Teaching English at a Polish Summer Camp: the TEFL Lifestyle
At Dwór Pomorski, a beautiful lakeside manor nestled in rural northwest Poland, 30 minutes by bike from the nearest town, we were escorted into a dining hall with long tablecloths and large ceramic bowls of pickle soup. The food was certainly edible, if not verging on tasty. In the ornate so-called ‘Hitler house’ (a nickname derived from the still-unchecked rumour that Hitler stayed in that house at some point), we were handed room keys. Anya and I admired our new view of the wooden jetty and lake and envied over Nina and Carmen’s massive balcony; we were eager to test its maximum capacity. I quickly discovered my lack of adequate depths of personality and endearing-but-not-showy, slightly self-deprecating-but-lovable anecdotes about myself as sheets of icebreakers presented themselves. My ‘I once got my finger locked in a door’ story was quickly subsumed in interest by the revelation that Lucy had written a 600-page book at the age of 19.
We met the 40 participants, aged 11-16, over a round of goofily bizarre hypothetical questions which were puzzling to translate between English and Polish in the cases of misunderstanding. Once we’d asked them whether they’d prefer a bee-sized horse or horse-sized bee, they were instructed to each pick their favourite ‘native speaker’ who would supervise their presentations later in the week. I feared that my Manchester charm might not have saved me from this school PE situation as no one voted me most likely to survive the Hunger Games.
My first pierogi and some generous helpings of the ubiquitous salads glued to the table at every evening meal later, we played our first evening activity and headed to Nina’s balcony for some cards. We’d survived day one of teaching English.
Anya and I alarm synced our way into day two, sampling the bamboozling range of breakfast options. I vowed to steer clear of the scrambled eggs forever more and made a mental note to try the hunks of plain tofu at a later date My brilliantly enthusiastic mentees presented themselves, and asserted to my delight that they had plans for their presentations already- on singer The Weeknd and which native speakers would survive the Hunger Games: presentation edition. I queued some of The Weeknd’s songs and thought long and hard about which weapon I would use in the Angloville Games, whilst helping them with their English.
Conversation sessions, 40-minute chats between two participants and one native speaker, were a great way to get to know the children, and hopefully a fairly interesting way for them to practise their English. We perused topics from the Polish education system to motorbike licenses for 14 year-olds, both inciting passionate debates. Several groups’ presentations on basketball taught me more about the sport than my limited mental images of American stadiums full of popcorn-eating teens served me. A curious fascination with capybaras, an animal formerly unknown to me, permeated presentation groups across the three weeks, inviting a high concentration of native speakers’ and NBA players’ faces superimposed onto Capybara bodies. Two of my delightfully enthusiastic mentees in the third week launched through the histories of Lego and the Rubik’s Cube respectively without pausing for breath, let alone struggling for English words. It was heartwarming to see the shyer children come out of their shells by the end of the weeks, with two of my less talkative mentees delivering a brilliantly confident presentation on the history of our hotel, including complex descriptions of the early 20th-century architectural style.
With more native speakers in the second and third weeks came more participation in games, as if my slow reaction times hadn’t already been exposed enough through our evening ritual of card games. At least ‘Captain’s Coming’ and ‘Why are you late for work?’ gave me a welcome cardio boost. ‘Assassins’ was where I came into my own, through the simple premise that you must ‘kill’ a specific person by giving them a specific item at a specific location. Once you’d ‘killed’ them, you got their target, object, and location, and so on. On a high from my first successful ‘kill’ of a participant by handing them a self-designed Netflix-inspired poster at breakfast, I prowled from conversation session to educational activity in search of my next prey. In the first two weeks my confidence got the better of me and I was duly killed, but by week three I was on top form, and managed a hit list of five people in two days. This bizarre long-running game was a great way to force name-learning among native speakers and participants alike, forging all sorts of intriguing alliances, friendships and a few short-lived rivalries.
A typical morning featured breakfast, a morning meeting, two sessions to work on presentations, two conversation sessions and lunch. If we were feeling adventurous, we even squeezed in a morning kayak and lake swim, pool swim, the occasional walk/run or Nina and I attempting some dissertation reading before breakfast. Wednesday mornings allowed us to flex our creative muscles through badge-making or tote bag-printing. The children created some beautifully original designs which will hopefully serve as mementos of their trip.
Lunch was Dwór Pomorski’s best meal, largely because it featured two courses, a luxury before unknown to me at 1PM. The soups increased in saltiness towards the inedible by the end of our three weeks, just as the coffee got stronger. Perhaps the hotel staff were feeling the strain of eight weeks of Angloville. But they introduced such novel combinations to me as tomato soup with full-on pasta bows inside, and the delights of Rosół, Polish chicken broth with noodles (and, traditionally, vegetables). The second course involved lots of potatoes and dill, chips and, one day, very stodgy potato dumplings which divided opinion, as well as some form of meat or vegetarian ‘meatballs’/kievs/bean burgers, alongside a novel combination of vegetables. One of my favourite elements of lunch was mizeria, a refreshing shredded cucumber and yoghurt salad.
After lunch came two glorious hours of ‘free time’. Us native speakers maximised this opportunity, as I progressed from kayaking novice to one able to navigate Koprzywno lake’s reeds in the night. Through a narrow passageway, we could reach a new lake with a jetty suitable for wild swimming, the perfect way to cool off in the blistering Polish heat. The realisation that, borrowing the hotel’s three working bikes, we could reach the nearest town and, crucially, the nearest supermarket, within half an hour proved pivotal. Many chocolate, moisturiser and deodorant trips followed.
With the wind in my hair and on one of the better bikes out of the others’ pity, I once again found myself adequate in a form of transport I’d not attempted since the days when I fitted on a child’s bike. Calls of ‘When’s the triathlon?’ ensued. Barwice was the first large settlement we’d encountered outside of Poznan, and its scarcity was fairly shocking. Apartments uniform in their Eastern Bloc architecture and painted building numbers, yet unique in their various bright shades, dominated. Little was open except supermarkets when we gazed around one Saturday at 4PM. If rural-urban and red-wall/blue-wall divides seems stark in the UK, disparities were all the starker in Poland. Add to that Poland’s contemporary 16% inflation rate, as well as the economic and development challenges which have pervaded the country since the end of communism there in 1989, and you’re in for a taste of the challenges and complexities facing this resilient country.
Afternoons saw more conversation sessions and educational activities. As the days’ packed schedules made their imprint on native speakers and participants alike, competition for the best seats for conversation sessions intensified, providing a clever incentive to be on time for the start of the sessions to bag the egg chairs, hammocks or little lakeside shed for a scenic chat. I learnt a lot from the participants, including that Polish school sometimes starts as early as 7AM and that kids these days are investing in cryptocurrency, making stunning art which they get paid for and are reassuringly concerned about the climate crisis. Many of them had very exciting hobbies, from folk dancing to wind surfing, putting my staple answer, ‘reading’, to shame. Anya’s attempt to mitigate this disparity by claiming she was a frequent breakdancer backfired when she was asked to demonstrate her talent.
With the evenings came evening educational activities, which featured lots of cross-dressing for fashion shows and murder mystery plays, as well as an Olympics which involved yoghurt-eating and limbo. ‘Poloville’, a challenge which saw roles reversed as native speakers attempted Polish tongue-twisters, was particularly enjoyable, and very funny to the participants as we butchered words like konstantynopolitańczykowianeczka. Fellow native speakers Linnie, Celia, Nina and I committed to performing a dance routine to Waka Waka by Shakira with two participants who went to dance school in the talent show, a masterpiece second only in comedy value to another group of native speakers’ rendition of the Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way as Brooklyn Nine-Nine characters. I’m not sure the kids knew who Jake Peralta was. The talent show, karaoke and disco were lovely ways to end the week and get the shyest of children belting out Wreckingball.
Saturdays were a whirlwind of emotional goodbyes as the participants headed home and most native speakers headed for their next venues. Within a week, you’d made countless friendships, shared numerous new Polish foods together, and discussed the unexpected with people you’d met days before. The appreciation game, where in an outward-facing circle, those inside the circle tapped the heads of those who’d made them laugh, they’d had a great conversation with, those they’d miss, and other prompts, was a wholesome way to end the week. Each participant and native speaker also had their own envelope which people posted letters in, which was sure to garner a few tears on the bus. I’ll definitely be framing some of my notes. On Sunday morning it was on to the next group and the process started all over again.
At the end of our three weeks at Dwor Pomorski, it was time to say goodbye to Angloville. It was a great introduction to teaching English in a Summer Camp.
Hope is a history student at Oxford University. She joined us for our Poland summer camp this summer (2022). She showed a passion for teaching and Eastern European history and is clearly a talent writer.