Tales of a Gimnazium Lektor: Part One

A brief reflection on the workaday experience of a foreign teacher working in a Hungarian high school.

Given that I came to Hungary about a month and a half after I left Korea, the first question a lot of people ask me is something to the tune of: “So do you like Hungary or Korea better?”

The truth is, the jobs are vastly different, and nearly irreconcilable. I’ve been struggling with teaching here almost as much as I did there, but the struggles here are of another nature. Here I struggle to reach out to disengaged high schoolers—they exist everywhere, I’m convinced, as do meat-headded jocks, punks searching for meaning in all the wrong places, and lost souls trying to find a niche, each with different characteristics that make them equally difficult to teach. One way this job is similar to the one I left in Korea, however, is the up-hill battle of bringing an American viewpoint on pedagogy into a foreign classroom.

One thing I learned in the last couple weeks is to be perseverant and flexible. I assigned a fairly simple task to my ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade bilingual classes this semester, in part to challenge them to write for a class normally reserved for conversation, but also because one thing I know how to teach is public speaking and presentation of research. The rough draft due date was last week, and I spent the weekend checking them. To my surprise, about 90% of them were copied directly from the sources they cited at the end of the paper, some of them even left the Wikipedia footnotes and hyperlinks in their essay, as if I somehow would not notice; about a quarter of that 90% were not even in paragraph form. Thus was my discovery that my students have never been taught to write structured paragraphs, and that plagiarism often goes unchecked among my students.

“We do it for the other lessons,” one student informed me, as I hung my head in disappointment. “It’s quick and more efficient that way,” another chimed in, “why is that wrong?” They looked at me as if to say, ‘obviously doing it quickly and effortlessly is better than wasting time on your assignment.’ I then walked them through what they already knew, but refused to admit: the wrongness of taking credit for the work of others.

Following this unfortunate event, I went back to basics, I taught them about topic sentences, and in the next weeks plan to teach them about summarization. At this point, I’ve shed most of my expectations for this assignment and am hoping the final essays—500 word reports on states and countries—come in plagiarism free.

Someone at training told us to have high expectations for our students. My contact teacher told me to make them write, make them do work. This may have been out of her resentment for the last guy, who according to her did nothing in his classroom, or it may have been real guidance, I have no idea. Regardless, the curriculum I am following is: teach them English, and get them to speak. Pretty vague. I’ve been exceedingly flexible, and this week I stumbled upon my eureka moment.

Starting on Wednesday my students were assigned the task of solving simple problems using English. They would get a 5 (an A) if they could solve the problem without speaking Hungarian, a 4 if they could not solve the problem, but still only spoke English. As soon as they uttered a word in Hungarian, they received a 3 (a C), and if they could not solve the puzzle speaking Hungarian, a 2. If they did not try at all, a 1. The result was a bell curve skewed toward the 4s and 5s. As the problems get more difficult, I suspect it will normalize around 4. The goal is simple, speak English, and you do well in my class. If they learn something in the process, all the better.

I learned this week that teaching high school is an endless game of tug-of-war. You set out to teach the students something, and they dig in their heels, anchoring themselves to do as little work as possible to win. I’m making progress, however, there was far less resistance to this task than others I tried. Despite extremely simple instructions—try to solve it in English, earn a B—I still had students pushing back. “Can you even give us grades?” one student asked, “solving this problem requires something like maths, what does that have to do with English,” another remarked. Teaching, especially abroad, means constantly reevaluating strategies, and finding ways to reach out to the students who give you the hardest time. Working in a foreign system to accomplish it all adds an extra layer of challenge every step of the way.

3 thoughts on “Tales of a Gimnazium Lektor: Part One”

  1. Greg, I am confused by your grading schema. I think there is an error in your statement “They would get a 5 (an A) if they could solve the problem without speaking English.” It seems to me that the best grade would go those who solved the problem only speaking English.

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