Being an ETA in a Developing Country
Everyone that is or has been a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) will tell you that experiences vary completely by placement. Every placement comes with its own requirements, responsibilities, and challenges. I can’t emphasize enough how carefully you should consider the information provided in each country summary on the Fulbright website before deciding where to apply.
I have been an ETA in two schools in Kosovo for seven months now. I didn’t know what to expect from the schools and education system before I arrived. I wondered what resources would be available, what class sizes would be like, what the curriculum would consist of, and what methods teachers would use. I thought I would write this post about my experiences to give any future ETAs an idea of what their school situation might be like if they are applying to a developing country (especially one in eastern Europe).
At both of the schools I work in, there is no technology in the classrooms. The classrooms are very bare-bones with chipping paint walls, rusting blackboards, and tables and chairs for the students. Some classrooms I work in don’t even have functioning lights, so when it’s cloudy, it is difficult for the students to read anything on the blackboard because the room is so dark. Even if they do have lights, the power goes out frequently and can’t be relied on.
One of my 8th grade classrooms
All the doors are broken, and some don’t close
Though the classrooms don’t allow for technology-centered lessons, both schools have computer labs (which they call “cabinets” for some reason) equipped with class sets of computers, digital projectors, and speakers. There is only one of these rooms per school, so all the teachers have to share and coordinate with each other. I am only allowed to use the tech room at one school. It has been great to use videos, audio, and powerpoint in my activities. It helps the students to understand English in different ways and it’s important to mix up activities so the students don’t get too bored. However, because everyone at the school has to share one tech room, it is not feasible to conduct frequent class activities requiring technology.
In the technology cabinet at one school
Since resources are limited in my schools, I have tried to work around using technology in the class. I brought a blue tooth speaker with me from the US. It has been invaluable. I use it in conjunction with my iphone to play bits of audio and music in class. I just record what I need to on my phone prior to class, and the speaker is portable and loud enough to make in an effective classroom tool.
In addition to limited access to technology at school, I also do not have access to a printer or photocopier. If I want to use worksheets for a class, I have to go to a print shop to print and make all my copies. This can get very expensive when you are working with hundreds of students every day. I do prepare worksheets sometimes, but I have opted for more speaking and blackboard based activities. It was difficult and frustrating at first to plan lessons that worked around these limitations, but there are plenty of engaging and effective activities that require no resources at all.
Blackboard at my primary school
Functioning of Schools:
Saying that schools in Kosovo are very different from schools in the US is an understatement. It has been fascinating to witness how another country’s system of education functions, but it has also been extremely frustrating at times. First, there is a shortage of schools in my host country. To remedy this, all schools work in two or even three shifts. This means the school day is very condensed and students may only attend for four hours a day. Some students don’t finish school until after dark, while others have to be at school by 7am but might have to travel an hour by bus from their home. These shifts make the classes too short to accomplish much, and it also makes it very difficult to coordinate any extracurricular activities.
Another difference here is that teachers do not have their own rooms. Instead, students remain in one room for the duration of the school day and the teachers travel from class to class. This makes extensive prep or clean up from a lesson difficult. Teachers also are not actually trained as teachers; they just have a BA in their subject. This means they have never studied pedagogy or teaching methods. Teachers are also not paid well, and many of the teachers I work with have one or two additional jobs to help support their families. So, they might be a little less invested in their position at the school than you might expect. This became very apparent to me through the lack of lesson planning and general organization of lessons. It is common practice throughout my host country for teachers to arrive in each class, take a book from a student, and ask the student where they left off last class and if they had assigned any homework. Can you imagine a teacher doing that in the US?
Students are very similar to students in the US. The main difference is what is expected from them. From an early age, some learn to just copy everything from their more motivated friends. Teachers do not object or pay any attention to this practice. Cheating and plagiarism are huge problems at all levels of school in my host country. Even professors at the university have plagiarized their research (this was recently proven). It is difficult to witness these practices and not really have power to do anything about it. I think it affects students’ motivation. Why study, why do homework, why be engaged, when you can pass the class in the end without doing the work? This attitude has proved very challenging for me to alter with my activities and role in the classroom.
There is also a vast lack of a disciplinary system at my schools. If a student is too loud or doesn’t do his homework, a teacher will most likely yell at them. Maybe the student will be sent out of the classroom for the duration of the class. I have also seen many teachers hit many students (this is banned by law but not in practice). The most serious disciplinary measure is calling the student’s parents. Unfortunately, these are the only measures that are practiced at my schools and they are incredibly ineffective. Also, some behaviors are not seen as problems, like fighting, for example.
The playground at my primary school
These are just some examples of what I have experienced as an ETA in a developing country. Again, every host country and every placement location within differs from the next. I didn’t know what to expect when trying to mental prepare myself for my Fulbright grant last summer. If you are thinking about being an ETA, applying to be an ETA, or awaiting the start of your grant as an ETA, I would recommend preparing yourself to be flexible and ready for anything. My time as an ETA has definitely helped me to become more adaptable, resourceful, and to always have a backup plan.