Lost in all of the TRE bluster is the fact that there are real people who walk the halls of our schools. They’re more than just figures on a spreadsheet. They’re earnest, hard-working people who became educators to guide our children and help them learn.
With all the talk of budget deficits, reductions in state financing, and tax elections over the last few months, it might be easy to forget that our schools are more than something we shout at each other about.
Dr. JD Kennedy knows this more than most. Kennedy, the McKinney ISD superintendent, spends much of his time (especially lately) talking about school financing and fund balances.
But a summer trip to an unlikely place helped Kennedy gain perspective and remind him of the true value of education.
Kennedy and several members of his family traveled to Hungary this past summer and spent five days teaching English and value lessons to students in the village of Kaba. For Kennedy, it was a truly meaningful experience.
“I am convinced that we made a positive impact on these children’s lives,” Kennedy says. “I think we gained more from them than they did from us. It was amazing to see the warmth of the people. I think many of them have never interacted with Americans before. Hopefully we were positive ambassadors for the US and Texas.
“One thing that was interesting is that one student made a comment that ‘you teach to help us learn, not to show us what we don’t know. A lot of the teachers focus on what we don’t know.’ I think it was nice for them to see the positive approach that we took to teaching English.”
Kennedy says the Hungarian government and the Hungarian Baptist Association organized the trip to bring US and German teams to Hungary to teach English, German and moral lessons.
“I think we gained more from them than they did from us. It was amazing to see the warmth of the people.” – Dr. JD Kennedy
Their mornings in Kaba were spent teaching English by reading value lessons in English and discussing them in English as well. “The students’ comprehension was extremely weak,” he says. “They couldn’t really understand what they read. They struggled in speaking English. It took a long time and took a lot of work. But I definitely saw improvements in my students from Monday to Friday.”
In the afternoon, they’d sing songs, play games and do more language activities. And over the course of their five days in Kaba, they started to see some real results from their students. “There was one girl who would only talk when she was tricked into it in the games we played,” he says. “By Friday, she was speaking English almost as much as anyone else.”
Kennedy says the people of Kaba, a village of around 8,000, had heard of Dallas because of the 1980s’ TV show. “It’s not a third-world country,” he says. “Their standard of living may be less, but they have TV’s, satellite dishes, and cell phones. They watched the old Dallas series and the new one too. But they did think that Texans all rode horses and wore cowboy hats.”
Kennedy and his wife, Pam, stayed with a Hungarian family during their time in Kaba. They slept on a pullout bed from a couch and shared the home’s one bathroom with their hosts. But he certainly isn’t complaining about the accommodations.
“It was an amazing experience,” Kennedy says. “The couple we stayed with didn’t know any English at all. Pam used to teach German, so she spoke to the wife in German and translated. They were so gracious. Each evening, we’d all come together and have a feast. It was a wonderful time of visiting and fellowship. I gained 8 pounds in the process.”
On their last day in Kaba, Kennedy and his family were guests at a riverside picnic. They sang songs, ate what Kennedy calls “the best food you can imagine”, and said goodbye to their hosts. “I looked back as we left and over 20 people were singing songs to us,” he says. “It was a very emotional time that I will never forget.”
The experience in Kaba is something that Kennedy says reminded of him why he got into teaching in the first place. “It let me know that I still have teaching in my blood,” he says. “I just think it’s really important for us as administrators to understand the rewards that come from teaching.”
Kennedy says there are other lessons that he took from his time in Kaba as well. “It helped me understand what our English learners in McKinney are going through,” he says. “It’s interesting to see how embarrassed a teenager may be trying to speak a different language. It brought home how difficult it is for those students.
“It’s important to understand the challenge that ESL students face…how difficult it is for someone to learn our language. It’s a daunting task. It’s something that our English learners have to face and our teachers have to face it with them.”
Kennedy says he hopes to make a return trip to Kaba next summer as well. “They want us back next year,” he says. “I definitely want to do it next year.”
Kennedy says that if there’s only thing he brought back with him (other than those 8 pounds, of course), it’s the impact that teachers can have in a student’s life. He saw it firsthand in a small village nearly six thousand miles away from McKinney. “The best teachers are the ones who take the time to make sure that every student is involved,” he says. “I was reminded of how rewarding it is to see the fruits of your work with students and how rewarding it is to interact with students on a regular basis.”