By MICHAEL RODRIGUEZ
A newly-hired English teacher at San Benito Veterans Memorial Academy, Gonzalez, 21, set out in June to spend her summer teaching abroad. It was a decision that eventually led her to Poland, where she’s taught children from the primary grade school level to high school age.
After doing some research, Gonzalez came across WorldTeach, a nonprofit organization that affords educators an opportunity to teach abroad—specifically in Costa Rica, Ecuador, China, South Africa, Poland and elsewhere.
She was then able to raise $3,500, which covers roundtrip airfare and emergency supplies while food and lodging are being provided at no cost to Gonzalez by Polish host families.
“In between teaching, and after your service commitment, they take you to different spots all over the country, so there’s many benefits involved in teaching abroad,” Gonzalez said. “For the amount I fundraised, I couldn’t think of a better cause that involves sightseeing, volunteering and teaching; and traveling in general is just something that I’ve always wanted to do.”
Having lived in Poland for five weeks, Gonzalez said that although the country’s education system shares many similarities with American schools, especially in the form of high-stakes testing, she’s also identified a number of interesting differences. In Poland, for instance, Gonzalez said a typical school day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 12 noon for primary students; 8 a.m.–1 p.m. for gimnazjum (middle school) and 8 a.m.–2 p.m. for liceum (high school).
Polish students, according to Gonzalez, often display a different approach to their education compared to Americans. “It’s really different in that they don’t question why they’re learning certain things,” Gonzalez said when asked how students in Poland are different from those in the U.S. “Back in the states, I constantly have to give rationale as to why kids have to learn something or do something.”
“The little ones had a blast doing the hokey pokey today,” Gonzalez added. “They laughed at me because I was dancing kind of funny. They still act like kids, but they’re very respectful and want to learn about American culture in general.”
One of the subjects stressed to students in Poland is English, which is what Gonzalez has been instructing there for over a month.
“Some come in knowing quite a bit of English already since the entertainment here consists of movies and music from the U.S.,” Gonzalez said. “It’s been surreal living here and being with another family and trying to learn another language. When I was in school, teachers were always saying that you have to learn this language because it’s important to be bilingual and to communicate. But all we were doing were crossword puzzles. The way it was presented in school didn’t really feel meaningful or relevant to the real world.
“Being here and seeing how much of a need there is to teach these students English is eye-opening. In the U.S., it’s taken for granted because you’re raised on that language but here, knowing English is your golden ticket.”
Gonzalez is also getting in on the action as she’s attempting to learn the Polish language. She admits that while it’s a slow process—adding that the help of a translator has come in handy—her students are enjoying the role reversal.
“The kids are being patient with me and trying to teach me,” Gonzalez said. “I learned colors and numbers and some body parts. I can’t even begin to tell you how difficult it is, but they get a kick out of trying to hear me speak Polish.”
Not planning to return until early August, Gonzalez acknowledged missing her family and friends in San Benito but credited the two host families she’s lived with in Poland for helping her overcome her bout of homesickness.
“It’s been really good (staying with host families), especially the first family,” Gonzalez said. “Toward the end of my two-week stay with the mother of one of the host families (Bożena Stepniewska Szewczak), she was calling me her adopted daughter. In fact, she was really gung-ho about teaching me how to cook so that I could get a Polish boyfriend,” Gonzalez laughed.
When she does return, Gonzalez plans on bringing back with her a level of experience she considers invaluable.
“As far as tangible items, it’s going to be really good coming into the school year, because I now have a network in Poland,” Gonzalez said.