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Reflections on Teaching English in Poland

Reflections on Teaching English in Poland

Haydn Crooks, Tesol Trainer
9 July 2010

Like most people who choose to do a TEFL course, it was the idea that with this qualification I could travel anywhere in the world and find a job. Added to this is the opportunity to spend time in a place and immerse yourself into a culture; something you can’t do when travelling on Contiki or various other package tours.

I completed my TEFL course in Johannesburg in 2001 and was determined to go travelling as soon as possible. Like most, I had thoughts of finding work in western European where countries such as Italy and Spain beckoned. I soon discovered that those destinations were already saturated with TEFL teachers and finding a job with anything less than an EU passport and two years teaching experience was going to be near impossible. As it happened the new Director of Studies at the school where I did my TEFL course had arrived from Poland to take up a new post at the school a few months earlier. He said he could guarantee a job at an affiliate school in Poland if I was interested. Poland was possibly one of the last places in the world I had ever considered as a destination to even pass through never mind visit. If I had been allowed to throw a dart at world map and go to which ever country it hit and it hit Poland, I think I would have asked if I could throw again. All I knew about Poland at the time was that on 1 September 1939 it was invaded by Nazi Germany, which went on to unleash the greatest and most widespread war in history.

This opportunity arrived around the time all my friends were leaving on the obligatory, post-university, two-year stint living and working in the UK. Although I realised there would be a huge support system should I follow everyone to London, I was in the mind to travel a path less taken. I reassured myself with the fact that it was only 1 000km from Warsaw to London and I could visit London every so often and meet up with everyone.  I knew absolutely nothing about Poland, but the fact that I was guaranteed a job was enough to convince me to give it a try. So the decision was made to go to Poland.

After some reading up, I discovered that Poland was the 69th largest country in the world and the ninth largest in Europe and that with a population of around 38 million, it was the 34th most populous country in the world. I was being sent to a school in Katowice in the south of Poland. Katowice is in the greater area of Silesia, which has one of the richest coal deposits in Europe. This was the area that drove the German war machine and was the reason Hitler targeted it first before he could make any designs on the rest of Europe. The more I learned about Poland the more fascinating it sounded.

Poland is recognised as first forming as unitary and territorial entity around 966 under the Piast Dynasty. With the baptism of its first historically documented ruler Miezko I, Poland adopted Catholicism as its new official religion. Poland has since had a turbid history. It has at various stages been the biggest country in Europe as part of a commonwealth with Ukraine. It has also been totally wiped off the map; from 1795 it was shared by the Kingdom of Prussia and the Russian Empire for over a hundred years. Only in 1918 after World War I did it regain independence. This was short lived as it was soon under Soviet rule as the People’s Republic of Poland after World War II. It is an interesting point that under the might of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Poland was the only country behind the Iron Curtain which was allowed to continue their practice of Christianity under Communist rule. It was during this time, in 1978, that Karol Wojtewa, better known as Pope John Paul II became Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church. Perhaps one of the most well known and influential events of the 20th century took place in the northern port city of Gdansk. It was here in September 1980 that Lech Walesa led the independent labour union Solidarity on strikes following yet more price hikes. It was this groundswell action that led to the fall of communism in Poland and ultimately the fall of the USSR. In a country that has been around for around 1 100 years it is easy to get caught up in the tremendous amount of history of the place.

Shipyards in Gdansk The shipyards in Gdansk was where Solidarity started strikes which culminated in the collapse of communism and the USSR.

I left South Africa on a typically glorious summer evening on 24 December 2001 and I knew I was heading to the part of the world that was in the middle of winter. My only consolation being that the days were already getting longer there, so things could only improve as time passed. My flight to Poland was via London where I would spend Christmas and New Year with friends and family before flying onto Poland. My flight to Poland was via Prague and it was while waiting for my connecting flight that I started wondering if I had made the right decision. As it turned out my flight to Katowice was first delayed and eventually cancelled. The airline said they could put us on different flights but the flights were headed for Krakow and Warsaw. Knowing nothing more than that Krakow was closer to Katowice than Warsaw I decided to take that flight. When we landed in Krakow there were piles of cleared snow as high as the aeroplanes. It was the first time I’d seen snow and it was enough to distract me from my present predicament. I looked up and saw a sign showing the temperature; to my disbelief it read -20°C. This meant a 55°C swing since my trip from OR Tambo International only 10 days previously.

The school had said they would send someone to pick me up at the airport, but I was due 10 hours earlier...in a different city. With not many options I filed out the terminal and followed the rest of the passengers out of the airport to see two busses parked outside. I climbed onto the one with Katowice on the front and decided to take it from there...at least I would be in the right city when I got there. On the bus only one man spoke very broken English and after a while I established that the bus would drop me at a hotel as I had no other address to offer (being 2 a.m. I wasn’t convinced the school had left someone waiting up for me). I had just enough money to book a room for the night and to get breakfast in the morning.

As it turned out, I was in a hotel in the small suburb Sosnowiec just 15km from my ultimate destination. After breakfast I went to my room and called the school to let them know I had not done a runner; I was here but not sure where here actually was. When the driver arrived to pick me up it turned out he spoke no English either. My trip thus far had been a complete nightmare and thoughts of cashing in my return flight home were already taking root. As we drove in I got a look at the city for the first time. It had started snowing again and I can honestly say that a greyer, drearier place I could not imagine. As a communist industrial city there was no place for pretty. Everything is purely functional and EVERYTHING is made out of concrete. A grey-black concrete stained by years of air pollution from the mines (now long since closed). As we approached Katowice four incredibly grey and depressing looking buildings became more visible through the gloom. “Well,” I said “as long as I don’t end up in one of those, it will be ok.” Sure enough those were the very buildings we pulled up in front of. We got into the lift, which had no safety door, and rode up to the 14th floor watching the graffiti on the inside of the elevator shaft glide past. The driver, Michal, dropped my bags on the floor, handed me a brown paper bag, shook my hand, waved good bye and left. I looked in the bag to discover 5 tea-bags, sugar, two rolls, some cheese-type spread and four tram tickets. I knew I was sharing the apartment with another teacher, but my new roommate was still teaching so I decided to venture out and try to find the school. I got to the tram stop and stared down the tracks to my left and then to my right. After realising I had no idea which direction the school was in I went back to the apartment to take stock. I made the decision then that I had made the wrong decision and was going to head back home A.S.A.P. I thought that seen as I had come all this way, I would at least make some sort of holiday of it; a stay of two or three weeks meant I could at least say I had ‘done’ the country. I decided I would find a travel agent the next week and sort out my travel plans.


The Spodek (Flying Saucer) is the main exhibition and concert venue in Katowice. Being the traditional Polish venue on a European tour; I was fortunate enough to see such acts as Jethro Tull, Jamiroquai, Robbie Williams, Rammstein and Metallica play in the time I spent in Katowice.

The next day my roommate took me to the school to show me around. I met the Director of Studies and was introduced to various members of staff. As it turned out the new Director of Studies in Johannesburg had been doing quite a lot of recruiting and I was now the seventh South African to arrive at the school in the last few months.

It was big school and I was shown to my particular Teacher’s Room. I took my place and was shown the ropes. It took no time at all to get invited to the local haunt after work and establish a bit of a relationship with the other teachers in my room. I look back now and realise that it was only two or three days later that I was beginning to think “Actually, it’s not too bad here.” By the end of the week I was sure I could stay.

The school made a good effort to help the new teachers orientate ourselves to the city by organising various social events. During my first week I was given my timetable and assigned a tutor to help me with my lesson planning.  New teachers are usually given a lighter teaching load to allow more time for lesson planning. I started on 15 hours a week teaching lower proficiency levels. English only ‘arrived’ in Poland after the fall of communism and as a result anyone older than 20 at the time speaks either Russian or German. This means that apart from Business English and Exam Preparation Classes the majority of students are Young Learners. I taught a lot of Business English classes which were taught ‘off-site’ in various businesses and offices around ‘mini’-Silesia. One class I had was a twice weekly 70 km trip to Oswiecim, where I taught at a Petro-chemical company. Another constant reminder of the history of Poland on this particular journey was recognising the town by its more famous German name – Auschwitz.

As it turned out, no matter where I taught or which students I taught, I found the Poles to be an incredibly warm and friendly people. Over time I started making friends with locals and established same very good friendships. The Poles are incredibly hospitable and sometime the only way to get away from the table is to actually pass out or risk exploding at the table. The food in Poland is good. The vegetables and fruit especially are top quality. Fresh produce markets are abundant and you can find huge varieties of cheese, cold meats, sausages and lots more. The food is well priced and you can eat and drink very well in Poland. A teacher’s salary is good by comparison to most professions and you live very well. Eating out often and doing a good amount of travelling in Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe is easily affordable in Poland. Lots of school holidays make trips to Hungary, Serbia and Montenegro, Czech Republic and Slovakia a regular option.  Skiing in winter and all out-door sports in summer are widely practiced. Winters get very cold but the summers are gorgeous, with temperatures regularly reaching the high 30s.

Mountain Hut new Zakopne A typical mountain hut near Zakopne in the Tatra Mountains on the southern border between Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia. These mountains offer some of the best skiing in Europe during the winter months at a fraction of the cost of more popular destinations in Western Europe. It also hosts a leg of the Ski-jumping World Championships.

Although initially I was apprehensive and a little nervous to travel to an unknown and foreign place and my initial experiences were anything but encouraging, I am glad I stuck it out. I think of how close I came to climbing on a plane straight back to South Africa after a seemingly endless conspiracy to make things difficult. I look back at the unforgettable memories, the experiences and the people I met as a consequence of staying and am glad I stuck it out. Being in situations like that can teach you a lot and I learnt a lot about myself and even more about the world. Travel opens your mind like no other experience. To have an opportunity live and work in a place where you are out of a comfort zone and adjust and adapt is a great skill to learn. My advice then? If you are thinking about packing it in soon after arriving, give it a week or two. That’s plenty of time to make a friend, find a decent pizza place and at least one bar that uses clean glasses. If you still want to leave after that then at least you can look back and say “Yeah, I spent two weeks there once.”

Cloth Hall in Town Square of Krakow The Cloth Hall in the Rynek (Town Square) of Krakow with St. Katarina in the background. Krakow recently celebrated its 750th anniversary and has the oldest flower market in Europe. The Rynek is on the old spice routes and had such famous travellers as Marco Polo passing through. It also boasts the largest single pigeon population in Europe.