Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ms. Teacher Lady

I walked into my first week of teaching having no idea what to expect. I had met up with my supervising teacher before school started and had a chance to get to know her, learn a little more about the school and the students, and ask any questions I may have had. It was fantastic to meet with her and get an idea of what to expect before I showed up on my first day, but I was still left with the impression that this teaching thing would be terribly open-ended.

What I did learn before I arrived at the school for the first time...

- My schedule is amazing. No, it's more than amazing! I am to teach 12 hours a week, but by "hours" I really mean 50-minute class periods. These 12 hours are broken down into 3 days. Yes, that's right, I teach 3 days a week, 4 hours a day. My teaching days are not, alas, all in a row, but I really can't complain: I teach Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays--this still gives me a 3-day weekend every week and a day in the middle to recover from the first 2 days of teaching.

- I'll be at the HTL in Weiz until Christmas, then at the BORG in Birkfeld in January, and then back at the HTL in the springtime to finish out the schoolyear. This is rather nice because it means I can stick to one school for one big chunk of time. It'll be much easier than juggling the two schools at once.

- I can carpool to the HTL with my supervising teacher. She lives in my neighborhood in Graz, which makes carpooling super-duper easy--I just stand in front of the bakery 2 minutes from my apartment, and she arrives in the car to pick me up!

- The HTL is 95% male. Um...did you catch that? Yeah, the school I'm teaching in consists of 95% teenage boys!

My first day...

I arrived at the school on my first day and was promptly given my new (and wonderful) schedule. School starts at 7:50 am, and in Austria it's the teacher that goes to the class, rather than the class that comes to the teacher. Rather than having their own classrooms, Austrian teachers are given a seat at a table in the teacher's lounge, and this is where they may leave their personal belongings, make copies, etc. Consequently, it makes the teacher's lounge a very hectic place to be, since most teachers are running around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to leave materials from one class and gather materials for the next class, before rushing off to the next classroom full of expectant young teenage boys. This teacher's lounge, as crowded and chaotic as it may be, does have several "ups"...there's an excellent coffee machine that makes freshly ground coffee, and a mini-fridge stocked with soda, juice, and beer (how Austrian is that?!) to enjoy between classes.

Students in Austrian schools are not allowed to wear street shoes in the building, so they all must where slippers while in school. Austrians are very big on slippers anyway: you don't wear your shoes inside the house in Austria, and there is always a nice big basket with assorted sizes of slippers for any visitors or guests who come to your home. In the schools it's very much the same--the students must all change into their slippers after they come in to school, and the teachers are very strict about enforcing this rule on any miscreant who decides his Pumas pass the test. As a teacher, you have the privilege to choose your own footwear. However, most teachers opt to wear their street shoes as a visible sign of authority. As I understand it, the whole idea behind the slippers is to keep the schools cleaner longer, thereby cutting down on cleaning costs.

Students here stand when a teacher enters the classroom. Once all are standing and silence is achieved (which can sometimes take awhile), the students are given permission to sit. Then the lesson begins, and a normal day in a normal Austrian school begins.

I arrived on my first day with a general introductory lesson that I hoped would suffice. I was given no direction on what I should do with the kids, and as far as I knew, I had the whole class period to fill. I knew my audience (teenage boys), and I was a little intimidated about little ole shy Rebecca getting up in front of rowdy, critical teenage boys and pretending she knew how to teach. However, the moment I was introduced in my first class and told to go ahead and give my lesson, I was possessed of a strange confidence that both consumed me and surprised me. From that moment on, I stood in front of the classroom as if I OWNED it. I was confident, and I was energetic, and I spoke in a booming teacher-voice that was not my own. The booming teacher-voice caught me quite by surprise as well--my entire life, whenever I have had to speak in front of any number of people, I have always been told that I am speaking too softly. But standing up in front of the classroom, it was as if the volume couldn't be turned down. This "Teacher Rebecca" was a phenomenon I was totally unprepared for.

My introductory lesson...

I'd prepared an introductory lesson to suit my audience: before I told the students anything about myself, I would put 4 sentences on the board--3 of the statements were true, and one of the statements was false, and the students had to ask me questions to figure out which one was the false statement. Then we would take a vote when they thought they knew which one it was.

I tried to pick sentences that would be exciting (and, who are we kidding, also somewhat impressive) to young men:

  • I helped the police in Colorado catch a drug dealer.

  • I was once on the Romanian evening news when they talked about terrrorism.

  • I broke my ankle while rock climbing in Colorado.

  • I've gone diving in Australia with sharks and sting rays the size of Smart cars.

Every time I gave this introduction, there were audible reactions as I read the statements aloud. The students really loved it--they asked questions such as: Are you a terrorist? Do you know any drug dealers? Are you scared of sharks? Where did you go climbing? Have you ever been on TV? Have you ever been in jail?

Then we would vote. A couple classes got it right and guessed that me breaking my ankle was the false one. One class even asked enough questions to figure out that I helped the police in Colorado catch a drug dealer quite unintentionally through a car accident. After this activity, I would introduce myself, tell the class a little about who I am and where I'm from, and then open it up to Q&A for the rest of the class period.

Q&A Highlights...

During the Q&A I gave them permission to ask me anything about myself or my country. There were a few questions that were common to all classes:

  • What do you think of Bush / the war in Iraq?

  • Where do you go out in Graz?

  • How old are you?

  • What do you think of Austria?

  • What is your favorite alcoholic drink? (N.b.: At first I was really uncomfortable talking about alcohol with these kids because it didn't seem like the kind of thing that'd be appropriate to talk about in an American high school, but then I had to remind myself that these kids are already allowed to drink. Weird.)

  • Have you ever gone on Spring Break? (Apparently these guys think that all American students "go on Spring Break" in Miami or Cancun.)

  • Can you speak German? (The official answer is "no", or "not really, but maybe I'll learn more this year.")

  • Why are Americans fat? / Do you like McDonald's?

There were, of course, certain moments where I made an utter fool of myself during the Q&A. However, this can be a very effective teaching tool.

At one point, I was asked what I thought of the German language. I gave an honest answer: I used to think that it sounded like hocking up a hairball, but now I think it's quite a beautiful language. Not all that surprisingly, the students had no idea what "hocking up a hairball" meant. So I stood in front of the class and explained what happens when a cat licks itself and swallows too much hair, culminating in a grand reinactment of Teacher Rebecca demonstrating what it is to, as they say, "hock up a hairball."

Another class asked me about my hobbies. Among the things I mentioned was swing dancing, which is not really to be found in Austria. The students didn't know what swing dancing was, so I explained that it was dancing from the 1930s and 1940s, danced to Big Band music. Someone from the back of the class shouted out, "Can you show us?" Having already established a precident for making a fool of myself in the Hairball Class, I obliged the student in the back and chose to demonstrate a good dance for one person: the Charleston. I demonstrated '20s Charleston and then regular Charleston, explaining a little bit of each. Then the class burst into spontaneous applause, and--I'm sorry to say--I spontaneously bobbed down into a curtsey.

In another class, when asked why I liked Austria so much, I explained to them that I thought it was a very beautiful country. Especially the drive from Graz to Weiz every morning--it's 60 km of hairpin turns, but it's gorgeous all the way. I told the class how pretty it was, and how I really enjoyed the sight of the "mist rising up from the hills" every morning. At first the class looked wide-eyed and shocked. Then they broke out into loud and uproarious laughter. The teacher, looking lightly scandalized, asked me, "Do you know what you just said??" It was then that I realized my poor word choice: "Mist" in German means "animal poo" (to put it more politely), and I had given the entire class a mental image of poo hovering above the hills!!

All in all...

All in all, it was an excellent first week. I left a good impression on the teachers and got some really positive feedback. The teachers I work with are all wonderful and supportive and really nice, which will make working there a really good experience.

There is an excellent book by Frank McCourt (author of "Angela's Ashes") called "Teacher Man." I read this book before I realized I would be a teacher, but now I can tell that it is going to be very influential upon Teacher Rebecca. The third book of his memoir series, "Teacher Man" tells the story of how Frank McCourt survived 30 years of teaching in New York City public schools by telling his students stories...when nothing else could motivate them or grab their attention, he told them stories of his childhood in Ireland. This led to his eventual writing of "Angela's Ashes", a memoir of his early years in Ireland, which won the Pulitzer Prize and became a movie.

I can see myself shaping up to be that teacher who tells stories...and dances....and hocks up hairballs. It's going to be an intriguing year.


Lindsay said...

Wow, Rebecca. Sounds like you're getting off to a fantastic start. Praying for you. Hope you find a good church along with making some Christian friends.

Bruce said...

Rebecca, all the way through your latest entry I was thinking, " just have to take your words and rewrite them into a novel!" Then at the end, you cite Frank McCourt's work, and I'm thinking, "yes! that's the idea!" So why not keep all your memoirs on file so that one day you can write a wonderful book based on your experiences? You have a great style of writing. Love, DAD

Teresa said...

Grüss Gött! Hope I got the umlauts in the right places. I echo your Dad's comment. Your voice is refreshing in your writing and now that you've mastered the elusive paragraph it is an incredible pleasure to read your further adventures.

You inspire me. I applied for a position as educational director for a local cultural center and am half terrified that I might actually be considered. The other half is already writing lesson plans using the techniques from various classes. I LOVE your intro excercise! May I steal the premise? i.e. put 4 statements of history with one being false to encourage dialogue? I'll give your credit. Please, please, please?

"Teacher Man" is on my wish list of things to read before I die. Now I have to move it higher on the list.

Anyway, I just wanted to remind you that you do, indeed, rock.

Liebe Grüsse,

p.s. tree-hugging, earth worshipers are fairly good people to get to know too, I'm just saying, is all... {;-}

Rebecca said...

Hi Teresa!

I'm going to try responding to you on my blog, since I don't know if I have your current email address. (If I don't then I've been sending you email responses to the wrong address! If so, can you email me at so that I have your current one?)

Thanks for your avid reading of my Blog. It tickles me to death that I am worthy of such an honor. I also think it's wonderful that you applied for that position! As far as the lesson plans go, please feel free to use my intro lesson--it's really great for opening up dialogue and getting to know your students a bit.

I'll also keep my eyes open for tree-hugging earth worshipers. As I've made some new Christian friends at the church I'm going to (stay tuned for a blog post on why, for so many reasons, Sundays are wonderful days in Graz), I'll make sure that they're the next ones on my list. I'm sure they make excellent friends too. :) Or Buddhist monks...I saw some in town the other day. Apparently even the Dalai Lama has been to Graz!


Amanda said...

That sounds like such a clever lesson! If you didn't like the sound of German initially, what made you want to start studying it?

I love Frank McCourt. Coincidentally, I just finished 'Tis which was about him returning to New York as a young man. I started it right before I moved to New York, and likewise enjoyed associating with it, especially the geographic references and how he discusses people-watching on the subway. McCourt really has a way of writing about people, doesn't he? I love it.