Shelly Bertrand teaches English Language Learners (ELL) at Washington Technology Magnet School located in the North End of Saint Paul. Her students are seventh and eighth graders and about half of them have been in the United States for a short time. At home, the students’ families do not speak English, and as a result the students speak and understand limited English, making it a bit difficult to communicate at times.
After spending last school year in the Czech Republic on a Fulbright Scholarship, Bertrand has returned to Washington with a whole new understanding of what it is like for her students. Although she speaks Chinese, Bertrand found that her command of the Czech language was a bit lacking and didn’t always meets the Czechs’ expectations. She found that, “Most Czechs do not have experience speaking to foreigners in Czech, so they don’t slow down or make their language easier to understand at all.” She says, “You just have to start speaking bad Czech and then sometimes they will speak English with you.”
Despite her difficulties with the language, Bertrand was able to successfully travel around the country, including switching trains in out of the way places where all of the announcements were in Czech.
In the Czech Republic, there are three tiers of high schools: Gymnasium, for the highest academic achievers who are headed to college; Technical, where students prepare for careers in areas like mechanical engineering, computer technology, and transportation logistics; and Vocational where students are trained in hair dressing, bartending, auto mechanics and culinary arts.
Bertrand taught students at the Technical level. She found that teaching at the high school, rather than middle school level, provided an interesting change of pace. Unlike the United States, where No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation carries the expectation that all students will complete high school, only 70 percent of students in the Czech Republic go on to ninth grade. Students over 15 years old who do not continue their education end up working in the factories or doing not much of anything.
School is taken very seriously in the Czech Republic, and since her students really wanted to be in class, Bertrand says that there were almost no discipline problems. Czech students display a high level of respect for authority, and even the nineteen-year-old kids are afraid of having a discipline letter sent home. She observed only one fight at school the entire year. No hall duty was required of her. As a result, all of her energy could go into the classroom teaching.
Students plan and organize a lot of the activities, such as field trips and dances, that teachers in the United States would usually oversee. Bertrand tells of the time some of her students wanted to take her to spend a day in Prague to go to the National Museum and to see the Christmas markets. The school administrator would not give permission for them to do this on a school day, so the students organized the trip themselves and made arrangements to meet Bertrand at the train station on a Sunday.
Bertrand found that students and their parents communicated regularly with their parents, and says that the kids are very responsible. During the school day, students had “ free” hours where there were no scheduled activities. Students chose to use that time to sit and study. She says, “ It was so much fun to teach high school students when you could have interesting discussions with them.” Some of her students made it all the more interesting because they were very verbal and opinionated while remaining respectful.
During the holidays and free days from school, Bertrand traveled to various places and sampled many different varieties of food, including duck, cabbage, potato dumplings, and chicken liver goulash. She discovered a little bakery where she had to try the many chocolate treats. She stayed in a little apartment near the family of the exchange teacher who was taking her place at Washington for the year.
Now that she has returned, Bertrand looks back and reflects on her experience, saying
“How easy it is to be misunderstood, to misunderstand, and not really know what is going on.” Only a couple of people at the school where she taught spoke English, and Bertrand tells how exhausting it was. She says that she almost felt a loss of her identity where no one knew her. She is now much more conscious of how difficult it is to communicate on a very basic level.
Bertrand says, “I would definitely do this again …the Fulbright opportunity is so rewarding .I feel so lucky that I was able to step back from my life and look at it from a different perspective.”
This is Bertrand’s seventh year at Washington. A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Bertrand has a Master’s degree in Second Languages and Cultures. Before becoming an ELL teacher, she taught Chinese. She spent time in Asia, teaching in China and Taiwan.
Now, in addition to teaching, she volunteers with the Fulbright organization, and will share her experiences at its Midwest Conference.
Mary Thoemke, a lifelong resident of Saint Paul, lives in the North End neighbood. Now working as a free lance writer, Mary is retired from Saint Paul Public Schools, and served as editor of the North End News, a community newspaper.