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An American Abroad, Teaching English to the English

By Mary Kuhn

Upon arriving in a sleepy hamlet home to one of the UK's larger and older private boarding schools, I received considerable flak about the fact that I was an American teaching in the school's English department.

The summer before I arrived in England, when I was managing a hut in the woods of New Hampshire's White Mountains for the Appalachian Mountain Club, I knew I could get at least a chuckle out of the evening guests by describing my future plans as, "teaching English to the English." Humor, I soon discovered, would be vital to my adaptation.

Less than a week after I arrived, having spent a total of less than two weeks ever in Great Britain, I faced wave after wave of smartly dressed pupils sitting before me, fidgeting before me, smirking before me. I was intimidated. Determined, but intimidated. If my department had not been as supportive as it was, had I not been as patient with myself and tolerant of the difficult moments, I would not have made it to the end of the first year. At times the learning curve felt like it was pitched so steeply as to require a technical assent. That I managed (with a little grace) through a few glaring scrapes, tricky customers, and a knowledge deficit about the systems and ethos of the school gave me a great sense of achievement. 

My arrival--off the local double-decker cross-county bus, with backpack and suitcase in tow--seems ill prepared in retrospect. I applied for the fellowship my senior spring at Yale, but spent much of the semester planning for another summer in the woods of New Hampshire that would come first. When the head of the English department sent me a list of set texts for the fall, I received her e-mail at the end of a three-mile pack trail. I knew woefully little about the country that I would call home for the next two years, and nothing of the countryside; a weekend in London while studying in Paris my junior year was the only time I had spent in the UK.

My first several months in the classroom can be modestly termed challenging, and because I lacked formal teacher training, I ran into more than a few obstacles. Fortunately I had several exceptional mentors in my department who bent over backwards to help me overcome them. They patiently guided me through the ins and outs of classroom management, lesson planning, and grading, and helped me navigate Britain's public school system, the UK equivalent to US private boarding schools. I was talked or walked through all the responsibilities that come with teaching at such an institution, including duties in a boarding house or on a sports pitch.

Saturday matches were followed not with orange slices cut by soccer moms, but with afternoon tea in the Cricket Pavilion. The walk between the math building and the English department lead through the town's churchyard, filled with ancient headstones. Tradition and history, in the town as well as the school, provided a backdrop to my morning walk to work. 

The first few months as a new teacher were marked by a fascination with the obvious similarities and differences between where I had come from and where I now found myself. As I became more acclimated, these comparisons gave way to subtler notions of cultural differences. In teaching English literature to English children, I have had to explore the way my own readings and methods have been shaped by my background.

I find it easy to wax idyllic and paint a rosy picture of my time at a thriving institution in a quaint market village.  Yet the small successes I have gained these past two years have been hard-won, and have not come without their share of frustrations. I spent much of my first year observing my colleagues, and watched how they, in working tirelessly for their students, at times, like Larkin's Schoolmaster, "Dissolved.  (Like sugar / in a cup of tea.)." And yet their diligence demonstrates how the demands are worth it. My colleagues were exceptional: patient, dedicated, kind, funny and dynamic.    

My students were intelligent, receptive, articulate and enthusiastic, if occasionally exasperating. I had the opportunity to live in a close-knit community, take morning runs through picture perfect paddocks--at one point being chased down by an otherwise placid herd of Jerseys cows--attend fantastic dinner parties, and chaperone a trip to India.

Living abroad for several years, and traveling even farther afield during holidays, deepened my interest in how sense of place develops, and how writers manifest the significance of place in literature. It shaped my desire to pursue this interest further through graduate study, and this fall I will enter a master's program in English back in the States. To teach is to be a student all over again.  It is to celebrate the manic rhythms of the school year, embrace flexibility and hold on like hell until July first.

And then the job is to sit on a porch swing and read.

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