By Melissa Hekkers
With a heavy heart at the prospect of their departure from the island after spending nine months teaching in Cyprus public schools, two American graduates who participated in the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) programme, spoke to The Cyprus Weekly about their rewarding experience.
The programme in question places recent college graduates and young professionals from America to serve as English teaching assistants in primary and secondary schools or universities in other countries, including Cyprus, in an initiative that has been flourishing locally since 2011 and has, till now, hosted 31 Americans.
This year, four were fortunate enough to take part locally in the programme, with two graduates placed in Nicosia and two in Limassol.
“I knew I was coming to Cyprus, I knew I was coming to teach English, but I didn’t know exactly what that was going to look like,” says Olivia Hart, who was placed in the Pernera Primary school in Strovolos.
A US-funded programme falling under the auspices of Fulbright programmes available in so many countries around the world, “we all picked Cyprus for different reasons”, reveals Olivia.
“I wanted to work with kids from different backgrounds in the US, so I thought that coming to a country with the division and seeing how the school system navigates that and its multiculturalism would be a really significant context for me to go to learn,” she adds.
In Nicosia, Olivia found herself cohabiting with Kirsten Nicholas, another ETA. For Kirsten, it was her experience at university that led her to choose Cyprus as a destination.
“In university, I worked a lot with refugees and I studied international business because I was interested in cultures…The Syrian refugee crisis was also happening and it brought attention to this area,” says Kirsten elaborating on her choice.
By nature, Fulbright programmes take Cypriot students who want to go and attain further education to the US, with many Cypriots having opted to do so, but there are other kinds of Fulbright programmes, such as the ETA programme, that takes recent graduates from US universities and brings them to foreign countries for an academic year.
“Usually they get associated with a school, a university or institution and they help teach English,” says Glen Davis, Public Affairs Officer of the US Embassy in Nicosia.
“Local students get to talk to them about the US and they get a chance to get to know more about the Cypriot culture; mutual understanding is the purpose of most Fulbright programmes and it’s really designed for people from one country and people from another country to get to mix together,” he adds.
Both women were placed in public schools, but the experience gained on each side is somewhat different due to the nature of each school.
“I was at the Ayios Antonios primary school, right outside the old town of Nicosia, an immigrant school were there was a bunch of different kids, some Cypriots, but also some from Romania, Georgia, Russia, Sri Lanka,” says Kirsten.
“I taught Year 1 to Year 6, and, paired with the English teacher, I helped in all the English classes, but I also did other projects with them. I taught them about Saint Patrick’s Day and Thanksgiving and our holidays and really bonded with the students since I saw them a lot. I learnt Greek dancing through a project they were doing for their performance for their graduation,” she adds.
For her part, aside from the regular English classes, Olivia had the opportunity to get some hands-on experience within a CLIL classroom, a Content and Language Integrated Learning initiative that was being implemented at the Pernera Primary School where she was placed.
“The class was a health class and it was taught through the medium of English, so we used both English and Greek in the classroom and the kids were encouraged to read and speak in English as much as they could, as much as they felt comfortable and without the pressure of being corrected and that’s been amazing… that experience took the classroom to another level,” reveals Olivia.
It’s also an experience that has changed Olivia’s thoughts about her own future in education. “The experience here affected my career 100%,” she says.
“I sort of knew that was the general field I wanted to go in, but working in the CLIL classroom where we were talking about everything, from healthy eating and exercise, to healthy relationships, bullying, diversity and inclusion; being able to talk with the kids about those kinds of more intense subjects and the things that really affect their personal lives definitely made me want to go more into the psychology realm,” she adds.
“We particularly like this programme because, traditionally, a lot of Americans haven’t travelled as much as maybe people outside the States, so it’s a great chance for people to go and get embedded into a culture, to go and see the problems and the challenges sometimes that can be faced with that, but also get to do some work here,” says Davis.
Pointing out that students on the ETA programme aren’t teachers as such, Davis considers this as one of the benefits of the programme.
“This is what’s nice about the programme, they haven’t had any particular training in teaching and, in some ways, it’s an advantage; they’re not coming in with all this expertise to teach a class for you, they’re sort of there to work out, with the head teacher and the other people in the school, how they can be most helpful.”
And although the programme is open to both public and private schools, “public schools is where the need is a little bigger, because they use more English in the private [educational sector]; it’s more useful for public schools to have someone who is a native American or a native English speaker”, he adds.
Gaining more insight on the graduates’ experience here, Olivia maintains that: “it’s been really impactful for me to see how the kids benefit from that programme”.
Coming to a country with an abundance of history and a dividing line also made its impact. “You do see notions of a divided country in the school system, which is to be expected; you’re going to be taught about it and exposed to it,” reflects Olivia.
“A lot of times it made me think: I see the way situations were sort of dealt with in Cyprus and then think about what are we doing in the US that’s similar or different, and I think, in a lot of ways, it’s similar, specially with the past elections – you see how the US is very divided in a lot of ways and how we educate our children is really important in terms of bringing everybody together,” she says.
Both took language classes while on the island. “I found that learning Greek helped me grow a stronger relationship with the children”, says Kirsten, who is returning to New York to work in an advertising agency.
For Olivia, things are still unclear for the future. “I’m job hunting, eventually I want to get my masters in social work and maybe become a counsellor or work with kids in a non-profit.”
Regardless, aside from the regular teaching in their designated schools, Kirsten also taught English with Caritas, a non-profit humanitarian organisation, and, together with Olivia, offered art and English classes to refugees at the Kofinou Camp in Larnaca to extend a helping hand.
“We also worked at an elementary school in the north of Nicosia, doing the same sort of things, working in English classes in public schools twice a week,” adds Olivia, elaborating on the partnership that both she and Kirsten developed throughout their time in Cyprus.
“We didn’t know each other before we came, but we lived with each other here,” smiles Olivia. “That’s also interesting because the US is very big and we have very different cultural traits,” Kirsten says, adding to the conversation. “Me being from New York and Olivia from Florida, we see what we do different on (public) holidays for example. It’s interesting for me to see how things are done in Florida.”