Before we left Evansville to spend the fall 2010 semester in Pécs, Hungary, most of our friends were pretty clear about what my wife, Margaret McMullan, was going to do. She would be the Fulbright fellow, teaching at the University of Pécs and doing research for a book about a forgotten branch of her family tree. Our son, James, would likely be attending a Hungarian school, doing schoolwork for his teachers back in the States, and maybe playing tennis and drums if there were opportunities. My role in this adventure was a little more vague.
My stock response to anyone who asked what I was planning to do for four months in Hungary was that I would work on client marketing projects when possible, take lots of photographs, and mostly keep the family on track, which can be time-consuming in an unfamiliar city in a country where we don’t speak the language. One friend perhaps got a little closer to the truth when he referred to it as a “sweet vacation.” I was thinking more along the lines of a sabbatical from the marketing world, but yes, either way, it would be time off from the usual grind.
One of our first tasks when we arrived in Pécs was to find a school for our son. We visited a small middle school close to the university, and though they would have accepted James, the principal pointed out that all of the classes were taught in Hungarian, a language James didn’t speak. “He will be bored, no?” she said. She arranged a meeting with Betti, a Hungarian English teacher, and Ava, the principal at the Apáczai Nevelési Központ (“A.N.K.” for short), a public K-12 school a few miles south of the city center. Though the students and faculty were all Hungarian, there was a strong emphasis on learning English at the A.N.K. And, Betti pointed out, since no native English-speaking students were enrolled in the school, James would be especially welcome. When we learned that at least a few of his classes would be taught in English, we decided that it was a good fit. As we were standing to leave, Betti touched my arm and said, “And you’ll be teaching English for us, no?”
Before we had settled into Pécs, we spent a week in Budapest for Fulbright orientation with the 15 or so other Fulbrighters and their families who would be spread throughout Hungary that year. The Fulbright program is an international educational exchange program that provides talented students and teachers (such as my wife, Margaret, who teaches English and creative writing at the University of Evansville) with the opportunity to study, teach, or research in foreign countries. Aside from the academic emphasis of the Fulbright program, the administrators stressed to us the idea that we were part of a cultural exchange, and that we should immerse ourselves as deeply as possible in our host cities. In that spirit, we, as a family, had decided that we would say, “Igen” (yes), to everything. “More goulash?” Igen. “Fish soup?” Igen. “Palinka?” Igen. So, I answered Betti, “Igen, I can do that.”
I have a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in creative writing, and I’ve taught quite a bit at both UE and the University of Southern Indiana, so teaching English to kids wasn’t going to be that great a stretch, but I had to make a few things clear to Betti. First, I had no work visa or other documentation that would allow me to legally work in Hungary. Second, I had no certification or experience as a teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL) at any grade level. Third, my Hungarian language skills were limited to polite greetings and ordering beer in restaurants. Betti assured me that none of this would be a problem. School would start in a few days, and they were in dire need of a native English speaker who could teach, so they would find a way around the visa issue. And my lack of Hungarian would be good for the students — they’d hear that much more English.
So that was that. I finally knew what I was going to do in Hungary. Starting the following week, I taught Tuesdays and Wednesdays at the A.N.K., four lessons each day to the more advanced English language sections for the fourth through eighth grades. Class began at 7:15 a.m.
The A.N.K. is a huge, architecturally confusing facility, shaped sort of like a three-story, split-level heptagon of linked structures with a large courtyard in the middle. There easily are a dozen entrances to the building on both the inner and outer facades, but they’re all nearly identical. Once you’re inside, a wrong turn in the maze of staircases can put you in the exact opposite location that you planned to be.
On the first day, James and I arrived about a half hour early so we would have plenty of time to find our way to where we needed to be (in James’s case, a classroom; in mine, the teacher’s lounge to get my first room assignment). But all the entrances were locked, and when we finally found one that was open, we were stopped by the hall monitor, a short, stout, grandmotherly woman. She didn’t speak any English, but she made it clear to us by shaking her head and firing off rapid lines of impatient-sounding Hungarian that she was not going to allow us to pass. I had not been given any ID, and I didn’t know how to say, “I am a teacher” in Hungarian. (It’s the title of this essay, by the way: Tanar vagyok — Teacher I am.) She led James and me into a tiny, windowless classroom and closed the door, leaving us sitting there alone like a couple of reprobates in the semi-darkness.
After several minutes, James and I decided that we would have to make a run for it. We peeked outside the door and, seeing that the coast was clear, snuck out and eventually found Betti, who helped us get to where we needed to go.
There was another wrinkle in my teaching assignment that would make it more challenging — I would have no curriculum to follow or textbooks from which to teach. The students did have an English textbook, but it would have been too difficult to coordinate my lessons with the Hungarian English teachers who taught their classes using that text on the other days of the week. We decided that the most valuable thing I could do with the students was to get them talking and writing in English with some vocabulary and grammar work thrown in. In short, I was flying without a net.
There are hundreds of online resources for ESL teachers, ranging from the utterly useless to the exceptionally helpful, and I believe I scoured every last one looking for some can’t-miss strategy for teaching English to children in a non-English-speaking country. Throughout the semester, I spent Mondays preparing for classes on Tuesday and Wednesday, typing up worksheets, and making intricate, moment-by-moment lesson plans, knowing that even if I didn’t know what I was doing, I would at least feel more confident standing at the head of the class if I had a plan.
On the first day, I used Google Earth on my laptop in each class to fly the students, in amazing detail, from the courtyard in their school to our home in Evansville. “And there’s the U.S., and there’s Indiana, and down here is Evansville … and that’s our driveway … and our house … and that’s where the dog sleeps on sunny days.” When I asked if there was any place they wanted to see in the United States, the most common response was “Hollywood.” So we went there, too.
I used my iPhone to record video of the students introducing themselves so I could memorize their names and get the pronunciation right. I studied those videos for hours, but I’m fairly certain that I still made a hash of their names most of the time.
The students love anything from computer company Apple. Once, when I asked the class to come up with fun role-play situations, a particularly bright kid nicknamed Stigi suggested that we role-play purchasing a “17-inch Macbook Pro at the Apple Store in New York.” Several students (including Stigi) are big foodies, and they enjoyed the exercise where we ordered dinner from menus I’d downloaded from American restaurants such as T.G.I. Friday’s, Outback Steakhouse, and Chili’s (“What’s a ‘Jalapeno Smokehouse Bacon Burger?’”).
We did some vocabulary and grammar work, too, but I think the best learning moments happened while we were doing things like role-playing a visit to the doctor, reading stories and plays out loud, or listening to music on my laptop and identifying the instruments they heard. The seventh graders’ favorite activity was reading Margaret’s novel, How I Found the Strong, aloud for a few minutes at the end of each lesson. And they were on their best behavior when Margaret came to class on the last day to hear them read. After each student had read a few paragraphs aloud, Margaret read that beautiful last chapter of her award-winning book about a courageous boy who risks his life to help a slave during the Civil War. She signed copies for each of them. I think we all learned something then. For me, it was that I really do love to teach, and I was going to miss these kids a lot.
Teaching at the A.N.K. was, without a doubt, the most challenging and rewarding aspect of my time in Hungary. I’m not sure how much I taught them about speaking English, but they all had a chance to try out their English voices, and I think they had fun doing it. I know I’ll keep those kids with me for the rest of my life. They’re delightful, brave children who were willing to let me, a total stranger, into their classrooms for a few months. Stigi keeps me up-to-date on his latest cooking achievements and sends me links to his favorite Jamie Oliver videos through Facebook. Others have given me their e-mail addresses, so I hope we can stay in touch, though it’s hard to imagine that I’ll ever see them again in person.
A final thought: If you’re not a teacher and you’re ever lucky enough to be asked to teach kids, anywhere, even in a place like Hungary, say, “Igen.” Say, “Yes.”