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From too little English to dreaming in English

„To be what we are and to become what we are capable of becoming is the only end in life.” (R. L. Stevenson) Life may seem like an on-going struggle and on our path we might lose ourselves from time to time, but it’s important that we find our way back to ourselves. As our national genius whom we celebrated yesterday would say „the aim of your life is to find yourself.” (Mihai Eminescu) Finding yourself and working on becoming your best version may take time, may require a lot of work and introspection, but at the end of the road it’s worth it. Learning from every person, from every culture, being determined to pursue your goals, making the most of your education might make a difference in who you become. Be honest with yourself and with others, believe in yourself and in the people around you! And above all „find out what you love, what makes you happy, work hard and you will succeed!” These are a few ideas mentioned by a young woman who shared with us her perspective on education having a view from both Romanian and British education.

  1. You’ve been living in the UK for 7 years now, so first tell me something about coming here. Why did you want to come here?

Good question. Not because I like the weather! It all started during my high-school years when I got selected for a 2-weeks school exchange in the UK. I really loved the experience, the relaxed and friendly atmosphere in the schools here, but more than anything I loved studying in English and speaking English on a daily basis. So, I started dreaming big and started researching how you can get admitted to a UK university.

2. Our conversation will focus on your work in the UK, but first let’s talk about your education here. What did you study? How was your experience during Undergraduate and Masters? Did you have any difficulties? I studied English with Business Studies for my undergraduate at Loughborough University and I studied Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching for my Masters at University of Nottingham. I’ll talk more about my undergraduate degree because that was a more ‘difficult’ experience from various perspectives. Firstly, I chose to study English but little did I know how deep into English Literature I will get; you know, Shakespeare and all of that. So, during my first year I was absolutely baffled and overwhelmed with everything that was happening. Suddenly, from a top student, I was scoring average and below average compared to my fellow British friends. Bear in mind, I was coming from a country where unless you score 10/10 you are ‘not good’. Therefore, I got very demotivated and demoralised and without the continuous encouragement from my family and friends I might have given up. The approach to learning in the UK is very different to Romania and it took me 2 years to understand what ‘critical thinking’ means when you write essays and projects – and what a day that was. Along all this, I was also working an average of 30 hours a week as a waitress in a restaurant because I needed to earn to pay for my living expenses. In practice, this meant going to lectures in the mornings and going to work from 6pm to 11pm in the evening. To sum up my undergraduate degree experience, it was certainly difficult, but I wasn’t willing to give up so, I graduated with honours! If we talk about Masters, things were very different – I already knew what the expectations from me were and I loved every bit of it!

3. What do you do now? Tell us more about your work. What segment of the population are you working with? I am an English Language Tutor who specialised in teaching English for Academic Purposes. This means that I mainly teach international students who wish to study in the UK (Undergraduate or Postgraduate) and need to take an English exam, like IELTS or Cambridge. During the COVID-19 pandemic I started my own tutoring platform where I continue to teach online, thus being able to help students regardless of their location. More recently, I have also taken on college students preparing for the Baccalaureate Exam or qualified medical staff who wish to practice in the UK and need the IELTS exam. At the same time, I teach English for Academic Purposes in UK Universities delivering sessions on how to write essays, give presentations, write reports or even on how to participate in seminar discussions. I have so far worked as a Tutor for Coventry University and University of Leicester.

4. What is your experience in working with young people? What do you think about them? A very good question. In my previous role I was teaching English as a First Language to children from the age of 11 to 16 and, it was quite an experience. The younger ones are amazing because of their innocence and I found it very easy to work with; they are understanding, they will listen to you, they will behave if you ask them to and, sometimes, you very much become their mother. The older ones, 15-16 years old, I loved teaching them because I could be their friend; I was very open with them from the beginning and I told them that English is my second language, and they might hear some mispronunciations at times – so they are free to point it out. And, while that was one of my fears, I found that being open and friendly with them brought me more respect than I thought, and they mirrored my attitude. My challenge was teaching the ‘new’ teenagers (13-14 years old) because they are not yet old enough to be friends, but they are not young enough to look at them as children. I found that the key to success with young learners is – PATIENCE, a lot of it. In a nutshell, I enjoyed teaching young people and no matter how old your students are, get to know each other first; set boundaries but, ask personal questions and be willing to answer personal questions.

5. That’s true! Lots of patience is required when working with children and yeah discipline is extremely important also. What’s your opinion about education in this country? Have you had the chance to analyze the differences between the Romanian education and the British education? What are the ups and downs in each? What could we learn from the British and what elements could we implement in education in our country? I would like to start the answer by emphasising that it is only my opinion and other people might have different experiences. I believe the Higher Education system is excellent – even more so, if you come from abroad. It develops your independent thinking, and it promotes self-reflection, and it sets you on a career path. The integrated placement or internship in your third year of studies is most certainly something that we should take back to Romania. It is the most real job hunt that you will experience, and it prepares you so well for what comes after graduation. In terms of teaching and learning there is full transparency on marking schemes and expectations so that again is something that we can learn from them. On the other hand, if we talk about secondary education, I think there is a lack of motivation for being an excellent student, for acquiring knowledge and information. In this aspect, I believe Romania is doing better. However, something that I love here is that the teacher aims to lift everyone at an average level in terms of performance – there isn’t such a big gap between the top of the class and the bottom of the class. From what I remember in Romania, if you had a history of being a ‘bad’ student, the teacher took it for granted that you are a ‘bad’ student.

6. United Kingdom is known for its colourful style – a mix of cultures – and its tolerance over people coming from different parts of the world. I assume since you studied and worked here you had the opportunity to notice differences in several cultures. Can you tell us about these differences since you were a student here and then how they influenced your work? You used well the word ‘tolerance’ as I also believe that it sums up my cultural experience in the UK over the last 7 years. I have studied and worked with a variety of nationalities, religions and cultures the more you spend time with them, the more you understand that you are very similar. There will always be stigmas around any culture because it is simply a pattern of behaviour that repeats and forms ‘a rule’. If I think about many Chinese students I was studying with or teaching, I used to find them extremely quiet and very rarely interacting with British students. After spending some time with them, I understood that being quiet and not interfering in discussions it’s a sign of respect for them. When I was teaching at Coventry University I realised even more that they are perfectionist people – until they are 100% sure that they will say something correctly, they won’t say it. So, now I know that I need to reassure them that it is ok to make mistakes and it is ok to interrupt and ask questions and so on. This is just one example of a culture that comes to mind, but there are so many. The bottom line for me is: whatever your experience with a certain culture is, give each individual a chance to show you what his/her values are. I apply this principle in class as well – give the students a chance to prove themselves no matter what their record is.

7. Well said. I think with Romanians is kind of the same from one point of view at least – we may not be reserved in terms of perfection – we are not characterised by that curiosity that drives us to ask questions and search for more information. We tend to just sit in our benches and learn some answers. Maybe because of the communism we tend to behave in the same style and education didn’t advance much since then. I hope things will change in time. Speaking of change… how did teaching English and working here changed you? Did it have an impact on your life in any aspects? Work is a big part of my life, so yes, it played a part in my personal life too. Being an English teacher made me a more patient person, a better listener and it gave me a lot of confidence in explaining my choices or my opinions. Another change that came with being a teacher is that I now genuinely believe that everyone should have a chance to education and that any student can be very good at something – your school grades do not define how successful you will be!

8. Since you came here many things have changed for you, professionally and personally. I noticed a love story that also contributed to your career. Can you tell me more about this story and how it impacted your work? Yes, a love story beyond cultural and religious barriers. I met Abdullah (my husband now) in 2014, just a few months after I moved to the UK, so he played a very big role in my personal and professional life. We both did our undergraduate degrees at Loughborough University and sharing such a big part of our life brought us close. If I refer to the hardships in my first year of university, he was always there when I needed help, when I wanted a friend or just someone to go and have fun with. He is the most determined person I have ever met and his ability to achieve any goals he sets for himself were a huge motivation in my success. We speak about our accomplishments at work and when we struggle, we share solutions. In terms of culture, I now have a better understanding of the values that a Pakistani or a Muslim student might have, and I can adapt my approach accordingly. Love, respect, friendship, help, support, success, commitment – they don’t speak a specific language or come from a specific culture. Yes, adapting is necessary, and it takes time to build trust in each other and in the people around you – but I am so happy to say that we grew together, and we continue to become better and stronger.

9. Such a mature perspective and such an ambitious couple! Before the interview you told me something about working with people compared to working in front of the computer and I think this is worth mentioning. I started my professional career with a role in Erasmus Exchange Programmes Administration at Loughborough University, where I had also graduated from. It was very interesting and ‘cool’ to learn the administrative processes, as well as liaising with universities around the world, but 9 months into the job I realised I do not enjoy an office-based role and I started pursuing my teaching career – a life-long dream. I love speaking, communicating, educating, so for me teaching is a passion, not just a job.

10. When we spoke, you asked me to have this interview in English instead of having it in Romanian. How do you get from a teenager who studied English just twice a week in high school to a successful tutor who only wants to speak in English? What’s the recipe here? What tips can you share with us in developing ourselves and what do you think we can do to improve our lives? ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do!’ This is how I would start this answer. I would like to begin by saying that I do still speak Romanian, but since I did my studies in the UK and I have only worked in the UK I find it difficult to sound academic and professional in Romanian. I have only ever done my job in English, so if I start explaining my thoughts in Romanian, I can sound childish because I don’t know the appropriate lingo. Going back to the main question, speaking English for me was a passion, I loved it, so I took every opportunity to speak it. Firstly, I was very lucky to have an excellent English teacher in high-school – a big shout out to ‘Maranatha Highschool, in Cluj-Napoca’). In the UK, this meant finding a job in an English-speaking environment, like a restaurant. It also meant finding English-speaking friends, reading in English, listening to English music, using social media in English; I could almost say ‘living my life in English’.

11. That’s a good advice for young people reading this interview! We talked about education and its influence in young people’s lives. What can you tell us about education from your experience, from your perspective? Does a good education make a difference in someone’s life? Do you recommend some books or articles or other resources for young people in order to have a more open mind? An interesting question. In my perspective, education cannot be defined as good or bad and I would even dare to say that there is nothing such as bad education. I say that because I came from a village school and I went to a high-school that wasn’t ranking as one of the top ones in Cluj-Napoca; yet, that didn’t stop me from dreaming big and doing something beyond the expected. And YES , education does make a huge difference – it opens your mind and it opens a million of possibilities in your future. Also, education is every opportunity that you take to learn something, it doesn’t mean only university, it doesn’t mean only a prestigious college. You decide how you want to use everything that you have learned.

12. If you had a say in people’s life – people that you work with – what would that be? What would you do to leave a mark in this world? What would you improve or change? What would you like to be known for in your career? Firstly, believe in yourself and then others will believe as well! You need to tell yourself that every day (I need to say it to myself too). Secondly, your school marks, university scores don’t define your success. Find out what you love, what makes you happy, work hard and you will succeed! Finally, I think I would like to be known as the tutor who believed in them, gave them confidence and guided them beyond merely learning English.

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