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Foreign in a Pandemic- Part Two

by J. Lee about a year ago in teacher
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The challenges and rewards of being a foreign teaching assistant in the country during the midst of a global pandemic

Foreign in a Pandemic- Part Two
Photo by BRUNO EMMANUELLE on Unsplash

*For the privacy of the school, staff, students, and program itself, I’m going to leave the region/town names out of these pieces. Being in such a small region, and even smaller towns, if I gave even one piece of information, many other things could be uncovered, and I don’t wish to risk the privacy and breach trust of anyone I work alongside.*

As a teaching assistant in a foreign country, I didn’t get to choose my school posting, just pick my top three preferred academy regions. Not every assistant was able to be placed in their top region, or even their top three, but the effort was made based on requests from both applicants, as well as the schools availability and need for these assistants. Thankfully, I got my first choice region. As it turns out, I also got placed into two really amazing schools, the first of which was out in the middle of the countryside.

Now, this small town is quite lovely. The school itself, a boarding school for ages 11-18, where students return home on weekends, breaks, or if they live close by, is rather large. Some things need to be renovated or updated, and upon getting to the school was told it was supposed to happen over the summer, but covid raveging the lands prevented it. Understandable, really. And from my three months there, I didn’t see anything that needed to be fixed immediately, just things that could be done during summer breaks. Overall, it was pretty solid.

As a boarding school, there were apartments in the building for both students, as well as teachers and staff to stay during the week. For me, I had the luxury of staying there on the weekends and during breaks as well. It was nice having weekends all to myself, with nary a soul on campus. It was also a little eerie, especially at night, which comes quite early in the winter. Walking through the darkened halls of a vacant boarding school? Creepy, am I right?

The first four days, I spent completely alone. Having just come from the United States, I had to be in quarantine for 10 days, and the first four were during the end of the fall break. My referring teacher had gotten me enough groceries to last me during this time, so that way I wouldn’t have to worry about food and leave my apartment during my short term isolation. However, before the students and staff returned, I was allowed to wander the school yard and get a feel for the campus. While I meant to do this, it rained during the day, and I didn’t want to explore around in the 5pm darkness. So, I waited until my quarantine was complete before venturing outside of my little lodging in one of the school buildings.

Now, when you’re stuck in your apartment in a school, while classes go on around you, it’s… a bit weird, to say the least. If you think being in a vacant school is creepy, it’s nothing like being in a full school between classes, where you get woken by the bells, can hear every conversation, but can’t see or interact with ANYONE. From my window, I had a view of the parking lot, full of cars from 7:45am, and slowly emptying out between 3:30pm and 5:25pm. If I were so inclined, I could have also looked out the peephole in the door to the apartment to see students pass by, but their echoing shouts were enough to know I didn’t want to be a part of any antics. Then, as quickly as the noise erupted into madness, another bell tolled and quiet descended once more.

One of the things I quickly noticed, even in quarantine, was how gorgeous the sunsets were on the landscape. Every evening was like a new painting in the sky. I was breathless, in utter awe of the beauty that unveiled itself before my eyes day after day. I could see the trees change colors and as the fading sun hit them at just the right angles. I could see the stones and puddled water do the same. Off in the distance, I had the hint of rolling hills, or even mountains. Needless to say, I took hundreds of pictures in my three months there, of just the sunsets themselves.

When I was finally able to go out and see them on the small town, it was even better. The view was like nothing I had ever seen, and the elegance was insurmountable. When the sun shone red, bouncing crimson light off the old stone walls, I was blessed with the blindness from its beauty. I wouldn’t trade those sights for all the money in the world.

Picture credit to myself, taken in late November 2020

Another breathtaking sight to behold, was the lunar eclipse just days after my arrival. Thankfully, the skies cleared so that I was able to witness the moon’s midnight dance around the sun. I’ve always been in love with the night sky, and many of my fondest memories are with my grandfather, just staring at the stars, looking at the moon, and observing any celestial event that happened to pass us on their journeys. In a way, it was like he was there with me, blessing me with one of our favorite things to wish me well on my own path in this new country.

Once I was able to go out and explore, there were both good and bad things about the town being so itty bitty in the country. Me, being as directionally challenged as I am, didn’t have many roads or places to get lost in. Finding my way someplace became pretty easy, as it was usually just one road, with a turn or TWO if it was getting further out. The only real food store within walking distance was a 6 minute walk away, just up a hill and on the other side of a roundabout. The post office was maybe 15 minutes away, with a left turn at the roundabout and straight on until the office loomed above you. The same thing with my bank, and many other small shops that, for most of my stay there, were closed or on limited hours.

Thanks, Covid.

Unfortunately for me, and many other assistants this year, lockdowns, curfews, and covid regulations means that many places have been closed or on strict hours that don’t coincide with our schedules. If they’re open, many are only open while we are at work, as schools here are in session from 8am to just before 6pm. I’ve been in this country for almost four months now, and we’ve been in pretty tight quarters the entire time. I haven't had the chance to eat from a restaurant, and I hadn’t even stepped foot into a bakery until three weeks ago.

But honestly, that’s okay.

I’m such a nervous person, and hate going anywhere for the first time alone, so chances are, I wouldn’t have been going into any of these shops anyway. Especially not since I was the only assistant at the school, and the closest one to me was a 45 minute train ride away. Most of the assistants in this area all live in the big city that names the academy region. During my stay at this first school, I hadn’t even met any of them- just talked with one of them from our group chat on Whatsapp.

In this regard, it was a bit lonely. I didn’t really have anyone there with me to talk to, who was experiencing the exact same thing as I was. I messaged two assistants pretty regularly, one also from the U.S., the other the assistant I would be working alongside at my second school, but I hadn't even met either of them as they lived so far from me. I was in a new country, a new place, a new job, a new life away from everything I had ever known, and I was all alone.

This was also good though, as it gave me the opportunity to do things in my own time, without any sort of outside pressure. If I wasn’t emotionally ready to walk to a new location, I didn’t have to. If I didn’t have the energy to see someone else on the weekend after being around hundreds of kids all week, I could take a self care day and hide in the apartment. If I wanted to walk the 35 minutes to the train station and 35 minutes back just because I could, I didn’t have to answer to anyone about it. I could just be me, without anyone’s input or fear of judgement. I didn’t have to answer to anyone but myself.

Unfortunately though, a downside of living in such a small town out in the middle of nowhere meant that when I DID have the energy to go exploring, there wasn’t really anywhere to… explore. There was a lake, some farms, a mall about a 45 minute walk uphill, a factory that was closed to the public because of the pandemic, and a small city center. Other than that, not much to really go see. So, I often opted to just walk to the store down the street and back just for some light exercise and see the sunset in the hills on the way back.

Now, when it comes to teaching in a small town like this, it gets pretty interesting. It’s even more interesting when you’re the foreign language assistant, your ability to speak and understand the written language of the country is a bit rusty, and the native speech is light speeds faster than anything you had ever practiced in your undergraduate degree. Most of the time, when I was around other staff members, I didn’t even talk, just listened and tried to keep up with what they were saying.

The United States did not prepare me for the need for speed in everyday speech. Now I know why everyone says Americans talk slowly.

It’s because we do.

Normally, I would have worked with more high school level students than I did, but the state of the world kind of prevented that. With covid, lockdowns, curfews, ect, this school decided to have half of the high school students attend campus every other week. This meant that half of these students would be at school for a week, while the others were at home, then vice versa the following week. As such, class time with these students was very precious, so I didn’t have the opportunity to work with them as much as I should have.

This meant that most of my classes were with the younger students, ages 11-14. These kids were great, but a bit too… much for me. They had a LOT of energy, and definitely participated, which was great. However, every class was at a different level of English and I never quite knew how complicated I could get and still be understood. Because of this, I usually opted for teaching simpler subjects, like the history, traditions, and food of Thanksgiving in November, Christmas in the United States in December, New Year’s superstitions in January. I gave a geography lesson, going over placement of many things in the U.S., and a class on my home state of Michigan. While this was cool and all, I really wanted to go more in depth and have serious conversations with real world issues. These kids were just too young and didn’t have the vocabulary to do that with.

The high schoolers, on the other hand, especially the English specialist students, could. They asked questions about the election: how the system worked, why are we only a two party system, how votes are counted and what it means with the electoral college, the implications of the Trump Administration and the advocacy of miscounts and fraud. They asked about the judicial system and crime rates: why are people of color incarcerated more frequently than their caucasion counterparts, how race, economic status, and gender play a role in court. How prevalent systematic racism is, how did it start, has it improved, what does it mean for people, what can be done to help? In just the few classes that I was able to work with in the high school, these are just a few of the topics and questions we were able to delve into and discuss on deeper levels than I could ever hope with the younger kids.

By NeONBRAND on Unsplash

This is what I wanted to do. This is what I wanted to discuss. This is what I wanted to teach- things that mattered in our world, that I had a first person perspective on in my daily life. Yes, grammar, vocabulary, and topics of easier understanding are important, especially when first learning the new language, but it quickly became tedious and more of a chore than something I enjoyed teaching. I didn’t connect with those students through conversation. They were just 10-20 different faces I was teaching the same lesson to, over and over again.

I became pretty close with the teachers of these older classes, too. Likewise with these older students, their teachers were also very willing to discuss more in depth topics beyond small talk. Don’t get me wrong, all of the teachers and staff at this school were great. They were welcoming, friendly, and ready to help if I had any questions. However, we didn’t really connect much deeper than a “How are you? How was your weekend? How is your class doing? Okay, have a great day!”

But with the high school English teachers? We could talk about anything under the sun. The difficulties and upsides to school systems in the U.S. versus this country, language evolvement and its social implications, how covid impacts each country differently and some of the pitfalls in the U.S., the list goes on. These are the teachers I bonded with, and knew that I could actually hang out and talk to, were social restrictions not as intense.

Overall, this experience was great for me, personally. While it would have been great to have another assistant there with me, or cooler to be able to experience real regional cuisine, I didn’t feel particularly cheated out of anything. Because these options WEREN’T available, I didn’t feel pressured to do any of these more touristic things just because they were normal. I had the chance to just be me, in this new little place, thousands of miles away from everything I’ve ever known. It was definitely a great learning experience, and a better stepping stone before throwing myself into the largest city I’ve ever lived in...


About the author

J. Lee

French enthusiast, non-binary trans person, artist, writer, lover of animals, space, and the right for every living thing to experience their existence authentically.

Pronouns: they/them (English) iel (French)

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