk to my mentors a lot, they gave me basic readings, and they said they will help me with the rest. We’ll go to a cafe and they’ll talk me through the menu or we will be at a store and they’ll point out new words. I’ve been learning on the spot and it’s way more helpful than any book or YouTube video. I always revert back to Spanish but I have to tell myself “No, no, no.” It’s really interesting thinking of language acquisition as I’m trying to learn a new language.

Why did you apply to the Czech Republic and not to a Spanish speaking country?
I wanted to work in secondary schools. That was my major and I have a passion for preteens and teenagers so I knew I wanted to be in a country where I would definitely be working in a secondary school. I really wanted to try something new. When I was in Rwanda, I learned completely different skills from what I learned in Peru. In Peru, it was completely different from what I learned in the U.S. I wanted to be in a different culture and education system, so while I love Spanish and it’s been a huge part of my life, I wanted to challenge myself.

What do you think of the school you are working at this year? What is it like?
I love my school. I am in a gymnazium with a 4-year and an 8-year program. I work with all the students in the 4-year program and the 6 oldest classes in the 8-year program. I mainly work on applying English and giving them a more cultural basis for language instead of just grammar. I am in a great school environment. My colleagues are constantly checking in with me, helping, and seeing if I need anything. We have high caliber students and they are eager, attentive, and they see the benefit of working hard to improve their English.

What do you think of the Czech Republic? How was adjusting to living here?
That’s a big question. It has been much easier and quicker adjustment than I expected. With knowing little Czech, I was interested to see how I would navigate grocery stores, shopping, and getting to know people considering I’m still learning the language. Everyone in my town is so patient and so kind. I tell my teachers I feel like Litomyšl has really become my hometown because I pass students and colleagues all the time. Being in a town of about ten thousand is perfect for an ETA because it is small enough to meet people but big enough to get I what I need.

Overall, I love the history, architecture, everything is beautiful and so well preserved. I am shocked at how fast it felt to be comfortable to be here, after a week and a half I thought “Okay, I got this.”

I think Fulbright has a reputation for being competitive, and it is! But when ETAs arrive they feel a sort of imposter syndrome and it is such a great feeling when you realize you can do this.
That’s what I thought! I thought I would feel like an outsider, but I have the best mentors that anyone can ever have. I literally went to dinner with them last night. Without them I don’t think I would have adjusted as well as I did. They help me with everything, yet they think I’m the most independent person. They are like my big sisters, moms, and friends. I still need them a lot. They really embraced me and made me part of the town.

What advice would you give an ETA on communicating with their mentors?
Don’t be nervous if your mentors are not communicative over the summer. My mentor took long spreads of time to answer and I was very nervous. But, they picked me up from the airport and from that moment, they have been nothing but the most helpful, supportive, encouraging people. Don’t be scared if you feel like things are not communicated well over email. You have to remember English is not their native language so they may be nervous to message you, just as you are nervous to message them. Don’t hesitate if there is a problem. I think, at first, I was scared if I did not know something. I would be scared to ask “How do I set up a bank account?” or “How do I tell my students this?” Once I realized it is okay to ask a million questions, and they want to answer, because they want you to feel comfortable, I was more relaxed.

Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I have a bunch of English clubs because that is what my school really wanted. I have two actual clubs where we play games in English, listen to music, and last week we did the Cha Cha slide [laughs]. I have never seen 13-year-old Czechs so entertained in the two months that I have been here. Then I have another English club with coffee and conversation, so I basically sit in my favorite cafe and whichever students want to come, sit, talk, and it is very casual. A lot of them of breaking down their walls of what they are scared to ask or say. The teachers became interested so they asked me to start a “teacher coffee and conversation,” so we sit and talk, and I really like it. I feel like if I can help the teachers then that will help the students for many years past the time I’m here.

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think the two biggest things are one, everyone in my school - the teachers, students, and their families, have been so welcoming to me. As an outsider, it makes me want to, when I go back to the U.S., if there is ever a foreign exchange student or someone new, wherever I may be living, it makes me want to be more of a welcoming person. The way it makes me feel when people reach out and make me want to feel at home, I think “I want to do this for more people, people who are going somewhere new, I want to make them feel welcome.”

The second thing, is as a teacher, I came here to improve and learn more about being a teacher. A lot of my content is based on application and how to take English in grammar classes and apply that to real life. I realize the value of getting to know students on a personal level. We talked about what my students are thankful for because we learned about Thanksgiving. I want to try to make more real life connections with students to make their learning more valuable.

How are you feeling about your experience with Fulbright at this moment?
I am loving my experience. I feel like as much as my days are starting to feel normal, I have moments where I have to pinch myself. I come home and I think, “Wow, I seriously get to live here and teach in this incredible school with these wonderful people.” I’m very thankful because not that many people get this experience and Fulbright is so well organized. You feel like you are part of something big and that feeling of being part of something big motivates you even more. I want to be a good representative in my school for the program, for the U.S., and for English speakers as a whole. I feel like knowing I’m part of something is important. 

Do you want to add anything?
I don’t know, I love it here. If I can move my family and plop them over here, I can definitely see myself staying even longer.

Kelsey's English Club during their Thanksgiving Feast

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