By Philip Kopatz
September 7th, 2019: I had been in Kharkiv, Ukraine on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) for a week and was finally getting my teaching schedule. I had been assigned to the history faculty and my advisor told me “Your first class is on Monday. You’ll be teaching by yourself which is nice since you won’t have to report to anybody.” I replied in utter disbelief, “You know I have no teaching experience, right?” He calmly replied, “You won’t have anybody breathing down your neck.”
I spent the weekend frantically googling lesson plans and ideas. The two-day seminar on teaching at the orientation did not prepare me for this! I strung together a semi-coherent lesson plan and walked into the classroom on Monday not knowing what to expect. When I asked the history professors about the level of the students’ English, they laughingly replied, “not great.” The classroom had about 20 students of mixed levels. Some could not understand or speak English, some were advanced, and most were somewhere in the middle. The class went better than expected, but I knew I needed help. I pulled aside one of the advanced students, and to my pleasant surprise, it turned out she used to be an English teacher. With her help, I learned how to write lesson plans centered around fun and engaging activities such as “guess the lyrics” or video comprehension. Although the numbers dwindled throughout the semester because my class was optional, I found a core group of students who were motivated and saw a dramatic increase in their English proficiency over the next seven months.
Once I figured out how to teach, I turned my attention to “what should I do outside of the university?” As if she read my thoughts, a Ukrainian Fulbright alumna messaged me on Facebook to introduce herself and mentioned that she had an English school for lawyers and would love to have me. Two or three times a week I would spend evenings there talking to her students about topics from education in the U.S. to holiday traditions. It was refreshing to be surrounded by people who genuinely wanted to learn English as opposed to many of the university students who only studied English to pass the exit exam for graduation.
But Fulbright is not completely about working; it is about cultural exchange and immersion. With eight other ETAs across Ukraine, we took the opportunity to travel as much as possible. From the beaches of Odesa, to the baroque and Renaissance inspired architecture of Lviv, I immersed myself in Ukraine. There are numerous stories I could write about, but I’ll leave it off with my last trip in March before COVID changed our lives. My Ukrainian friend, who had never been west of Kyiv, and I jumped on a train to western Ukraine to visit some of my Fulbright friends and do some sightseeing for the weekend of March 6th. We did the normal things while traveling: ate good food and saw some cool sights. But we also did some extraordinary things: one day we were visiting a Soviet prison in Ternopil and heard the experiences from a man who spent eight years in that small prison cell, and the next night we were drinking wine on the shores of the Dnipro river in Kyiv.
In the words of the late Fulbright director in Ukraine: “you need to have patience and a sense of humor here.” Those words could not be truer. Living in another country, even if its government sponsored, requires one to be flexible and adaptable. Most of the time things will not go how you planned or imagined, but if you just go with it and enjoy the process, you may just have the best experience of your life.