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Teaching English in the Czech Republic to Toddlers

Teaching toddlers: Making the switch from adults to preschoolers in teaching ESL

Teaching toddlers English in Prague, Czech Republic
Teaching toddlers in Prague, Czech Republic is now a better option.

“Preschool is where it’s at,” my Montessori-certified expat friend in Prague had been telling me.

And I knew she was right—I needed to make the switch. I had spent the last two years in Prague teaching English lessons (private lessons and also through different language academies) to doctors, nurses, and real estate executives. But because I was in Prague for the long term, I did need a full-time job in order to easily secure a long-term visa. Also, it was rather tiresome running all around to the city limits, sometimes getting a cancellation text message just as I arrived at my student’s office or home.

Although it was admittedly simple and interesting work—reading Wired magazine articles together, discussing summer break plans or even watching movies online—I knew it just wasn’t enough to keep myself financially afloat.

Nor was this the type of job that would provide a long term visa, something that is becoming more important to have, yet more difficult to obtain.

The Schengen Zone and its Impact on American Expats

The Czech Republic entered into the Schengen Zone as of January 1, 2008, and enough time has passed since then for the government to bring in the reins on the  slack that was formerly given to American expats in the country--especially in Prague--where Americans still come and go at a rather high rate (partially due to the still lower living costs than even neighboring Slovakia, who recently adopted the Euro).

It is likely that the tighter regulation of immigration started up when the Czech Republic took on the role of the EU Presidency (for the first time) from January 1st through July 1st. And things really did change—by early May, several dozens of Americans, working as English teachers for a couple of the largest language schools in Prague, were deported with little prior notice. Also the number of renewals for long term visas have declined, therefore making it difficult for Americans to stay for more than one year at a time. The message is clear: be legally authorized to live and work here, or go home.

Preschool Teaching

I count myself to be lucky that I had transferred to preschool teaching by the fall of last year, with an employer who gave me visa assistance, over six weeks of paid vacation, a stable job, and the option to extend my contract for another year. But even with a long-term visa firmly placed in my passport (for some reason the lady at the Foreign Police wrote my visa registration date in pencil!), my employer received an email, also in May, regarding the authenticity or legality of my insurance status. The matter was quickly dismissed, but I’m sure that this was part of the government’s hunt for illegal expats.

There is clearly a “crackdown” of sorts going on in the Czech Republic against foreigners, and not just Americans. Only student visas continue to be issued and renewed at a normal rate, since the Czech Republic encourages the flourishing of its universities and academic community. In fact, application for student visas are actually free, as opposed to the work and dependent visas, which cost approximately €100.

But a baby boom still continues to crowd Prague’s streets and trams with enormous strollers, keeping preschool teachers in high demand. New preschools are opening all around Prague and its outlying regions, often in gorgeous refurbished villas.

In fact, one recently opened school actually offers its head English teacher an apartment in the school’s villa for free if he or she is in need of accommodations. Hours can be longer than a usual 9-5 job, but some schools offer extra pay for babysitting after hours (for late working parents), or ask you to give English lessons to students’ parents who have expressed an interest.

If you are planning on staying in Prague or anywhere else in the Czech Republic for the long term, be prepared to teach the kids!

Helpful Hints for Maintaining Your Legal Status in the Czech Republic

  • Urge your employer to get a work permit for you in a timely manner. It takes one month once the paperwork is submitted, but you still need to take that work permit and your signed work contract to a nearby Czech embassy outside the country (Dresden, 2 hours by train; Vienna, 4 hours by train) and apply for the long-term visa, which you won’t obtain for at least a couple months. Make sure you email the embassy ahead of time to set up an appointment and ask any questions you have about the application requirements. Different embassies can have slightly different requirements.
  • Try to get an English version of your contract if you don’t already have one. If your employer won’t translate it, or translates it incompletely, ask a Czech friend or colleague to go over it for you. You can also get it done professionally for about 400 Kc a page (US$20).
  • Once you receive your long-term visa, it must be registered within three business days back by the Foreign Police in Prague 3. Luckily, as of December of 2008, the waiting line for American nationals has been moved to a separate section away from the eternally crowded line for Ukrainian and Russian nationals. There was only one person in front of me when I arrived at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday morning to register my visa, so I was out by 8.10 a.m. The woman who registered my visa was pleasant, and spoke rather good English. This kind of smooth and streamline registration process was previously unheard of, and the Foreign Police was a source of horrible nightmares for all American expats. But even   given the greater new efficiency, it is still advisable to expect the worst and hope for the best.
  • Make sure your employer is paying for your health insurance on a monthly basis as required by Czech law. He or she must give you the insurance card with your foreigner identity number on it, which you will present during a visit to a medical practitioner.
  • Czech law requires two months notice before leaving a job. If you do not abide by this rule, and your boss does not agree (get him or her to sign your statement to leave) to a shorter notice, you can be fined and have to pay back a percentage of your last paycheck.
  • Apply for a visa renewal early enough (minimum of four weeks before expiration date) to make sure you are still legal while you are waiting. You can apply at the Foreign Police in Prague, and the process requires pretty much the same documents as the first time around.

Teaching little kids after adults? How difficult can that be? You won’t have to worry about drilling them on prepositions and articles, or wonder how to explain the thousands of exceptions to the rules of the English language. It’s just playing with them until they learn by example…right? Here are seven lessons learned from teaching ESL at the preschool level:

1) Forget what you learned in your TEFL course. Maybe your preschool required you to have the TEFL certification in order to hire you, but it won’t help you much when you’re changing diapers or trying to explain the concept of sharing to a 3-year-old. Most of the time, it is the assistant teacher who will be changing the diapers, but if the school is small enough, everyone will be expected to help with all duties and you may not have a highly defined role aside from speaking English to the kids at all times.

2) Go with the flow. Every day is a brand new experience. If you’ve had little to no experience with toddlers before, prepare yourself to be exposed to a whole different way of looking at and dealing with the world. Your students might be crying and throwing a fit one minute and laughing and rolling around on the floor the next. You might compare it to a madhouse on the most hectic days, or you may thrive under the chaos and realize that you have found your new career.

3) Maintain good rapport with the parents. Some preschools are keen on parent-teacher conferences, and you still have to participate in them even when the parents are telling you there is nothing they don’t know about their child. But you can surprise the parents if you diligently take notes over the course of each semester. If you aren’t given a form by your employer, it is a good idea to keep your own files or a notebook where you can keep track of the progress of each child in your class. When it comes time to meet with the parents, you won’t be lacking anything original to say. But do be careful because some parents are not ready to hear (or believe) any negative comments about their child, so make sure to start and end with something positive to soften the blow.

4) Energy. You need lots of it, all the time. Chasing after kids, keeping an eye on them when you’re outside at recess, when they’re in the bathroom trying to use the toilet or wash their hands, or when they’re trying hard to coordinate a hand-to-mouth motion at lunchtime. Don’t expect to get any lengthy breaks. Even during nap time and quiet time, you’ve got to keep your eyes and ears open for surprises and accidents. 

5) Patience. This you need as well. And your kiddies can tell when you don’t have it, when your mood is not so hot. At this age, they tend to be very sensitive to your moods, so if you experience a lot of mood swings, this might be the job for you. They react to your expressions, body language, tone of your voice and the general energy you are putting forth.

6) Lessons must be short and interactive. These are children we are talking about, so of course they don’t want to sit still for long periods of time. Any more than 15 minutes and you will probably lose their attention. Have them standing up and sitting down, weave games and dramatic play and singing into your lessons. Have the children take turns helping you prepare or carry out the activity or project. Divide them into constructive groups (stronger students with the weaker students, naughty student next to the angelic student) and have them help each other do the work.

7) Sometimes you need to just PLAY. Don’t try to teach all the time or be serious. Be silly. Just be a kid. Kids learn so much through play, so allow them to explore their surroundings and go wild. Just not too wild, obviously.