In this post I am so excited to introduce you to my colleague and friend Mirka Smíšková. Mirka and I met about two years ago after one of my blog posts made it to the Czech online freelancing waters and Mirka noticed it. We communicated over Facebook for a while, realised that we click, and since then we’ve been meeting occasionally but regularly over coffee. Mirka is a fantastic personality, an enthusiastic educator and an extremely knowledgeable translator with very specific expertise – history. I am thrilled she agreed to answer my questions.
Hope you enjoy the interview and as always, we’re looking forward to your comments!
1: Mirka, can you introduce yourself and your work?
Yes, with pleasure. To be honest, I always struggle with an appropriate definition of what I do focus on in terms of career and professional development. I would describe myself as a multi-passionate language entrepreneur. I have been teaching English and German for twenty years. I also work as a translator and interpreter with over 15 years of experience in the industry. I studied German and History at the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice, and this was also the place where my language journey started and I embarked on an adventure. Since I had learned my first words and poems in Russian, I realised that learning a foreign language is something I enjoy doing. And of course, deep inside of me, there was this voice whispering what this might feel like when the foreign language became a part of my life. At first, I fell in love with Russian. However, over time, my focus has changed. This was when German and English entered my life. Though it took a while until I arrived at my destination and got grounded in teaching, translation and interpreting.
2: Your subjects of expertise are German, English and History – what role does each of them play in your teaching and how do they affect one another?
That is true. I studied German and history and at that time it seemed to be the perfect match for my future career path. I was truly convinced that I would become a professional historian and pursue a career in the academic sphere. I loved history and still love it. In particular, I was interested in the history of the Early Modern Period, the Habsburg dynasty and the history of the Elizabethan age. I was also privileged to have and meet the best teachers I could ever have met. They inspired me, sparked my curiosity and supported me during my studies. However, the game-changer came with my theses I had to write to earn my Masterˈs degree. This was the turning point when the German-language world opened up in front of me. I worked on the edition of a personal journal from the 16th century, which was written in German. So I delved into the history of this language just to understand the language of the journal. At the same time I became a detective investigating and gathering information about the author and writer of the journal to learn about his life and intellectual world. Suddenly an amazing personal story unfolded in front of my eyes. The research I carried out took me to Germany, England and Switzerland. Wherever I went, German, English and history intervened. When I was in Germany I realised how important and what kind of an advantage and fun it can be when you learn English. So while working on my research project, I also enrolled for an English class. I was always passionate about English, but somehow I was scared of using it. I summoned up all the courage I had and enrolled for an English class with international students who were at an intermediate or even a higher level. My first attempts were not what I wished for, but I had great teachers, who were very patient with me and supported me in whatever I wanted to achieve, such as writing an academic essay in English, working on my translations from German into English, understanding the English language from a linguistic point of view and thus gaining a greater insight. Finally, my stubbornness and the effort I made paid off and I stopped being afraid of English.
In teaching, the German, English and History combination is a perfect one. I realised that many students struggle when they have to decide whether they take English or German. Now I can share my insights, experience and learning journey in both of them. I have this feeling that it may have something to do with your personality. During my career as a teacher, I have met many students who loved German, but somehow they could not figure out how English works. They were desperately looking for order, structure, something they could get a grip of to stop feeling lost in translation. Compared to English, German seemed to them to be such an easy language to learn. The next aspect that comes to my mind involves your own language experience and learner personality: how much you know yourself and how you learn best.
My history studies taught me what deep work means. I learnt how to focus, how to plan, how to divide the learning journey into small chunks, so that it does not become overwhelming. This is a great thing to know when you start learning or doing something new. You have to develop the kind of attitude that helps you to succeed and to have a whale of a time with whatever you are working on.
3: You are a certified Neurolanguage Coach® – could you say a few words about that? In what ways is this useful?
Yes, sure. Well, during my teaching career I have often encountered the situation where students started attending my classes, and they did not know the reason why they wanted to learn English. It was just the feeling of social pressure, obligation and some of them told you they just did not want to feel like a failure when they went on holiday. It was not the curiosity regarding what it is like to learn English or German, what it is like to explore and have fun, it was rather that everyone learns it, so I want it or I have to do it too. And honestly, this not the key to success. Therefore, it was no surprise that at some point they gave up. And the next thing was that they did not feel responsible for their learning journey. Often I felt like I was the one who was doing all the work in the class. This triggered very negative feelings of frustration and of being unappreciated. I was thinking about how could I change this to save my passion and love for foreign languages as well as for working with people. What´s more, I realised I have to change my attitude completely and learn how to find the right motivation, that is what is really beyond it, what is the truth, what makes the student thrive and how I can navigate my students and hold them responsible for their learning. Becoming a Neurolanguage Coach® was for me a game-changer. First, I have changed a lot by looking at what my own fears are, as well as insecurities where I have to grow and change my attitude, develop my compassion not only for my students, but for myself, how to work on as well as by looking at that feeling of being a bad teacher when you see that your student does not make any progress at all and you feel responsible for it. The Neurolanguage Coaching® approach helped me to understand how the brain functions in stress situations, how it works with short- and long-term memory, how it hardwires new information and much more. The next aspect is the coaching part. Now I know far better how to navigate the conversation between the coachees and myself and help them to find out what matters most, where is the problem that we have to work on together, to identify the weak points and also to reflect on what has already been achieved. It is the coachee who is responsible for the success and who makes the commitment. And whenever I ask my students to share their experience with the coaching conversation their responses and reactions are very positive. They feel that they have acquired this space for further development of their competencies in a way that aligns with their learning style, and they enjoy a wide range of topics that are inspiring, challenging and push them beyond their „comfort zone“. In return, experiencing this kind of positive feedback reassures me that we are on the right path.
4: What are your favourite class activities/strategies/techniques? How do you motivate and get your students hooked?
Well, I motivate my students by my example. J When they see how much I love my work and foreign languages, how passionate I am about it, it is so easy to tune in. I always try to use various activities and strategies in my classes. As many students come to my classes to improve their speaking skills I look for activities where they can learn them. I use images and pictures, short videos and also stories as input or a conversation starter. There is one thing I love enormously and that is reading and working with children´s books. I choose stories that adults can feel comfortable with, tune in to and also utilise their own life experience with. One of my students told me that all the books were very interesting and challenging and she liked what I could see and how I helped them to understand the story. With my students, we turn the class into some kind of a book club where together we read and discuss one book in time. The next thing, I love doing is to talk about things and topics you do not find in textbooks. My favourite lessons are those where we have talked about Impressionism and the greatest artists of the Belle Epoque. Many of the students could make a personal connection as they love Monet and have visited the exhibition in Vienna. This was one of the best classes I have ever had. The same can be said of the English class inspired by the book The Girl With The Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. These are real and meaningful conversations. One more thing comes to my mind. I have found out that some of my students like creative writing. And this was such a great motivation. In traditional lessons writing is something that is often neglected. I am so happy that I can support my students in their writing endeavour. I am impressed by what kind of stories they come up with and they really enjoy it and make the effort.
I feel privileged that I have students who are open to this approach and appreciate that I not only teach them the language, but take them into the world of it and beyond. And this is where my expertise in German, English and history gets the chance to thrive and help others to learn, explore, discover, grow and thrive in English and German too.
5: What is the next adventure you must go on?
There are many things I dream of doing and I see that it is possible and you can make it happen. I am still working on my language skills in English, German and French. The thing is it is a never-ending journey. I would like to share my knowledge and experience with aspiring teachers, because I feel that there is a space for mentoring and guidance. Many of them are very talented, but they often do not have somebody who they can ask for advice. For this reason, I would like to start a mentoring program for them. And then I want to make myself accountable and make a public commitment that I will start writing my blog on languages, books and personal development through learning foreign languages this year. 🙂