Gradinita -- Kindergarten

Maybe I should explain to you what Romanian "Kindergarten" is. Grace School is actually divided into two schools, the "School" and the "Kindergarten."

School = Grades 1-4
Kindergarten = Ages 3-6

I share responsibility for English lessons for the Kindergarten with my friend D., each of us taking half of the classes. This is about the equivalent of the American preschool, with the oldest group, the 6-year-olds, being like what we call Kindergarten. From 9-12 every morning we teach, then go to lunch to help with the youngest classes. From there some of the kids go home, but parents have the option to leave them for nap time until 3:30 (in actual beds, not on a towel). There is also an optional after-school program that extends the day another hour. The after-school class is something different every day: computers, games/sports, crafts, story time, or an extra hour of English that we try to make extra fun. Let me guess, now you want to go to Kindergarten, too?

I won't say it's easy -- there have been a few "What am I doing?!" moments. On Friday, a certain first-grader, who had been so "cuminte" (good) for a whole 30 minutes, decided she would like to spend the last ten minutes of class under the table acting like a dog. What do you do in a situation like that? According to my dear sister, "Sometimes you just need to sit under a table!"

Classroom management is definitely the biggest challenge, for obvious reasons. I don't speak Romanian with enough confidence to be convincing, but I don't want to be that scary lady who yells strange words at them all the time, either. Thankfully, I have a wonderful Romanian partner who handles a lot of the discipline issues, and in just a week I've already learned how to say "be good," "please listen," and "I'll put you in the corner." The plan is for her to leave me flying solo after a couple of months, and at the risk of sounding over-confident, I think by then my students and I will have made a lot of progress in learning each other's languages.

Even with a few rough spots and moments of doubt, I must say I love Kindergarten. Friday at lunch, a four-year-old girl proudly told me that every day before she goes to Kindergarten she brushes her teeth. How exciting! I enjoy sharing the simple pleasures of kids, things like reading through Eric Carle's From Head To Toe no less than ten times and still getting excited about the gorilla page.

It's a joy to help children learn to love language and books, so I willingly read even Romanian books to them when we're not doing the English lessons. This does get a bit tricky when they request a picture book of The Little Mermaid with half of the words replaced by stickers, thus making it impossible for me to actually read the story as written in Romanian and forcing me to invent a much simpler version. But if they can't read yet anyway, they won't know the difference, right? Right.

On top of all this, there are a couple of striking differences between being a U.S. public school ESL teacher and an EFL teacher at a Romanian private school. For one thing, the popular opinion of ESL/EFL teachers is a little higher here. I won't pretend the ESL teacher isn't sometimes given about as much respect (as well as support and resources) as the children of migrant workers or hotel and convenience store owners. Still, I chose that career and gladly accept whatever status that gives me in the copy room; I only mean to say that this is one of the first and biggest differences I've noticed between teaching in the U.S. versus teaching overseas. You go from "I sure hope you can do something with those dark-skinned kids so they won't be a burden to society" to "we are so honored to have you here all the way from America to help our kids get a well-rounded education."

In addition to feeling a bit more welcome at school, it's also refreshing to hear teachers lead their classes in blessing the food and praying before nap time, instead of the less-than-edifying language you hear in a lot of teachers' lounges and workrooms. Admittedly, I only understand about 40% of what I hear on any given day, and I wouldn't recognize any Romanian profanities if I heard them... Of course nobody's perfect, but the generally positive work atmosphere in a Christian school is something that will be hard to leave when the time comes.

But I don't expect that time to come for at least another ten months, so for now, I'm giving Kindergarten two thumbs up. Challenging? Yes. Good? Absolutely!

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