Walking Calmly to Class

In my first few years in Hungary, I didn’t have any kind of culture shock. When cultural differences appeared, they didn’t surprise me, and I didn’t have much trouble adjusting to them. I plunged right into life here and just took things as they came. Then, after three years or so, little bits of culture shock started hitting me from different directions.

For instance, it took me a few years to realize that teachers start heading to their classrooms when (or slightly after) the bell rings, not before. In New York City, teachers were expected to be in the classrooms, ready to go, before the ringing of the bell.

This tiny difference of a minute or so reflects much vaster differences of assumptions. In NYC (and in much of the U.S.), teachers are not supposed to leave students unsupervised for one second. Therefore, they are supposed to be in the classroom before the students enter. (Because what if there were an accident in the classroom in the teacher’s absence, and someone sued the school?) Also, getting there first is one of the precepts of “classroom management”: you have everything set up, so that when students walk in the room they immediately have something to do. Not one second is left to chance. In addition, there’s a belief that every second of instruction matters; if you arrive after the bell rings, you are “negatively impacting” the students’ achievement. (On the other hand, it’s common for lessons to be interrupted multiple times by loudspeaker announcements, people popping in, etc.)

In Hungary, or at least at my school, it’s entirely different. Unless the room is locked, students are supposed to enter before the teacher does. Then, when the teacher enters, they stand up; the teacher greets them, and the lesson calmly begins. There’s no “Do Now,” no “lesson aim” written on the board; the teacher typically takes attendance, checks homework, and introduces the lesson of the day. Students are expected to pay attention even without having something to do at every second. (And, by and large, they do.) Here, too, instructional time is taken seriously, but not down to the minute—and there are rarely any interruptions. Loudspeaker announcements are typically made before the first lesson in the morning. Once in a great while an announcement will be made during the day, but not often. And no one pops into the room.

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? To an extent it is. Not in all ways. But that isn’t my point. My point is that I didn’t even realize this for a few years. I thought I was late to class because I was leaving the teacher’s room at the time of the bell. I would dash up the stairs and down the corridors, slightly panicked about “getting in trouble” (though that, too, is a rarity at my school—teachers don’t get in trouble unless there’s a big problem). Then it dawned on me that other teachers were heading off after the bell too. Not only that, but they weren’t running. Just calmly walking down the hall.

There is something wondrous in going about your day without panic. Panic is ingrained in the school cultures I have known in NYC, even the best ones—the fear of being late, of failing to manage the students, of doing something wrong—that even if you have a supportive principal, you keep receiving reminders from up above that you had better be doing such-and-such. Keeping an eye on the students at all times. Writing the right things on the board. Conducting the lesson in the approved way (with group work, no matter what the lesson content). Keeping the bulletin boards regularly refreshed. Keeping paperwork on every single incident that arises. Documenting, documenting, documenting. Getting everywhere a little bit early (with five-minute breaks between classes, which take place all over the building.) Teachers do learn, over time, how to go about their day without panic, but it isn’t easy, and it takes a while.

Overall, the calm suits me better and allows me to do what I do well. But sometimes I miss the boisterousness that I found in U.S. schools. The intensity, the rush, the urgency. These are not great in themselves, but sometimes they can bring good out of people. There’s a belief, fabricated as it may be, that every second matters and that you have to be on the ball at all times.

Here, teachers’ authority and purpose are expressed differently: through a quiet entry into the room, a respectful greeting, and then the lesson itself. Teachers are not under pressure to be “dynamic.” They often sit down during the lesson (a no-no in U.S. schools, where teachers are expected not only to remain standing, but to circulate continually around the room).

To my surprise, I found myself incorporating group work into many of my lessons here (though not always by any means), whereas I resisted it in the U.S. Why? Because the students already have many lessons where they are expected to listen to the teacher the entire time. They already have a strong foundation of knowledge. For language lessons especially, it’s good for them to practice with each other and to create skits, mock radio broadcasts, etc. The liveliness is good for them too. In the U.S., there was so much emphasis on group work and group talk, and so little on listening and whole-class discussion, that I needed to emphasize the latter.

Those differences I saw early on. But now, almost five years in, I also see that it’s possible to walk calmly to class.

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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