Life in Greece

21 April: The Other Side of the Desk: Reflections of an ESL Teacher


I spent five years teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language (ESL and EFL respectively); a year in the Czech Republic, two summers in France, and four years in the States.

As a freshly graduated kid, not much older than most of my students, it took a while to get used to my new role as a teacher. It’s especially surreal when you’ve got a student old enough to be your grandfather. By my third year teaching, I’d finally grown into the role and the job was becoming second nature. By year five, I’d seen the ups and downs, forged bonds with my fellow veteran teachers, formed real friendships with students, and even had to counsel two (on separate occasions) who had developed nasty drug habits in the States. And honestly, though I loved teaching, I was at the brink of burnout.

This past October, the tables turned and I found myself on the other side of the desk. Here are some comparisons and observations I’ve made over the last past months:


  • USA: There was a strict attendance policy at my school (somehow tied to US Visa Law) requiring students to attend 80% of their classes, and requiring them to be in class within the first 10 minutes of the start time (which seemed like a herculean feat for some). I can’t tell you how often students fought me tooth-and-nail to give them attendance. Some students even regularly attempted to bribe teachers to achieve this.
  • Greece: Greek culture is far more laid back and moves at a slower pace. Though I think we actually do have to attend 80% of our lessons, it’s never held over our heads. Our regular teacher is usually there on time, but she gives us a lot of wiggle room when it comes to getting to class. Now I understand how hard it is to wake up be on time for an 830am class.

The Students

  • USA: The school drew students from all over the world and the largest contingents were Swiss, Saudi, Japanese, and Brazilian. French, Arabic, and Japanese were the languages you’d hear most often walking through the hallways. And most of students were around 20, though I taught some as young as 15 and as old as 66.
  • Greece: Half of the students in our class come from Slavic countries (Ukraine, Poland, Russia, and Belarus) and one girl from Kazakhstan who also speaks Russian, and the other half consists of people from everywhere else (Germany, France, Sweden, the USA, Thailand, and Korea). Russian and English are what we hear in the hallways. The students here are mostly in their early to mid 20s and there are quite a few over the age of 30. There’s one girl in our class who’s 17.

The Textbook

  • USA: Our books were designed for students who were only going to be there for 2-6 weeks, so they were thin and not very in-depth. The chapter themes were general but relatable (e.g. Food, Family, the Environment, Natural Disasters, etc.) The pictures and photographs were of attractive models and pre-fabricated stock images you’d see in something like Rosetta Stone.
  • Greece: The first two textbooks we used were monsters with 20 chapters and weighing a kilo each. They followed a cast of characters (some foreign students like us; others native Greeks) in everyday life. The great thing about them is how accurately they depict Greek life and how they don’t try to hide anything: the nightmare of bureaucracy; the balding, pudgy Greek truck-driver with a cigarette in one hand, his phone in the other, frappe on the dashboard, driving with his knees. Good stuff.


There’s a lot more to tell, but I’ll let you chew on that for now.

Άντε, μπάει


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