Number one for English language teachers

Czech Republic: Small town Czechs

Type: Reference material

Greg Kerry whispers to us about living the quiet life among the limestone hills between Prague and Pilzen.

Most people considering teaching in the Czech Republic (or Czechia as some are trying to say these days) would start with a list of the largest towns and cities. However, nothing is very large in this small middle-European country – except perhaps its people’s thirst for good beer and tall tales. Prague would top the list obviously, then maybe Pilzen and perhaps the city that gave the World War II British army the Bren gun: Brno. Then what?

Then what is where I spent a very comfortable five years in all: a small town nestling among limestone hills, conveniently stuck midway between Prague and Pilzen, named Horovice (actually pronounced something like Horzhavitsa – the devil of the Czech language is the r with a little v above it, to be said like a combination of rolled r and zh; even Vaclav Havel had problems with it).

For various reasons I opted to take a risk working in a state school way out in the country rather than a private language institution – and never (well, hardly ever) regretted a moment of it. The biggest problem with such schools is their lack of funding. The salary pretty much matches what you would get anywhere in the country but the schools are also obligated to find you somewhere to live – which can be extremely difficult for them. I was housed in a kind of students’ hostel (much better than it sounds), in a large room round the back with minimal cooking facilities and my own entrance.

Once they reach 14 and finally finish primary school, Czech teenagers can choose from two types of secondary school. For weaker students, or those with a very specific interest, there are vocational institutions. For the academically stronger who have only a vague intention of going to university to study something, there are the gymnasiums.

Horovice had one of the latter and a couple of the former. I was first engaged to work in the Secondary Business and Engineering School. Business students turned out to be mostly girls who expected to be either secretaries or small-time accountants. Engineering students were almost entirely boys with no expectations at all. They were a good-humored lot though. The engineers were hard-drinking, heavy metal obsessed characters impressed with my knowledge of old rock music and motorcycles.

At the time, all Czech secondary schools worked to an American kind of grade system. Students were given regular tests, grades were averaged at the end of the year and too low a grade in more than one subject meant a whole year’s schooling had to be repeated.

After four years they were given a final exam. This was oral only and involved fifteen minutes speaking on each of their main subjects. Topics for the English exam were decided by me. The exam preparation was done solely by me. The testing was performed by... me, plus the next senior local English teacher who actually did her best to help struggling students get more than the minimal 4 needed to pass. It was a farce really. No one wanted the trouble of teaching bad students for an extra year. The Headmistress didn’t want bad exam records. No surprise then that graduation failures were all but unheard of. All but. Examples had to be made from time to time. Sorry Honza.

To start with, Horovice had two of us foreign English teachers, the other guy working in the gymnasium up the hill. After one year he left and, since no replacement could be found, the two schools decided to share me: a few lessons here, a few there. A varied time this. The gymnasium students were clearly different: better behaved, more hard-working, more culturally aware – yet sometimes not so rewarding to teach oddly. Still, a nice contrast.

One great part of my experience here was the fact that school was generally finished by mid-afternoon. After that I was free to take private students and make a little more money. More important was the contact this gave me with locals: a group of housewives, workers in a local factory, officers in an artillery regiment, and – the guy who would become my best friend here – the head of the local tax office.

Then there were things like school trips: spring camping, winter skiing etc. Travelling was convenient with the good, cheap train service: one fast hour to Prague one way, same time to Pilzen the other. Longer trips took me to such towns as Marianske Lazni – the spa town featured in the movie The Unbearable Lightness of Being – and Ceske Budojovice – where genuine Budweiser beer is still made.

It was really the long-term aspect of being here that made the experience of living and working worthwhile: teaching kids for one or two years, getting integrated into town life, becoming part of several families. Working in a larger city in a private school none of this would have been likely or possible. I only moved on because I felt I was getting in a rut and life was passing me by. But then some ruts are better than others.

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