An interview by Martina Bednáriková
They say it takes a big heart to help shape little minds. And although it is definitely not easy, Agnieszka Kruszyńska has found out that it is worth every minute’s effort. All of us could learn something from her enthusiasm.
Slovak Chamber of English Teachers (SCET): Can you please share with us the story behind your teaching career? What do you like about teaching little kids? What is most challenging for you?
Agnieszka Kruszyńska (AK): Funny thing is I never planned to be a teacher. I started giving private English classes in high school, just to make some extra money. After a year I decided to study early English teaching at pedagogy. I wasn’t even sure why. I knew I wanted to teach but, honestly, children terrified me, and I quickly found myself giving in-company Business English classes. Of course, I worked for some regular language schools as well, so I came across many children groups, but the moment I realized I could actually enjoy working with little kids, was my kindergarten and primary school practice period at my studies.
Working with young children can be very rewarding. Seeing them progressing makes you grow inside. They appreciate your work, show you affection, you become an important part of their lives and have a real influence on their overall development. It’s truly amazing!
When it comes to challenges, there are loads of them! Maintaining the discipline, awakening the interest in learning in my pupils, dealing with mixed-levels and mixed-abilities groups, etc. However, right now the biggest challenge for me is developing my students’ learning independency, which is also the topic of my presentation.
SCET: How would you define yourself as a teacher? What are your main teaching cornerstones?
AK: I would say that that the word “challenging” would fit me the best. I always try to set the bar high and help my students to reach it. My aim is to maximize their performance and learning skills. It seems to me that a common problem nowadays is that teachers (and parents) often treat young children as if they were less developed and mature than they really are.
SCET: How do you keep improving your own English? Do you have any secret potion for this common problem that teachers have to face?
AK: It is popularly believed that YL teachers get stuck repeating the same vocabulary over and over again. This doesn’t have to be true. For instance, recently I’ve learned quite a few new words from the world of animals and plants thanks to my students’ curiosity. Also, while planning my lessons, I try to introduce some of less commonly taught, but still useful, vocabulary. For example, you can find plenty of it in children’s stories.
Yet, it is indeed difficult to keep your language skills developing or even at the same level. I think most of the non-native teachers sometimes feel like if there were losing some part of their vocabulary or fluency. I’m lucky enough to be working at an international school where English is commonly spoken both by natives and non-natives. Also, I play for a rugby team where the male contingent is composed mainly of foreigners, so I have some occasions to chat with them in English. Then there are books. Nothing boosts your vocabulary better than a good book together with a good dictionary. Finally, my life partner is French, so at home we communicate mainly in English (since my French is still really quite poor).
SCET: What are the main advantages of early bilingual education? Have you encountered any drawbacks?
AK: The main advantage is equipping the child with an additional language and preparing him to study not only in his mother tongue, and let’s be honest, in the long run, International Baccalaureate opens many doors to the future. If you start early enough, it comes much easier for a pupil to start thinking in English. Bilingual education also implies multiculturalism. Even if the children are not surrounded by their peers from other countries, they do get to know different cultures through the language, school events etc. It is simply inevitable and more and more useful in nowadays worldwide society.
There are some drawbacks though. First of all, it is often more difficult to introduce new material to young learners using L2. Especially when it comes to some abstract ideas which appear already in kindergarten lessons. Another thing that I’ve noticed is that learning two or more languages at once comes with a price, and it happens that children from bilingual schools have more problems with their mother tongue than their peers in traditional education model.
SCET: You worked as a lower primary tutor at Colegio Internacional Torrequebrada in Benalmádena, Spain. What duties did it involve and what did your ordinary day look like? What is the most important thing that you personally have learned there?
AK: As a tutor I was in charge of 26 kids from my grade 1, teaching them everything apart from PE and Spanish. I had extra hours filled with arts & crafts with grade 2 and 3. A normal day would start at 9, when the children were beginning to appear in the classrooms. Lessons started 9.30 and lasted until first snack time 10.45 (with no breaks) and later on from 11 until lunchtime at 12.45. The whole lunch and patio time break would last 1.5h and I could get 45min of lunch duty, 45 of patio duty, or, once a week, have that 1.5h for myself. Further block of lessons was from 14.15 to 15.30 (another snack time) and the last class would finish at 16.45. Afterwards I would gather the children who were going home by car and have my ‘car duty’, which meant waiting for the parents to drive up, calling the child’s name and putting them safely in the car. Since there were no breaks between the classes, they were no break time duties. I would simply let my class out on the terrace for both snack times and stay with them.
Other general duties were of course writing the daily planning, mailing and meeting with parents, dealing with everyday class problems, participating in organization of school events etc.
It’s difficult for me to choose the most important thing I learned there. Since it was my first time as a full time school teacher, I learned in practice things I’d studied at the university and much more! The crucial one for me was probably classroom management. With 26 six-year-olds on my head, I was basically thrown in at the deep end. Talking with more experienced staff and observing their way of tackling discipline problems surely helped me a lot. I don’t know about Slovakia, but in Poland, during my studies, the problem of discipline wasn’t addressed as it should have been. And I mean the overall classwork organization, not merely making the children obey you.
SCET: What are the positive aspects of working as an English teacher in a totally different culture, and why would you recommend first-time teachers to go and teach abroad?
AK: I would recommend it to every teacher, not only those first-timers. You get a chance to disconnect from your mother tongue, face new kinds of language learners problems, get to know a different culture, share your experience on an international level and grasp different views on teaching from your fellow workers.
SCET: Why do you think it is important to create young leaders and team workers? In what way can they contribute to the learning process, especially as far as English is concerned?
AK: Later on in their studying and also working life, many of those young kids of today
will be asked to form a part of a team or to manage one. Some people are born leaders but others shouldn´t be afraid to take over when they need to. I believe that by introducing leadership based teamwork early in the classroom, children learn responsibility, self-confidence and respect for others. One day they are the leading ones, the next day, they assume the role of a team member. I often put a team as my basic work unit in the classroom to teach the little ones how to tackle arising problems not by asking the teacher for help, but discussing them among their team members. I strongly feel that classwork organization based on the exchange of ideas and lending each other a helping hand, creates more independent learners, and therefore is a huge contribution to the shaping of their future learning styles. The whole idea refers to far more than solely teaching English.
Agnieszka Kruszyńska is a graduate of Primary Education with Early English Teaching, Warsaw University. After six years of working in language schools, she began her adventure with bilingual education as a lower primary tutor at Colegio Internacional Torrequebrada in Benalmádena, and is currently working in a bilingual kindergarten and primary school in Warsaw, Poland.