It was 19 July 2010 and I had just arrived at Cambridge University in the UK. No, I wasn’t there to study a Masters in Law or Philosophy or anything else remotely as impressive. I was there to teach English to [rich] European kids for the summer. Besides briefly contemplating primary school teaching as a career before law, I had never taught in a classroom.
The idea came to me when I was researching alternative tours and activities for solo travellers. It seemed like a good way to meet people, get free accommodation and earn some money while I travelled (and, FYI, I was right – highly recommend it). So I completed a 6 week TESOL course in Perth before I left for the trip. There was a brief 2 day practical component and the rest was theory.
When I arrived at the beautiful Cambridge grounds, I was excited but very nervous. I felt like a total fraud. I had lunch in a long dining room that looked like something out of Harry Potter, before being given my teaching schedule and topics for the following week. Lesson plans. Leading excursions to London and Oxford. Collecting and returning students to Heathrow (by mini van!?). I felt so out of my depth. At the end of the first day, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, I retreated to my room on campus – an old professor’s office that had been converted into a bedroom and overlooked one of the communal squares.
Most of the first journal entry reads like a list of reasons why I shouldn’t be there – the words “can’t”, “impossible” and “ridiculous” feature heavily (and perhaps some profanities that I will not repeat on the internet). The next entry?
On calm reflection, you learn the most about yourself and your limits through the struggles and challenges. Life would be boring if it was easy. So, after a good night’s sleep, I hope to rise to the challenge. I am a young, intelligent person and totally capable – no, perfect – for this job. One day at a time…
Shame about the bedroom being all dingy and haunted though.
The next day, I was transferred to Oxford University – a mix up of schedules and lack of teachers. The next few weeks that followed were genuinely some of the most challenging of my life. To say that standing up in front of a classroom of teenagers is daunting is an understatement – eyes rolling, abusive rants in French or Russian, silent treatment. (I had always been such a diligent and polite student, what kind of karma was this!?) Yes, there were tears. I wanted to quit after the first two days. But I persisted and in the second week I found my groove. I soaked up as much knowledge from the other (way more experienced) teachers as I could, worked on my lesson plans in the evenings and got to know my kids and their stories on a personal level so I could see what motivated them and why. By the end, some of my most difficult students turned out to be my favourites (yep, teachers have favourites).
So it all turned out ok and I survived. I actually really surprised myself with what I was capable of and so, whenever I’m faced with something challenging and seemingly impossible, I think back to my time at Oxford for a burst of encouragement. After that, I went on to teach 6 year olds in Italy and work with adults in Spain – but let’s save those stories for another time.