An Englishman in Prague – Teaching English to the Capitalist Classes

Looking up at the whiteboard, in an office-turned-classroom covered, with the four Conditionals – the relativity theory of English grammar – prettily annotated with timelines and in a way that my student actually understood made me just a touch proud of how far I’ve come as an English teacher. I’m not deceiving myself by thinking that I’m a good teacher, as a lack of confidence, serious application and decent chat hinder elevating myself to that plain, but I’m certainly better than the rookie of March 2011.

When I started my TEFL course in Prague alongside twenty-two other scared and confused potential teachers of the world’s most lucrative language, I was shocked by how little grammar I knew. In fact, it was the Dutch contingent, learning vocabulary from terrible English-language films and grammar at school, who had the jump on us. A pronoun and a verb were as far as I could go whereas vital grammatical terms like the Past Perfect Continuous or the Gerund (which, to be honest, still perplexes me) just sounded like complicated nonsense.

By trial and error I now know enough to get by in most situations until an advanced English speaker calls me up on it and inevitably embarrasses me. Being a grammar Nazi is definitely a curse as you hear mistakes from native and non-native speakers outside of the classroom and the smartarse part of your brain wants to point them out but you know you will always sound like an obnoxious know-it-all, so you can’t. There are also the depressingly geeky arguments to be had with friends; ‘Is stupider a word?’, British English versus American English, and so on. And not forgetting a Scrabble war but the less said about that the better.

I work full-time for a school who use their client database to give me lessons with adult learners either in businesses or public courses in their premises. Like with any job, teaching English has good points and bad. For one thing, it’s an incredibly disjointed affair as a typical day involves four hour-long lessons spread over twelve hours with the gaps usually filled in with lesson planning and travelling to far flung areas of Prague. Since Capitalism began steamrolling through the country post-1989, multinational corporations have been popping up in every spare space in their glass fortresses. So, this forces me to regularly travel from one end of the Metro line to the other then to Narnia and finally to the Centre of the Earth, with a good book as an essential anti-zombie device.

On the other hand, the pay is pretty decent. It’s nowhere near the standards of the gold mines of South Korea and the Middle East where they pay you in Swarovski diamonds and unicorn dust but I earn enough to live in a flat in the most beautiful area of Prague next to the Old Town Square and eat out and casually drink more than I could ever afford to in the UK. This is subsistence living though as I’m very unlikely to ever save for as much as a pair of jeans. What’s more, I often have long days but I don’t work long hours. Not many other jobs would give me the time and flexibility to lounge around a park all afternoon when it’s hot, watch a Tuesday morning Sopranos marathon in my boxer shots or write this blog in the middle of the day (fully clothed).

The differences in language and culture allow for many humorous moments to collect and share. Take the following disturbing exchange from my first ever private lesson whilst still in training.

“So Katja, what are your interests?”

“I like my dogs.”

“Okay, what else?”

“I like baking cakes.”

“Nice.”

“And I like handjobs.”

“… I’m sorry?”

“Handjobs.”

“Hmmm how do you mean?”

“Sewing, knitting…”

Once I had worked out that she meant handicrafts, my heart retreated back down my windpipe. After all, Katja is certainly not a beautiful, blond Czech nineteen year old but a housewife in her sixties who likes knitting jumpers and baking chocolate sponges.

There are also many other small instances that brighten up an average day spent with frequently dry businessmen, like a student repeatedly referring to the outcome of a project as ‘the final solution’ and my own accidental ability to make my drawings of the United Kingdom look like incredibly detailed penises (or is that peni?).

You also learn a lot about a country. For instance, the Czech Republic as a whole is pretty tolerant but is a tad racist towards certain groups. A shameful tried and tested method amongst English teachers to fill any dead space at the end of a lesson is to merely utter the word gypsy. This incendiary term is like saying immigration to a closed-minded Brit or like a drop of blood to a shark. Inevitably, the incredibly racist person begins with the ominous stock phrase of ‘I’m not a racist but’ and lurch into a fifteen minute tirade about the gypsy evil.

At the end of the day, it’s a job that lets you live in some pretty cool places and all you need is your mother tongue. Looking towards the summer when I will most probably move on from Prague – the world is my oyster.

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