Saturday, 25 June 2016

An Inspector Calls

Hell, I’m not used to this. I'm fucking knackered. Most of this year I’ve been a gentleman of leisure, rising when I pleased, going to bed when I pleased, going into work on the odd day, afternoon or evening and just about surviving financially. Then suddenly we received the news that twice the expected number of students had enrolled for the first course of the summer, and since the 13th inst., nobody at the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) has had time to take so much as a leisurely shit. Not only is there wall-to-wall teaching, but every four years we subject ourselves to voluntary inspection by the British Council, and the inspectors left on Thursday last after probing into every facet of the Little CHEF’s being, like the drug squad searching for cocaine.

Like everyone else, I had prepared fifteen hours’ worth of detailed lesson plans, as every teacher is observed during an inspection. ‘Are you scared?’ one of the students asked me when I told them an inspector would drop in at some point in the week. I snorted unattractively. I’ve observed literally hundreds of lessons myself and had dozens of people observe me for one reason or another, so I’d be interested to meet the inspector who could faze me. That said, I was glad nobody was observing me between two and three on Wednesday afternoon, when I trotted out some materials I made for the same period last year. My group of 18 Chinese twinks just didn’t get it and sat there for about half an hour in that mental deadlock Chinese kids do so well. You ask a question and they just stare at you. You reformulate the question, and they just stare at you. They don't understand but feel that to convey any sign of incomprehension would cause the teacher to lose face, so they simply try not to convey any emotion at all. You feel as if you are teaching a group photograph. You abandon the task in sheer exasperation and the next thing you do takes off and there's loads of talk and laughter and you wonder if they are the same kids. One colleague told me he felt his observed lesson had been somewhat less successful than one could wish: ‘I might as well have dropped me kex* and shat on the fuckin’ desk.’ He had apparently omitted to make a photocopy of his lesson plan for his own reference and thus been fain to ask the observer to hand back his. This is rather as if an actor playing Macbeth spotted an audience member following the performance with a copy of the Penguin edition of the play and felt it necessary to cadge it off him.

As no Briddish Kyncellor came to my classes on Tuesday or Wednesday, I knew I could expect one on Thursday. Somewhat anticlimactically after I'd spent most of the previous weekend making materials and lesson plans, he sodded off after about ten minutes. This was either because i) he knew a consummate professional when he saw one, or ii) he was pig sick of observing lessons after three days. Anyway, at a focus group for students the inspectors asked what mark out of ten the students would give us for the quality of our teaching. They said 'eleven'. 

In summer, I always hope for groups of graduate students but this year I have two groups of Chinese undergrads. They are lovely kids, (well, early twenties) friendly and funny, but Jesus, I’ll swear their concentration spans get… hang about, I need a refill… shorter every year. I’ve moaned before about their dependence on their smartphones. On Friday, I made everyone switch them off and surrender them to my safe keeping. Twenty of the damn things lay dead in a row on my desk, and I knew a brief moment of triumph. But it was brief. My colleague Sophia informed me today that there is such a thing as FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. This is anxiety caused by the nagging thought that your friends might be having a marvelous time somewhere and you have not been informed, hence the constant need to be checking your e-mails and texts. I don't suffer from this, because I know damn well that other people are almost always doing something more exciting than I am and I'm resigned to the fact. Apparently FOBO, or Fear Of Being Offline is also a thing. When deprived of their phones, my students' FOMO/FOBO seems to cause a complete mental shut down, an inability to be: they just bloody sit there and stare holes in their books. Well, they are going to have to get used to unsmartphoned moments and learn to bloody concentrate. I’m not indulging FOBO (FFS) all summer.

Ree-speck, by the way, to our academic coordinator (if such be his title) for his unfailing patience, empathy, courtesy and good humour in the past week, and always. At least in public: he might have a collection of cloth dolls at home that he stabs with pins. In his place I’d probably have punched somebody by now.


*Kex = Lancashire for trousers.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Anybody out there?

Well, I'm still here. Don't know if you are. I haven't said a dickybird since December.

Recently I was down to four hours teaching a week and what I earned in April and May will just about cover the June rent and a few standing orders. CVs sent to other establishments have gone unacknowledged. (Bastards.) If you know anyone who's thinking of going into English Language Teaching, beg them to reconsider. The unpredictability and lack of career structure in ELT were what attracted me back in the eighties and nineties, but now they are a source of persistent anxiety and it's wearing me down. My blood pressure has hit some alarming spikes lately. On the brighter side, blood tests revealed last week that I have the liver and kidneys of a hero, and a mean prostate. The anxiety grinds on, though: all day my stomach feels like a washing machine full of tennis balls.

In the short term, things are looking good. The other week we learned that 141 students from the Middle Kingdom are arriving mid-June, and thus the predicted fifteen hour working week for June - July is whacked up to 25. We have a frantically busy summer ahead of us with a record number of students. Even so, I can't look beyond September. All sorts of possible courses have been suggested but until they are approved and have enough participants to be viable, we know not if dearth or foison follow. This is a pain in the balls.


Periods of anxiety are not uncommon for me and although they usually have a real-world cause, while they last my perception of reality gets rather skewed. At three o'clock last Thursday, when I was gloomily convinced I had wasted everybody's time for four hours, several students came up to me to tell me how useful the day's session had been. It was as if they had shaken me awake. I'd spent something like eight hours preparing four hours' worth of teaching and had no reason to denigrate my efforts, but was doing so anyway. Three years ago, when my mind had soured and curdled, colleagues were complaining (not to me) that I had become distant and uncommunicative, whereas it seemed to me that everybody around me was pestering me to death and I wanted them to leave me the fuck alone. And yesterday a young Saudi lady gave a perfectly acceptable presentation and then had a meltdown in feedback because she was convinced she'd made a complete balls of it. (That isn't quite how she put it, of course.) I spent ten minutes restoring her self-confidence, and told her of my own experience last week of thinking a good day's teaching had been an ignominious flop. She left smiling - I could see her lips through her tear-soaked niqab.


In order to clear such mental smoke, I do two or three fifteen-minute sittings of zazen each day and attended a Buddhist meditation class on Friday evenings until the course ended. Carrying the peace of meditation into the rest of the day is quite a challenge but you feel more positive if you accept it. You need to watch your emotions with a kind of detached interest. 'There's fear / boredom / irritation again', you observe, then you let them pass by like clouds, as they will quickly do so long as you don't spin a narrative around them. The rolling stomach and butterflies in the chest will blow over: they need not become part of a mental scenario in which you are old, poor, cold, infirm and alone, a recurring image which has been freaking me out for the past month.    

In Ambivalent Zen, Lawrence  Shainberg recalls an exchange with Zen teacher Kyudo Nakagawa:

'So, Roshi, how are you today?'
'Fine! Fine!
I'm not sure why, but his answer annoys me. 'Come on, Roshi, you always say that. Nobody's fine all the time. Don't you ever have bad days?'
'Bad days? Sure! On bad days, I fine. On good days I fine.' 
His answer annoys me too, or rather, frustrates me, because it tightens the double bind that Zen deliberately traps you in: you want to feel that sense of freedom and detachment and the very wanting is what keeps you from it. 'On bad days, I fine. On good days I fine'. If I said 'well, I'll have to think about that,' I know the answer would be 'not thinking, Steven San! Thinking, this why you problem!' Before anyone objects, 'not thinking' in this sense means not succumbing to the kind of mental bad weather created by random, unacknowledged thoughts and judgments. It doesn't mean suppressing cool, deliberate cerebration.

'Don't keep any mind! Don't hold onto anything! This moment. This moment. No fixed ideas. No pictures. Anyway, don't worry, Larry San. Be patient. To be born is to suffer. Now you suffer girlfriend. Next week you suffer something else.'

Yeah, well, I'll have to thi...

What you think doing Buddhism will be like.
What doing Buddhism actually feels like.

Shainberg, L (1995) Ambivalent Zen New York: Vintage Books

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Mad Metaphors #2

Wednesday, 23 December 2015


From a student essay: 'Cloud computing provides extra hard dick capacity.'

Saturday, 19 December 2015

The End Days

That’s it for 2015. The teachers’ room is dark and silent, and the elevated discourse that is customary there (‘I had a packet of them McCoy Thai chicken crisps. They were fuckin’ rank.’) will resume but fitfully in the new year: there’s very little work before Easter. Yesterday was the final day of the last course of the year, and students were given their test results.

‘This are not my result!’ says Nawaf indignantly when I hand him the slip that tells him he’s nose-dived again. 

Yes, they bloody well are.

‘No. This are my result from the last course.’

Why the fuck would I be giving you those again? 

‘No, no. This is no the true. This is false. This is injustice.’ 

Fortunately it is not I who must remonstrate with him: the centre director and the academic coordinator are waiting in their offices, sitting ducks for the tearful, the indignant and the obstreperous. Go and see one of them, Nawaf. 

No, one of them, not me. 

Nawaf is a bit odd, to tell you the truth. The following is a sample of the kind of exchange he and I have been having over the past ten weeks:

He: (indicating an article he’s just read) I agree with this. Very good.

Me: What is it you agree with?

He: Well, he says A, B and C. Very good.

Me: But where does he say A?

He: (airily) I dunno. Maybe here.

Me:  Look at the topic sentence of the paragraph. Is he going to say A, do you think?

We establish via a few minutes of Socratic midwifery that the author actually says the opposite of points A and C, and that point B is entirely absent.

He: Well, yeah, I know!     

Me: Know what???

He: (as to a half-wit) That he’s saying X, Y and Z! And I agree with this. Very good.

Anyway, Nawaf and a handful of other litigants depart to see the people I’ve palmed them off to, and I go to the teachers’ room and faff about on the Internet so as to keep well out of everyone’s way. When after an hour or so I venture out again, Nawaf is still wrangling with the academic coordinator about his grades, which had been maliciously assigned. How could it be else, given that his essay had been perfect and his presentation trenchant and skillfully executed?

The fact is, Nawaf, that your essay was merely word salad and your presentation pointless, which is why they failed. Get it? It had nothing to do with the assessing tutors being in league to wreck your career. I had told everyone to keep their PowerPoint slides simple, but you put your entire introduction onto one slide and read it out word for word, likewise the conclusion. Between the two, we had a few random observations touching on weather and food prices in the UK and the USA. Or something. It was the ninth presentation of the morning, my mind was wandering and nothing you said brought it to heel. 

Anyway, by the end of yesterday morning Nawaf was told that his results would be passed on to the faculty he hopes to join in January, and it would be up to them to decide if they will accept him or not. I think they probably will. They don’t strike me as overly fussy: Christ knows how some of the overseas students manage to do degrees, given their lousy English. Nawaf’s English isn’t lousy – far from it. But his mind is a hall of mirrors in the form of a Mobius strip. Picture that if you can.


And now the good news. As of last week, my nephew (above, with my sister) may preface his name with ‘Dr’. If you are having problems with your laser – and they can be the very devil, I'm sure you'll agree – he might be able to sort you out, but don’t be pestering him with your piles or sciatica, he isn’t that sort of doctor. Well done, lad.   

Monday, 23 November 2015

I dreamt a dream tonight

Dream: I am watching an episode of a detective series on TV. The series has the gritty, hard-boiled, get-to-grips-with-it title of Kiss the Banana.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

A Day in the Life V

This week is a reading week, meaning that the students in the university (as opposed to our little antechamber) have no lectures and are thus free to enjoy the luxury of total immersion in books  on International Business Management, and similar treats. Or just to bugger off and do nothing for seven days. I say 'reading week', but the university has decreed that it shall henceforth be termed 'Enhancement Week' because they think that sounds kind of like all like positive and dynamic and go-getting and stuff like that. Anyone who can coin such a term will never be persuaded of its cheesiness, and so Enhancement Week is the official designation, pending coinage of a cheesier. Anyway, reading week gave me reason to hope that my silent Monday evening Undergrad Language Support students might give the class a miss, allowing me to get home for seven instead of nine.

I asked colleagues how long one is expected to sit waiting for students to arrive before dowsing the lights and getting the hell out. Fifteen minutes was the consensus. But then suppose just as you were gleefully hightailing it out of the building, you met a single student coming in the opposite direction, (fuck!) late with a legitimate reason. You'd be forced to return to the classroom, reboot the computer, get all your bloody books and papers out again and resign yourself to trying to drag language out of a lone Trappist for an hour and three quarters. With a colleague who uses the same room for the same purpose, I discussed tactics for escaping unnoticed:

  • The windows don't open very wide and in any case appear to give onto an enclosed area, so forget it. You'd have to climb back in - and think what an unteacherly figure you'd cut to any arriving student, stuck there like a trapped burglar. 
  • There's a long, narrow corridor which is a definite risk: there'd be no chance of avoiding an approaching undergrad unless perhaps you were wearing a burka, which really would be taking it all a bit too seriously. 
  • The corridor successfully negotiated, you could go up the stairs, across the first floor and down the staircase on the other side of the building...
  • ...then you'd have to get your head down and charge through the brightly-lit entrance hall like a spider tear-arsing across a living-room carpet before reaching the escape-hatch of a back door that can only be opened by staff with swipe-cards.

I cannot believe that we actually sat and discussed this. Even so, on getting to the classroom I was pleased to find at the near end of the corridor a hidden staircase of the kind that permitted servants to move unobtrusively around grand houses. Perfect. I passed this on to Emma today.


In the event, five young Chinese ladies show up. Not as good as none, but better than one. They greet me cheerily but as always, once the lesson is underway they revert to the downward gaze and shy whispering that for them betokens modesty and respect but drives me scatty. We are doing presentation skills this evening, something they have requested, because they have presentations to make. The usual Chinese ploy is to write out the entire presentation, commit it to memory and then recite it. We spend a lot of time telling them not to do this: it makes you sound robotic, your written text will be denser than spoken discourse and thus more difficult to decode, and an unexpected interruption can put you off your stroke and once you have lost your place it can be hard to remember where you had got to. Fear of grammatical error dinned into them at school makes them reluctant to comply with our instructions, though. So this evening we make notes on the whiteboard for a chunk of presentation, and to their horror I require each of them to come out to the front and present the material from the notes only. This they do very well, so the atmosphere lightens. They have, as requested, brought with them the presentations they are working on. Thank fuck for that, because I am getting fed up of everything having to come from me, and the material I have brought is thorough but dull as a vodka and tonic without ice.

I call a five minute break. There's no teachers' room to retreat to, so no chance of tea. I take the lift to the third floor, walk down the stairs to the ground floor, go for a pee and, having thus exhausted the opportunities for diversion that the building affords, return to the classroom. I'm hoping for a buzzing, workshoppy hour with the girls collaborating on their presentations.

Lydia shows me her PowerPoint presentation. We reduce the amount of text on her slides and I persuade her to come to the console and present a bit of her work. This she does, and I give feedback.

'When are you giving the presentation?' I ask.

'I make last week,' she says.

Right. The thing is done, graded, fed back on, dead. They will not be making any more presentations this year. Nothing I did this evening was of any immediate use. 


Do not put yourself forward to do undergraduate English language support.

Never take anything for granted. Never assume that students see the logic in teachers' questions and suggestions. Check all your instructions even if you fear you are treating adults like morons - and this is my greatest fear.

Let's go home. There's gin and tonic to come.


Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A Day in the Life IV

An evening, actually. 

On Monday and Thursday evenings, I teach undergraduate language support groups. I don’t look forward to the Monday class. In a remote and cavernous classroom at the end of an unlit corridor of the nearly empty Dennis Wheatley building, I have a group of eight Chinese kids who have obviously taken a vow of silence - never a good thing in a language learner. On a dark Monday evening at half-past six, half way through our two-hour class, a chill and lonesome mood will often steal over me: fuck, what am I doing here? 

I arrive at the empty classroom at five in the evening to make sure the computer and the sound are working. The room could accommodate ice hockey, so I drag four tables to the front to make two islands close to the screen and whiteboard. The first student to arrive is Viola, a small girl who shuns all expression, facial and verbal. She does not return my greeting but sits down and begins solemnly jabbing at her smartphone. Over the next fifteen minutes more students drift in, silent as ghosts, park themselves and begin to prod their phones. I go out to the loo, then treck to the water cooler to fill my bottle of water and return at five thirty to find all eight students present, silent, intently flicking and poking their private mini-screens. Even though they are sitting in groups of four around the two tables I’ve placed close together, each seems completely alone. I’m supposed to teach them seminar skills.   

‘Right you buggers, for Christ’s sake put them fucking phones away and let’s get cracking!’ I shout. (Use the higher end of your vocal range for this, you sound friendlier that way.) We are going to do a dictation, but first I elicit phrases you can use to get someone to speak more slowly or more loudly, or spell a word for you. Or at least I try. Nobody speaks. I ask again for ways in which these functions might be realised and eventually Viola makes a suggestion. Even though I didn't hear what she said, I receive it as enthusiastically as a parent greets baby's first poo in a potty. Nobody else heard either but she will not be prevailed upon to repeat it. It's as if she expects to be billed for any word she utters. Never mind. Here are some phrases I prepared before the show, floating in on the screen:

  • Could you slow down a bit, please?
  • Could you speak up a bit, please?
  • Could you spell that for me, please?

We practise the stress and intonation and probably they are all thinking: ‘why did he spend ages trying to drag these out of us when he had them on a PowerPoint all along? Why the cat and mouse?’

So, the dictation. I make it clear that they can use the phrases on the screen should I make it necessary, and then read the whole paragraph at a rattling pace, finishing it in about ten seconds. Silence. It’s the same hermetic, solipsistic silence that accompanies the smartphone jabbing. I begin to think I may be invisible. The room gets bigger and colder. Weeks pass. Then Cassie says in a tiny, timid whisper: ‘could you slow down a bit, please?’ 

Now once they get the idea, it begins to work. Each member of four pairs is given a short text to dictate to the other and they actually start to laugh a bit as they use the formulas.  We are still a long way from seminar skills, the ten minute warmer has now lasted nearly half an hour and the speaking they are doing is one hundred percent scripted, but they are at least speaking. I suppose it’s a start.

At six thirty-ish I allow a five minute phone-poking break while I go to refill my bottle of water, and return to find the eight of them in silent, rapt communion with their screens. If there were such a thing as an e-monastery, a meditation period would be like this. The cold, lonely, far-from-home feeling visits me again: all this preparation for so little response or enthusiasm... I have this pathetic need to feel useful and appreciated and they're not making me feel either... Right, sod this. Only an hour to go and we can all get the hell out. Get a sense of proportion, you wuss. 

We watch a seminar discussion on You Tube. It’s staged by teachers and is rather too full of phrases for agreeing and disagreeing and holding the floor and what-not to sound entirely natural, but the kids manage to pick these out. I then give them a partial transcript of the discussion which they act out in their groups. They have not produced a single spontaneous utterance all evening, but they have practised a lot of useful language and done lots of pronunciation work, and next week they’ll participate in a discussion if I have to resort to water-boarding.

Seven twenty-four: sod it, let’s go. They troop out. Two even say ‘good night’. I must point out that they are nice kids. If I see them on campus they always smile and wave. It’s just that classrooms turn them into wraiths. I wait for three minutes or so, time enough for them to go along the dark corridor, round the corner and out of the building, before letting the fart I’ve been bottling since six forty-five. Instantly, the door opens and Cassie is back. I dive across the room towards her so that she might not enter the zone of befouled air, but to her I must look almost suspiciously pleased to see her. She will not be able to come next week, she tells me. Fine, fine, no problem, thanks for telling me, I gabble, almost forcing her out of the room. 

Usually I leave work in a hurry, anxious to get the earliest train possible. These Monday evenings I have nearly fifty minutes on my hands before I get the eight eighteen. I go to Sainsbury’s, there to purchase gin, a small reward to myself for not visiting GBH on anybody this evening. By half past nine I’m home. I shower, slip into something shapeless, light the candles and pour a devastating G&T. The sweetest part of any day is when you’ve shut the door on the world for the coming twelve hours.


My Thursday group  - all Chinese again - did the same lesson this evening and it went down a treat. Lots of participation, lots of spontaneity, lots of discussion. Even the most reticent of the students were drawn in and said their bit, and we all left together carrying on the conversation down three flights of stairs to the exit. I wish I knew exactly what made the difference.


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