The American Has Landed
I stood triumphantly in the front of class, my ears ringing with the unspoiled silence that only a room of flabbergasted children can produce. I had conquered the rabble and now reigned victorious as educator extraordinaire. The English teacher had arrived.
Hungarians schools emphasize classroom discipline differently than American schools and by that I mean they don’t emphasize it. At all. The idea that a room of students has the potential to be silent, listen, and accomplish assigned tasks seems to have evaded the national education community.
During my first two weeks at Aquincum Altalanos Iskola my sole vocation was to observe teachers in the classroom and orient myself with the curriculum, students, and environment. With 42 hours of strictly classical observation ahead of me, I settled into the first lesson with my pen and notebook quivering in eager anticipation. I was ready to soak in, and quickly master, all of the expert teaching techniques the Hungarian education system had to offer. Unfortunately, besides receiving plenty of unabashed stares from the six year old students, the only memory I have from that first lesson is of the teacher’s voice steadily raising to compete, unsuccessfully, with the tumultuous volume of the students’ chatter.
As I rushed out of the room, my ears numb with noise, I attempted to reason myself out of shock by justifying the behavior with several excuses: it was the first week of school, they are only in the 1st grade, and my presence was a blatant distraction. However, four class periods of older students later, I had to acknowledge that it wasn’t the youth of 1st graders that kept them undisciplined, it was the lack of expectation that they should be.
That was about to change.
Fast forward two weeks to Monday, September 16, my first day of teaching. I wake up early, check the bathroom mirror twice to ensure none of my breakfast lingers between my front teeth, and don my Discipline Pants. The day begins with class 1b, my favorite group of students. I adore them because, quite frankly, they adore me and every period begins with a group hug. Unfortunately, we don’t speak a word of one another’s language. This fact leaves all of us mildly uncomfortable for a few minutes until the students remember that they CAN still speak to one another. Instant chaos ensues.
I smile to myself, reassured by the tried and tested fit of my American authority slacks, and prepare my unyielding composure.
Not a single student notices I’m even in the room.
“Class, BE quiet.”
A few heads turn my way.
The final ‘shh’ echoes across the now, completely silent room. With their attention in my grasp I begin the lesson, not one word of which they understand (by the way despite my knack for bringing order out of chaos they still don’t speak English). Unfortunately, I did not take time to properly process the looks of utter confusion splattered across each and every single student’s face. I took it as a cultural difference translatable to awe and growing respect.
Second period arrives and with it the 3rd graders burst through my door. They scramble into seats, pushing and pulling one another and immediately begin chatting in Hungarian. This time I’m prepared.
I smirk; they have no idea what’s coming.
“Class, BE QUIET.” I don’t even begin with my normal speaking voice but head straight for the raised tone.
Absolutely no response.
“Shhhh.” I hold my finger up to my lips but the only thing that changes is that the boys have now have exquisitely crafted paper airplanes and have begun an air raid of the girls’ desks.
A solitary plane crash-lands to the ground, unable to reach its intended pig-tailed target, and the room goes silent.
More than a little pleased with myself, I turn to the board, ignoring the raised eyebrows and bewildered expressions. Instead I give myself an internal pat on the back for conquering the school’s rowdy behavior issues so quickly. Man, I’m good.
This victory lasts until the final period of my second day, 6th grade. Now I know this group to be a tough bunch because they are the most fluent of my students and also the most headstrong. It will take nothing less than a full blown artillery barrage to get through to them. Before the bell even considers ringing the chaos begins. I don’t waste my time with preamble. I’m going to come out strong and snatch that respect up before they have time to know what hit them.
“SSHHUUUUSHHHHH!!!” (The extra syllables assure them I mean business).
A millisecond of tranquility and then, an eruption of uncontrollable laughter. Chairs fall, books scatter, and several students have to excuse themselves to the bathroom to avoid, well you know….
Finally, after inhalers have been put away and poor Oskar is resuscitated, I ask Zsombi (that’s his actual name) what had happened. With tears streaming down his face he generously explains that ‘shush’ is the Hungarian word for eagle. We play hangman for the remainder of the lesson.
I hadn’t trained my students into submission. I had not gone head to head with disobedience and come out the victor. I hadn’t even entered the battlefield. I meandered around the sidelines solidifying my eternal place in Hungarian primary school mythology as the teacher who shouted eagle.