Back in December of 2009, The Words interviewed English alumna Alice Gerard ‘09 on her Fulbright experience in Vienna. Working as a teacher’s assistant, she encountered an inquisitive cast of Austrian teenagers, eager to hear about Hollywood, U.S. cultural norms, and Minnesota life. Now, six years later, the Minneapolis, MN native teaches English at the Danube International School Vienna.
How did you end up teaching English in Vienna?
I’ve always wanted to be a high school English teacher. I imagined myself working in an urban high school in the Twin Cities, basically becoming my favorite high school English teacher. Living abroad was definitely not part of the plan and something I could never have pictured even a few years ago.
I started learning German in high school, and actually took German classes at Macalester during my senior year as part of the PSEO program. My first trip to Europe was when I was seventeen, I flew by myself to visit an exchange student in Bavaria. This experience was quite formative and awoke my enduring wanderlust. My interest in German turned into a major, with a fantastic study abroad semester in Berlin and Vienna. These two cities could hardly be more different. Berlin is fast-paced, young, and multicultural, with the slogan ‘arm, aber sexy’ (poor, but sexy). The night train to Vienna was like passing through to another dimension, with the imposing imperial architecture and a certain aloof and urbane atmosphere. The transition was tough for some of us, but I soon learned to love the elegant coffee houses, and witty dry humor of the people.
After my return to Minnesota I started planning for graduation, and since Macalester has no licensure program, I knew I would have to continue my education. However, I longed for a break from academia and a chance to go abroad, so I applied for the Fulbright teaching program in Austria. The planned one year break turned into two years, and sometime during that second year when it came to booking a ticket home I realized I didn’t want to leave. I spent a year back in Minnesota finishing my teaching license at Hamline University, and completed two student teaching placements – one in Minneapolis at my former high school and the second at the American International School Vienna. The two experiences represented two very different paths, each with its own challenges. I decided to take the plunge and apply for jobs abroad, drawing a big circle around Vienna. The international teaching circuit is quite intimidating, and I ran the gambit from rejecting a job offer in Istanbul, to almost accepting a position in Trieste, Italy.
At the eleventh hour, just weeks before my student teaching position in Vienna was finished, I was offered a job at the Danube International School Vienna. I can still hardly believe my luck. I am now starting my third year at the school and it feels like home.
What is a typical teaching day like for you?
Busy! We have block scheduling, so my timetable varies by day, but generally I have four different classes each day with some prep time in between. This is generally filled up with whatever is most pressing: parent emails, photocopying, changing displays, and lesson planning or grading if I am lucky. My lunch is usually a quick trip to the staff room microwave and back up to my room for a working lunch or to meet with a student. I usually stay after the school day to work for a few hours, although it has also happened that the cleaning staff will come to chase me out of school before locking up.
What have been the best and worst moments about teaching English?
The best moment is of course hard to pick, but one that sticks out happened near the end of last year. Our seniors get a week off before their graduation exams, and two students showed up unexpectedly at my door beaming and talking over each other to exclaim how much fun they’d been having reviewing The Great Gatsby. One student explained his excitement with the declaration, “Maybe I won’t study Engineering and major in English instead!” The two are now at Imperial College in London studying biochemistry and aeronautical engineering, but they will surely be well read scientists.
I am often frustrated as an English teacher by some of my students’ inability or unwillingness to grasp abstract thinking. Sometimes they get stuck in literal readings that are quite unhelpful in understanding the text (“but why don’t Romeo and Juliet just run away?”) Also, I seem be in a annual battle to convince some students that not all poetry has to rhyme.
Has your English major or Macalester experience prepared you for what you are doing now?
Yes, I think my Macalester experience greatly informs my daily work. I often think of Prof. Daylanne English’s classes when I am teaching close reading skills, and Prof. Peter Bognanni’s Film Adaptation course was the inspiration for a few creative writing assignments. In general, my own critical approach to texts and writing style were greatly formed and shaped by my time at Macalester. But more importantly, I am appreciative of learning in an environment where professors were more mentors than untouchable founts of wisdom. I believe this helped shaped my own teaching style in which relationships with students are essential, and where students learn the value of their own voice.
How is Vienna different from St. Paul?
I get this question all the time, so I should have a better go-to answer, but the differences are hard to quantify. I think the experience of your hometown compared to exploring somewhere new is quite different no matter where you are in the world. I often know a lot more about hotspots around the city than my native Viennese friends, as I’m perhaps more likely to try out different neighborhoods. In some ways the Twin Cities are quite similar to Vienna with an abundance of theater and art, as well as many neighborhoods with flair, from hipster to high society. However, the feeling and atmosphere are quite different, Vienna’s dense population gives the city a buzz, while the quintessential spaciousness of American cities gives Saint Paul a more relaxed charm. And you cannot underestimate the impact of a well functioning public transport network. While I’ll admit I enjoy driving when I’m home, I love the ease with which I can zip around Vienna.
Do you have any future plans?
It’s hard to say. I love my job and my life in Vienna, but it is hard to be away from home. I miss my family and friends the most (and the lack of lakes and Nut Goodies). The expat life certainly has its perks and drawbacks, but it is hard to say now whether I am committed long term. I guess we will see where life takes me.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would recommend a stint living abroad to anyone. It has changed my perspective on my home country and led to so many amazing opportunities and friendships. You never know where life will lead you.
November 13 2015Back to top