Ever since I was a child, I dreamed of traveling to distant locations. Perhaps it was watching Indiana Jones movies or discovering cities I’d never heard of on the Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego computer game that fostered a deep desire to venture far away from my native California suburb.
This desire led me to several different cities until I eventually ended up as an English teacher in the Czech Republic, where I teach adults who want improve their language skills. Prague sits on the faultline of Eastern and Western Europe. Democracy is fairly new in this small country, and working here has taught me some valuable lessons about how improving communication through teaching English helps cultivate peace between nations and people.
You Represent Your Country Abroad
One day while I was enjoying a cappuccino in a cafe nestled in Prague’s historic quarter I overheard two people talking about Donald Trump becoming president. Suddenly, I heard one exclaim “That country deserves him!”
When I first came to Prague, many of my students wanted to hear my opinions on the businessman-turned-politician. As an American TEFL teacher in the Trump era, I quickly realized that I am acting as an unofficial ambassador of my country.
It may seem obvious, but all countries have negative stereotypes attached to them. Therefore, the way we behave when abroad matters. When I demonstrate compassion, empathy, or restraint in the classroom, my behavior is no longer singular. It resonates as the behavior of a larger group of people. As a teacher who works with groups of students, we have an even greater ability to represent our country to large groups.
You Can Teach Politically Correct Language
One of the beautiful things about learning a language is the history that comes with it. Words are living organisms that evolve and age over time. New words are forming as often as we discard outdated terms. English, in particular, is a difficult language to learn because of its use of idioms and expressions that make no grammatical sense. The downside to this is that history is not always kind, and it can sometimes result in offensive language. More than once, I’ve winced at a student’s use of a word now considered sexist or racist.
When teaching politically correct language, we can also teach a student the nuance of certain ideas. For example, it’s hard to explain why we now use the gender-neutral term “flight attendant” as opposed to the outdated “stewardess” without discussing the concept of sexism. This extends to more offensive words as well.
By promoting the use of neutral language, you’re also promoting respectful communication, a vital tool when it comes to working collaboratively with people from different backgrounds and cultures. In my experience, I’ve found that a major reason for distrust between people from different countries often stems from cultural misunderstanding. People can offend someone without realizing how they were offensive, even if it comes down to one word or phrase. Peacefully working together means treating people respectfully, and TEFL teachers can help lead the way by expanding a person’s mind as well as their vocabulary.
You Learn the History of Your Host Country
As teachers, we often wonder if our students are teaching us more than we are teaching them. Though we may enable them to better communicate in the English language, they teach us how to consider new worldviews and ways of life.
I always think back to a particular lesson about cybersecurity. It was one of my first meetings with a new student. He was in his 50s and loved discussing current events, so I picked a news story about how Yahoo! was helping the FBI by scanning its users’ emails without permission. The goal of the lesson was to discuss issues of privacy. As an American, I tend to be very sensitive to issues of Internet privacy, but it was a different story for my student. He grew up under Communism where government surveillance was not uncommon. This gave him a completely different perspective on the issue. In his mind, if you put private information online, you’re at fault if the government finds it.
While his opinion might seem extreme to me, I realized I have to take his perspective in context. American writer Margaret J. Wheatley said, “you can’t hate someone whose story you know.” No matter how different someone’s beliefs are from yours, when you get to know that person you’ll find he or she has a reason for that belief whether it’s history, personal experience, or something else. Learning those details helps us see each other as more human, as opposed to an impersonal mob that makes up a foreign country.
You Realize How We’re All the Same
When learning about cultural differences, it's impossible to not also learn about similarities. Long before coming to Prague, I volunteered as an English teacher in a rural village in Thailand. The differences of this school compared to my own upbringing were stark. No running water. No cars. No electricity. One of my teenage students in the village invited me to dinner one night. While I was enjoying a delicious meal with her family, I noticed her corner of their home. The wall was plastered with posters of Thai pop singers. Even far away from the bustle of a city, this teenage girl, like many teenage girls, daydreamed of boy bands singing love songs to her.
It was a good reminder that no matter how different we may appear, we all are human. We essentially want the same things out of life. When I looked at the posters, I remembered myself as a preteen, dancing in choreographed routines to the Backstreet Boys. If you can see even a little flicker of yourself in people it's hard to demonize them. It becomes easier to try and create peace.
When I first came to Prague last year, I wouldn’t say the concept of world peace was on my mind. I was trying to keep my head above water as I adjusted to the visa process, Czech language classes, and lesson planning. Now that my anniversary is approaching, peace will be something occupying my thoughts for the next two years. In October, I’ll be attending Charles University, located in Prague’s city center, to earn a Master’s in International Security Studies. Basically, I’ll be studying peacebuilding full time.
When I think of everything I’ve learned here, from the lessons on political correctness and cultural taboos to understanding the personal history and similarities of a different country, perhaps teaching had more of a hand in my fate than I realize. Who knows. I still plan to correct my students’ grammar mistakes and pronunciation while I study.