British Studies Web Pages



First Days at a British School

by Malwina

I think everyone remembers their first day at school. Frightened but at the same time excited and curious seven-year-olds are glued to their mother’s side. There is slight chaos and confusion among those members of the family present, who unwillingly leave behind their ‘pride and joy’. My first day was almost the same. The most terrified person was my mum.  I was close to tears. A typical first day at school, well it would be if this scene had taken place in my country of birth, which is Poland, but actually it took place in Great Britain, almost 20 years ago. The school assembly hall was filled with laughing and singing kids. I was too scared to say anything to my mum, who held me so close that I could hardly breathe. From that hall, which was a gathering place for all teachers, parents and kids, each school-day began with a morning prayer and a cheerful song. I loved those early mornings. I know my mother did because as each day passed from a face full of tears she could gradually see a smiling one. She could see me desperately wanting to sing one of those joyous songs and eventually I did.

It seems a life time ago, but for me it was a time I will never forget because it changed my life completely. I was a fortunate kid. Not everyone was allowed to leave Poland in the 70’s. To this day I often wonder how my life would have been different if I hadn’t gone to England. But, it is very difficult for me to even imagine. Children, unlike adults, have this fantastic ability to ‘mix and mingle’ without any inhibitions. They don’t even need to use words to get their message across. Language is no barrier for them. This was how I functioned for the first couple of months. As far as I was told by my mother I was „silent” until one day I just began to speak, a language which I had listened to and literally ‘absorbed’. As a teacher now myself I know that this is how children learn. There are no language barriers for them, that is why teaching children for me has always been a pleasure. The five years I lived in England enabled me to speak the language in its natural environment and that is an advantage for me as an English teacher, but being a child I accepted what I heard without even thinking about it, that is why my first problems appeared when I decided to study English in Poland. A very bizarre situation occurred. I had to learn the language from the beginning. I had to learn to understand my spoken English. It may seem funny but I felt like I was learning the language backwards. When I became a teacher I taught children and adults, and I also taught myself how to explain things which for me were natural.

Although I came back to Poland 15 years ago, and during this time I haven’t returned to England, some people still mistake me for a foreigner. For me that is not only a compliment but an acknowledgement that what you acquire as a child, no matter if it's a language, skill or an ability, can never be forgotten.

Malwina Staszak now works in a school in Warsaw

Suggested discussion questions and tasks
  1. What do you think Malwina means when she says she felt she was ‘learning the language backwards”?
  2. In what ways does your knowledge of English differ from that of a native speaker?
  3. The table below compares some of the advantages and disadvantages of having a Polish teacher of English or a native speaker. Copy it and brainstorm some more ideas
Polish Teacher of English
Native speaker teacher of English
Can explain difficulties in students' mother tongue if necessary May have up to date knowledge e.g. of slang vocabulary
Can understand particular problems of Polish Learners As a foreigner may have understanding of how it feels to be a learner
Usually has well developed analytical ability May have good intuitive knowledge of language
Polish Teacher of English
Native speaker teacher of English
May not know latest slang vocabulary May not 'know' grammar

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