On Being A Teacher

Two nights ago, just as I was beginning to drift into the post-9 PM lull, my cellphone rang.  

On the other end was a teacher from the International Christian School of Vienna, who had just taken ill with a nasty stomach bug that has been making the rounds of the school. As an on-call substitute teacher for the school, I have had several opportunities to teach in the short months Jacob and I have been in Vienna.

Within my first week of being hired as a substitute teacher I was called in to take over a day of art classes. Now that was something I could handle! It may have been a little while since I made any efforts in the painting or drawing department, but I could "art-speak" with the best of them. 

Shortly after, I agreed to take over a week of high school literature classes for a friend who was on paternity leave to celebrate his newborn son. Once again, I was confident. Four years of a university honors great-books program left a lasting impression on my brain. Bring it on, Greek Mythology! 

I breathed a sigh of relief when existing plans prevented me from taking on a high school math class, but happily accepted a week of English Language classes for Kindergarten through 5 grade.

I never considered myself much of a "kid-person", although I do like children. I was just never that person who begged to babysit or hold an infant. I had also never taught English before in an official capacity, so I knew this would a bit of a stretching experience. My day of teaching 4th grade however, had gone off without a hitch a couple weeks earlier, so I was encouraged in my ability to corral a group of children.

The English teacher mercifully left me with extensive instructions, plans, and back-up plans for the week she would be traveling. She had thought of everything. How hard could it be? English is my native tongue, and the goal of the class (essentially) is to have the kids practice their english. It would be a good experience for me.

And it was. The week had highs, lows, and a certain degree of 3rd grade drama, but overall I enjoyed myself immensely. I felt that I came on the other side of the experience having learned some very positive life skills. 

Which brings us back to the phone call. I had met the teacher on the phone previously when picking up my English Language students from their class.

She was the German teacher. 

"I would love to help," I said on the phone, "but is it a problem that I don't speak German fluently?"

No, she assured me, I would be fine. The oldest of these students was only in 5th grade, after all. I heard myself saying "Yes, I'll do it," while I simultaneously questioned my sanity. It was too late however. It was done. The following day I would be a German teacher. 

I entered my classroom before my first class to review the notes the teacher had left me - in German. Quite logically, she had been expecting to find someone who spoke German, not make a last ditch pass to a well-intentioned American. 

Mercifully, the English Language teacher (she thinks of everything!) popped her head in with an offer to translate the confusing bits of the instructions. Thankfully most things were straight forward, and all of the class lessons were a level of German I could handle. 

What that did not account for, however, was how I would get by attempting to communicate in German only to my students. I went for the "peer" tactic, letting them know at the beginning of class that I had a secret to share - that I was learning German as well, and would like them to help teach me too. 

The tactic worked brilliantly for all but the Kindergarteners, who took it as an opportunity to one-up the teacher. 

"I don't need to learn German!" one little girl chimed, "I speak it perfectly!" Not to be left out, the other kids started claiming their German expertise in the face of my humble admission of non-fluency. One little boy sat there smiling at me sweetly. As the others quieted down he said, "It's ok, I don't know German either. I am still learning."

In my heart I gave him a huge hug. 

My revenge for the others came later though. As I set up their Winnie The Pooh (or Puuh in German) DVD, they asked if we would be watching in English or German.

"In Deutsch", I responded, happy to say something in German. The little girl who had started the fluency-rebellion leaned over to her friend and asked, "what does Deutsch mean??"

The remainder of the classes went well, and once again I left the day feeling that I had practiced valuable life skills and got a good day of German language immersion. Fortunately, the sweetness of elementary students meant they were willing to forgive my incompetencies, and the first grade class nearly knocked me (and a desk) over when they attacked me for an unsolicited group hug. 

It turns out I may be better with children than I had previously thought.