Navigating Teaching Assistantship
Enjoying the fall in a park in Brussels

These past four months have been a true roller coaster. I have been hesitant to share my thoughts and experiences as they have not been as rosy/ happy as I hoped and 1. I don’t love talking about my feelings and 2. I don’t like to dwell on negativity. But I started this blog to share my pure and unadulterated feelings about my experiences in Belgium and it would be disingenuous to withhold much of what I have experienced just because it may be negative. With that being said, for the most part, my experience in Belgium has been wonderful. People have been super kind to me. I have been surrounded by family which has been really wonderful.

My cousins and I on a walk around Lebbeke

Despite loving my wonderful family and having great people around me these past months have been kind of lonely. In November, I moved into my own place- I have 4 roommates and an AMAZING room (It is my dream room). I am kind of isolated and spend most of my days teaching and then I go home and hang out alone. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy my own company- I love Suze. She is a wonderful gal-but her jokes can be limited. This loneliness coupled with the dreariness of winter- there is no sun- and the difficulty of teaching has been hard on my spirit. I found myself a little more sensitive, a bit more emotional. I felt a bit dimmer.

View from my walk to work- finally some sun! (Molenbeek)

I will preface my teaching struggles by exposing myself as a person who believes that everyone has the right to knowledge and that I think that the English, coupled with a good education can change your socio-economic status. This belief was the reason I applied to be a Fulbright ETA. I wanted to help underserved people have access to opportunities that they didn’t before. I do realize that this sentiment is very naïve but it is the me I choose to be. I have been teaching at an after-school program in Molenbeek, which is a neighborhood with a high Muslim and immigrant population. It’s considered “the ghetto” and is in the middle of gentrification-which is a topic for another day. Anyways- the majority of my students are from this neighborhood, and 75% of my classes are wonderful. They are cute, love-able and super adorable but I had one class that was -whew chile tew muchhh. They are a class of 15 to 18-year olds and they do not care about me at all. During class, they would make calls, talk and put on makeup among other things. I tried to vary the lessons and incorporate more games however the behavior continued despite my numerous protests. During one particularly ridiculous class, in December, I silenced them and told them that their behavior has been super disrespectful and unfair to the students that actually want to learn something. I said that they were wasting their opportunity and my time. And guess what? THEY LAUGHED. They looked at me and straight-up laughed at me. I was shocked. I was triggered. My options were to throw a chair at them, cry or cuss them out. And so, I dismissed class early and when home to cry. I felt defeated. I honestly contemplated dropping that class. Throughout this teaching experience, I have been feeling a lot of pressure to be the “perfect teacher”. I feel like if I’m a sucky professor my students will go on to hate English for the remainder of their lives. And for some of these students, this is their last chance to learn basics before they graduate. If I left, I felt like would be condemning them and giving up on them. The whole reason I came to Brussels was to work with students that needed me and so I decided to give them a fresh slate with the new year. So far, they have been super wonderful. To be honest, I am VERY suspicious, and I don’t trust it. I have come to the realization- along with the help of some very wise friends that all I can do is give it my all. I can’t force my students to love English- I have to be the best me I can be and hopefully they will see that I care about them and learn something- who knows.

Suzanne Mapatano was a 2019-2020 Fulbright Teaching Assistant to Belgium. She graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in Psychology.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.