Thursday, 29 January 2009

Mouseman & Co.

I’ve posted a lot about clueless students and inept trainee teachers here, so I had better redress the balance and celebrate some of those who, as they say, made it all worthwhile.

After twelve years as a trainer of teachers in Athens, I was invited to a big private school in the Peloponnese to be director of studies. I would have a staff of some ten teachers to knock into shape, and I had fantasies of creating a crack regiment of clued-up educational marines who could teach the socks off anybody else. They would know declarative from procedural knowledge, and why the distinction mattered. They would understand that language without context is meaningless. They would know that telling students about grammar is pretty much a waste of time unless it is used immediately for its intended purpose, communication. (No, grammar was not given to us just so we can test it.) In short they would be so savvy about applied linguistics that they would blow the competition out of the water.

Ah, the power!

Yeah, well. The cat and I found a very nice flat in the centre of town. I bought a vast supply of ear-plugs, because the locals ride around on scooters whose silencers they deliberately modify so that they sound like out-board motors. I was ready to begin. It was September, and kids’ parents were signing up their little darlings for the coming term. To my horror, I had been given a C class, meaning kids of twelve or so. I had never taught kids in my life, although I had observed dozens of trainees in Athens do so far better than I ever dreamed I could. I was therefore enormously relieved to see that for several days nobody was signing up for my class. I was new, male and foreign and obviously not to be trusted. The longer the list stayed at zero, the happier I became. In the end, though, a group of kids was assembled and I went in to teach my first ever group of twelve year olds. I was scared stiff.

Oh, they were wonderful! They were at an age where cleaning the board for the teacher is a privilege to be vied for rather than a demeaning chore to be contemptuously refused. We practised word stress with rubber bands. You give everyone a rubber band, right, and demo the pronunciation of a new word by holding the band between thumb and index fingers of each hand, stretching it on each syllable, wider for the stressed one: pro-nun-ci-A-tion oooOo. Then you say a series of words and the students concertina their rubber bands to demo the stress pattern back to you. OK, maybe you had to be there. It’s good schtick. Of course if you are twelve and male, the temptation to ping your rubber band across the room at your mates cannot be resisted, and teachers must allow for this. I accepted it as inevitable, but many Greek teachers wouldn’t dream of doing the activity for fear of losing control - their worst nightmare.

This age group, I found, tends to be very reasonable, co-operative and eager to please. It's in the following year, when DNA goes off on cue, that they become insufferable little shits. ‘His name’s Steve. He’s from England. He’s my Sir’ Yiannis wrote, re. me, for some task whose purpose I have forgotten. Now, how cute is that?

One day we were planning the writing of a story. The rule was that it must finish with the phrase ‘I’ll never go hitch-hiking again’. The kids in groups made illustrated posters of ideas for things that could go wrong for a hitch-hiker. One group of lads came up with:

Driver is Mr Steve. Holy Moly!!!*
Driver is a Mouseman.

‘What’s a Mouseman?’ I asked.

‘I’m Mouseman!’ said Andreas.

So he was Mouseman for the next two years. I never knew why he had chosen the nickname, but it was a beautiful fit, as he was small and cute as a button, although far from timid. He was the perfect language learner, if by 'perfect' you understand communicator rather than learner for purely academic pleasure. He coined new words, played with prefixes and suffixes, made multilingual puns. The –er suffix for the agentive was briefly popular:

‘I’ve finished, sir, I’m a finisher!'

'Sir, they’re cheating. (at Scrabble) They’re cheaters!'

'Yiannis is hitting me. Stop being a hitter!’

Then he had an ‘-able’ phase: ‘I hate this music sir, it’s very hateable!’ in reference to a CD I was playing in a lesson. He took to tacking the phrase 'I do believe...' before any proposition. If I corrected him or made a suggestion about his essays, he would point at me and croak: 'you're good!' in imitation of Robert de Niro in Analyse This. The essays tended to be accurate but deranged sagas concerning one 'Crazy Bob' and his trusty flame-thrower.

The multi-lingual pun of his that I most remember concerned the word κώλος, (kolos) Greek for ‘arse’. You can tack it to the front of any noun you wish to disparage: κωλοζωή (kolozoi) awful life, bitch of a life, κωλόγρια (kologria) disagreeable old woman, battle-axe. When I introduced the idea of collocations, Mouseman immediately started to call them ‘kolocollocations’. If you think this pretty much inevitable, consider the Greek education system in its dispiriting, prescriptive, humourless, rote-learning, hide-bound, time-serving misery and imagine what a joy Mouseman was. The following year he moved up into another class. The teacher believed in monolingual lessons and so merely discussed English in Greek, rather than using it as a direct means of communication, which is like teaching someone to cook using books instead of food, pots, pans and heat. The best she could say of Mouseman was that he was ‘a pain in the neck’. Well, bright kids often are when they're bored out of their skulls.

My crack regiment was never to be. Teachers in Greece are badly paid, and you cannot expect people to give up time for Inset if they will still be paid in washers however many seminars they attend. This is one reason I left. I met and trained some wonderful people, and met some brilliant school owners and teachers, but the dull, reactionary nature of Greek education got to me in the end, and I got out. However, just as souls are supposed to desire reincarnation, I occasionally want to go back and start again.


* In Greek, the words kyrios and kyria meaning 'Mr' and 'Mrs' can be placed in front of someone's first name. Nice touch, that, combining familiarity with respect.

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