Lucy Bayliss spent a month teaching English in Kranjska Gora. Here is what she wrote about her experience:When I first read the job advert for an English language assistant circulated by the University of Cambridge’s languages department, I have to admit that my initial response was to look up Kranjska Gora on a map, as my knowledge of Slovenia was limited to its role in the former Yugoslavia (my degree is in history and modern languages). The more images I saw of this beautiful community nestled between the Karavanke on one side and the Triglav National Park on the other, the more convinced I was that I could not miss out on such an amazing opportunity.
I have always been someone who has enjoyed discovering new places, meeting new people, experiencing new cultures and learning new languages, so the chance to live and work in a country that I knew so little about appealed to me greatly. I also love to teach and work with young people. I had previously been an English language assistant in France, and I relished the idea of taking on a new challenge, teaching English to children whose first language I could not yet speak. On top of this, I have to admit that, as an avid reader, I had grown up with many Alpine-based stories and having the chance to experience the mountains for myself had been a lifetime dream.
It is rare, however, for childhood dreams to be as wonderful in reality as they are in your imagination, but my month in Kranjska Gora working at the osnovna šola Josipa Vandota proved to be a firm exception to this rule…
From the moment I boarded the train to go through the mountains from Austria to Jesenice, where I would be picked up and taken to start my life in Kranjska Gora, I already had a great feeling about the month to come, and the breath-taking views as we approached the border only added to this sense of anticipation. Just looking at the phenomenal natural beauty of the landscape gave me a sense of awe and wonder that I had never experienced before. I felt amazed, energised, and excited for what was to come, which was a good thing, because, for a small community of fewer than 2,000 people, a lot certainly happens in Kranjska Gora.
I arrived on a Wednesday at around midday and was immediately whisked off to the supermarket to track down ingredients for a carrot cake, before a quick trip to admire the Zelenci nature reserve. By the time I had reached my apartment a couple of hours later, I had learned that the next day I would be helping to host a tea party for the ninth grade and the British ambassador to Slovenia, Tiffany Sadler, (hence the carrot cake) followed by an interview with the local TV news station on Friday, and two days of hiking, den building and mountain climbing with the seventh grade on the following Monday and Tuesday as part of their week of ‘mountain school’.
This level of activity continued for much of my time in Kranjska Gora and I will be forever grateful for all of the new experiences and memories I gained from my time there. Each week I was privileged enough to be invited to join in with various class excursions or special activities, and even when school was over, my lovely colleagues would organise additional trips or hikes so that I could further get to know and appreciate all the wonders that the region had to offer: from hiking through the Tamar valley to swimming in Lake Bled and trying the famous kremšnita there. My ever-curious spirit loved being able to discover more and more about the Slovenian language, culture, cuisine (ajdova kaša remains my firm favourite), history and landscape. For example, I tried to learn a few new words or phrases in Slovenian each day, the most important of which was probably ‘Poslušaj!’for my work in the classroom.
What really touched me though, was how helpful and encouraging my colleagues and students were in these endeavours. They welcomed all of my questions and were more than happy to contribute to my daily word count or recommend Slovenian music artists that I might like to try listening to. It is the people who truly make a place, and the fact that I felt like I was a part of the community in Kranjska Gora for the month that I was there was definitely the result of the warm welcome I received from those around me. The main problem, in fact, was that I felt so moved by all of the kindness I had been shown, that I wondered how I would ever be able to work hard enough in my role teaching English to deserve such an unforgettable experience, although I certainly tried my best both inside and outside of the classroom.
Within the classroom, I enjoyed getting to observe, and learn from the different teaching methods of my talented colleagues, as well as being able to bring some of my own ideas and creativity into the classroom. From talking about my daily routine when I was in primary school with the younger pupils (complete with pictures) to playing rounds of powerpoint karaoke with the older ones, I aimed to find interesting methods of teaching for the students. What I had not expected when I signed up for this role though, was that a lot of my teaching and practicing English with the children would take place outside of regular lessons.
Initially I had felt a bit guilty that, because of all of the different trips and activities, there was never a week when I could attend all of my normal classroom lessons. Yet the more time that passed, the more I realised that my interactions with the students outside of the classroom were some of the most valuable teaching moments I could offer. They may not have been sat at their desks, but as the seventh grade told me all about their hobbies, music tastes, favourite foods and family pets while we hiked through the Triglav national park, they certainly were talking a lot of English. Outside of the classroom, and away from their regular English teachers, the students were far less worried about making a mistake and far more open to having a go and realising that the main aim of learning any language is to make yourself understood by someone else, regardless of whether or not your grammar is 100% correct.
Spending time with the students outside of the classroom gave me the opportunity to have much more in depth conversations with them, to explore the topics they were most interested in, and also to talk to those students who did not always have the confidence to speak up in class. The simple fact of being an English native (and non-Slovenian) speaker meant that I was, in myself, a valuable, living learning tool for the students just by increasing their exposure to the language. We had great fun, and it was even more enjoyable for me being able to watch the students develop much greater confidence both in themselves and in their English ability, which they then brought with them into the classroom. Having realised the value of this extracurricular English practice, I tried to spend as much time as possible with the students, often staying after school to hang out on the playground with those still waiting to take the bus home: joining in with football matches, basketball shoot-outs, and all sorts of playground games.
Of course, I did try and reciprocate the elements of cultural exchange too. ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf?’ has now become a firm playground favourite among the younger residents of Kranjska Gora, which is great because it also gets them practicing their numbers from one to ten. Having done a text on Liverpool and the Beatles, the ninth grade had to work their way through a musical quiz featuring some of the band’s most famous songs and lyrics, and I had the sixth and seventh grade attempting some rather tricky English tongue twisters. Moreover, as a thank you for all they had done for me, it felt only fitting that my time in Kranjska Gora should start and end with a baking session, with a much-appreciated cream tea served up for my colleagues in their breaktime on my last day at the school.
Reflecting upon my month as an English language assistant in Kranjska Gora, I feel incredibly blessed to have had an experience that was far better than my younger self could ever have dreamed of. I can see the positive impact that my presence and my teaching has had on the students, and feel the beneficial effects of my month in the mountains on my own life in expanding my horizons, and helping me to grow and develop as both a person and an educator. From a place that I had no real knowledge of, Slovenia, and the community of Kranjska Gora in particular, will now forever occupy a special place in my heart due to its natural beauty, diverse and fascinating culture, and the friendliness of its people. It is a place that has taught me a lot, and one that I cannot wait to return to and explore further. Speaking from the heart, I feel that there are only two phrases I can finish this article with, ‘ljubim Slovenijo’ and ‘najlepša hvala’ to all those who made this experience possible.