Practice. Practice. Practice. A year as an English Teaching Assistant in Oslo

In my application for the ETA position, I wrote, “I encourage my students daily to push themselves to see the world from fresh eyes; I now owe it to them to practice what I preach.”  As a teacher of English literature, I fully meant this statement to be metaphorical;it never occurred to me that my days would be filled with exactly that: practice. Even now, after nearly ten full months in Oslo, I still spend a great deal of my time practicing.

I practice the pose? / ja takk / kvittering? / nei takk exchange each day at my local supermarket, trying to master the appropriate amount of cheerfulness to bring to such a mundane interaction.  If I am too cheerful, I’ll raise some eyebrows; Norwegians don’t do small talk at the register (or anywhere, for that matter). But if I am not pleasant enough—if I don’t tack on those takks, if I don’t make some effort to deliberately distinguish my groceries from the others’ on the belt—I’ll blow my cover, too.

Tough as it can be to practice the subtle codes of Norwegian everyday life, no part of my job requires more practice than my work in the schools.  Unlike their American counterparts, Norwegian students are not constantly flirting with disciplinary infractions, nor must the teachers double as draconian hall monitors, handing out consequences between bells. Instead, teachers and students seem to coexist. Peacefully. Productively, even.  For me, this dynamic has been a challenge. How should I handle a perpetually tardy student? What do I do when students are scuffling in the hallway?  In the US, we would use some minor threat or scare tactic—a demerit or detention, perhaps, but not so here. So how do I establish authority without any formal discipline? Practice. Practice. Practice.

Teaching in Norwegian schools has forced me to rethink many of the assumptions I had about education, particularly with regard to the values and goals that drive everyday practice. Norwegians, like many Americans, believe education to be a potential “equalizer” in society, but their system is designed to serve this function in different ways—some of which are laudable, others that seem, at least from my American perspective, a bit problematic.

More significantly, however, my time in schools has allowed me to gain a new perspective on myself and the US, as I am regularly challenged by my students, many of whom are recent immigrants from Pakistan, Somalia, and Iran, to tell my own “American” story and to speak candidly about America.  I was asked recently if I felt “safe” living in America.  The question came from a student in Language for Leaders,an after school program sponsored by the US Embassy in Oslo.

“Do you feel you are in danger on a daily basis in the US?”  she said.

“No.” I told her without pause, “I feel perfectly safe walking around almost everywhere in the US.”  She was as puzzled by my response as I had been by her question.   America, she told me, seems like a dangerous place to live.  I conceded that yes, there are areas of the US that are not “safe” by Oslo’s standards, but I reiterated my point that the US is, in general, a safe place to live. She was unconvinced.  Later she told me she had recently moved to Oslo from Afghanistan, a place that seemed far safer to her—far more predictable, she said—than the US.

My diligent practice in the market checkout line cannot prepare me for moments like these, when my own worldview is challenged so wholly and so unpredictably. And I am glad for it, for in these moments I am reminded that being an “expert” on one story or another—even my own—requires constant humility, reflection, and a willingness to reexamine that story from another’s perspective, as similar or as different as it may be.  I may never feel imperiled in the mean streets of suburban Massachusetts or safe in downtown Kabul, but recognizing the possibility that someone else might forces me to revise my understanding of both places.

Practice may not have made perfect for me here in Oslo, but it has certainly given me those “fresh eyes” I longed for last autumn. I may not have mastered Norwegian etiquette or the subtleties of pupil discipline,  but I feel confident that I will, when I return to the States in June, have finally practiced all I once preached.

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