Tuesday, 27 October 2009

This Terrible Quality

It was I think Alberto Moravia (and if it wasn’t, it was someone else) who said ‘the Mediterranean woman has this terrible quality’. He did not mean British terrible - a suet-bummed, lycra-clad slattern with black roots and panda eyes. He meant rather that she is implacable, jealous, unforgiving of insult and merciless in exacting revenge for infidelity. Right. Well. This story doesn’t pack in quite that level of drama, so apologies for leading you on.

Maryam of Tunisia was asked by my colleague if she would like to form a group in class with two young men from Brazil. She refused, stating baldly in front of these two perfectly nice lads that she wanted absolutely nothing to do with them. She was not being procured for a threesome, you must understand, merely being asked to collaborate on the drafting of an essay. These two were foreign and male, though, and this was a combination Maryam could not endure. Admittedly Luis often wore a T-Shirt bearing the legend ‘Something for the Ladies’ with an arrow pointing to his groin, but still. My colleague did not force the issue, but noted that Maryam sat fuming for the remainder of his session and seemed especially affronted when he allowed the two Brazilians to crack a few jokes, none of them at Maryam’s expense. She simply disapproved of levity in class, especially from blokes.

The following day Maryam accosted me to complain about David’s lesson, which she said had not profited her as much as it might have. He had not eggzerblained well, she said, and this was bad, ferry bad.

‘Did you ask him to?’ I said.

‘No! Teacher should know! Teacher should know!’

I pointed out that teachers are not psychic, and that this is adult education and therefore a degree of responsibility must be assumed by the student for her own learning. This did not go down well.

‘I am honest berson!’ she said. ‘Alwayce I speak the true. This is bad, teacher must know if student is no understand!’ And here she did the whole bit with the defiantly flashing eyes and the arrogantly jutting chin, something I thought people only did in trashy books. I told her she was complaining to the wrong man, and observed to see if her eyes would become mere slits, but here she left the room, ‘swep’ out in a flurry o’ petticoats, she did’ as queens say, imperiously summoned a huff and went off in it.

Maryam took her custom to another school, and from its principal I heard that she had taken to complaining of headaches and lassitude, which she said were caused by her room mate, who injected her with poisons, potions and simples as she slept. Clever room mate. I suspect quite a few people had entertained thoughts of doing exactly that.

When a colleague e-mailed me the other day to say that one of our students, a lady from Libya, had thrown a tantrum and stalked out of the class when it was suggested she might benefit from going to a lower level, I remembered Maryam. Just what we need in Group Three, I thought; a Carmen, a Cleopatra, to stir things up a bit just when they were going too smoothly. However, the lady in question cooled down and returned, put aside her indignation and took instead to the most repellent obsequiousness, stroking my colleague’s face and telling her how lovely she was, in the hope that this would put out of her mind all thoughts of sending her to a lowlier group. All goes to show how wrong you can be. We’ll see how she frames, and by Friday we’ll decide whether she stays or goes.

Some cultures are so lacking in pragmatism when it comes to which level of class they are assigned, on the basis of a placement test. It is a complete waste of a student’s time and money to be in a class that is beyond her level, but so many need to be gently persuaded of that, often over quite a time. Why the hell can’t they just see it?


I told our Libyan Diva on Friday that come Monday, she should move to another group. I had prepared myself for some strop, but she acquiesced meekly. It is noticeable that these ladies tend to lay on the drama more with other women than they do with men. This may be the result of centuries of masculine indifference to their wishes, although I hope in this case it is the recognition that we are insisting on this entirely for her benefit.

One of our Saudi ladies actually wants to go down a level. She sent her husband to see the course director to apprise her of the fact. It did not occur to her that this is rather like deciding you need an eye test, then sending someone else to the optician’s.


That wasn’t a very long break from blogging, was it?

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Down for Maintainance

I'm taking a break from blogging. I've completely dried up for the time being. Please don't go away, though. I shall rise and blog again!

Monday, 12 October 2009

Don't Stand so Close to Me

Don’t come too close, I have a lurgy. Probably not swine flu, as my temperature is not high enough for that, but it is a pretty swinish cold, and as long as it persists it will cost me £112 per day in lost hours. If I worked alone in an office I would go in, but you cannot maintain any teacherly dignity if your eyes are like currants, your voice sounds like that of Mercedes McCambridge doing the demon in The Exorcist and you splatter what looks like a whole beaten egg over your shirt front each time you sneeze. You aren’t eating, are you?

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Memoirs of a Teacher Trainer II

It is arranged. I’m going to Athens for a week in January to do some input sessions on a Diploma course and to observe some teaching practices, or TPs, as they are imaginatively known. I observed hundreds of TPs in Athens in the nineties and early noughties. It is getting on for eight years since my last one, though, and I am out of the loop a bit. I have been thinking of TPs past, and wondering if the standard will be higher or lower now that diploma candidates are fewer than they used to be. I have long since misplaced my file marked ‘TP reports’, illustrated with doodled cartoons of exploding wigwams (think about it) so I only have memories to go on.

The teachers on our courses all taught in the private institutions known in Greece as ‘frontistiria’. The dull, grinding, prescriptive, deeply conservative Greek state education system is held in comprehensive contempt, and most kids attend frontistiria after school to benefit from the greater amount of individual attention their smaller classes provide. Few teachers have any specific EFL qualifications, however, and the teaching quality ranges from brilliant to abysmal, often in the same institution. Most frontistiria that teach languages offer French and German as well as English, but eavesdropping outside the classrooms, you will often be hard put to know which language is being taught, as you hear nothing but Greek from within.

So, as a TP tutor about to observe a teacher doing her first practical, you arrive at the frontistirio in some far-flung corner of Athens or Piraeus, and make yourself known to the owner or the secretary, who as often as not will make you coffee and treat you with almost embarrassing deference. You find your cheek muscles go into spasms from smiling humbly and being self-deprecating. You probably come across as a smarmy git. There are occasions when the school owner will quite pointedly not make you coffee, or even speak to you. Then you know that the teacher is doing her TPs at this school only under sufferance, and the owner is suspicious of foreign interference and new-fangledness.

The teacher emerges from her previous lesson, looking flustered, and hands you her lesson plan, which you peruse without allowing your fixed smile to slip for a moment. Even when part of the procedure says ‘teacher writes girl, prince and prick’ on the board, understand that this is to get the kids to think of the Sleeping Beauty story, and don’t snicker. The teacher may have devised some True/False questions for a reading text. One such question that I have never forgotten was ‘Boys don’t like to study, they prefer kicking their balls’. This is not the moment to draw attention to such gaffes.

In the classroom your presence will naturally disrupt the normal routines of the group. Some kids are scared to death, hypothesising some unannounced test is toward, but most are fascinated by the foreigner in their midst. Once when I had inserted my carcase painfully into one of the narrow desk and bench arrangements at the back of the room, a boy turned to me and whispered ‘eísaste pragmatikós ánglos?’ ‘are you a real Englishman?’. On another occasion five little Albanian boys subjected me to a barrage of questions before the lesson began. They wanted to know, inter alia, how far I could count, which basketball team I supported and what my zodiac sign was. They were flabbergasted and horrified to learn that my mum and dad lived in another country. One group of tiny kids, no more than five or six, spent most of the lesson surreptitiously whispering questions at me, mostly ‘how do you say X in English?’

‘How do you say fengari in English?’ one asked.

‘Moon’, I said.

‘Moon’ is so close in sound to the Greek word for ‘cunt’ that the answer produced shocked silence and no further questions.

All my colleagues had stories of crackpot rules imposed on teachers by frontistirio owners. More than one had CCTV in the classrooms to allow her to spy on the lessons and intervene if the proceedings were not to her liking. Several forbade the use of any kind of visual aid as a means of teaching vocabulary, and one even discouraged the use of the whiteboard. One colleague was shown into a classroom full of study chairs that all faced different directions, as if they had been deposited by a tidal wave. The students entered and picked their way through the maze, seating themselves without moving the chairs, and the lesson proceeded with students facing all points of the compass. Afterwards the teacher explained that the owner did not want the chairs in rows, or better, a semi-circle, because the students might copy one another’s work. Why these batty rules? Search me. I think in most cases the owners inflicted them simply because they could.

As you observe the lesson, you make notes for feedback and complete a form on which you award grades for a variety of language-teacherly skills. Among these is the ability to use mime, gesture and facial expression. Many an EFL teacher of my acquaintance is an ex-performer of some description. I sometimes think the profession is a repository for frustrated or clapped-out hams; being big and theatrical in front of an audience comes naturally to many of us. But just as many Greek teachers had a mistrust of visual aids, so many were reluctant in the extreme to employ mime, gesture and facial expression to convey meaning, which to me is rather like blind-folding your students. One poor woman, who was not naturally theatrical in manner, suffered in observed lessons. Pirouetting and waving her arms about, with no obvious significance to her extravagant mudras, Smaro gave you the impression that you were watching a video with the image out of synch with the sound. I should have told her just to forget the gesture bit, but I didn’t, because Smaro’s pained corybantics became something to look forward to. As the year went on, she developed a style so rococo that the kids were made dizzy and my notes unintelligible.

Before you leave, you have a brief confab with the teacher, whom you should leave feeling fairly happy, even if things were so desperate you have to resort to praising her handwriting or choice of eye-shadow to do so. The good news is that it is often good news, though. I was just leading into the post-lesson elicitation of the teacher's assessment of how matters had chugged along when Zoe, on her final TP, said ‘come on, cut the crap, tell me the grade!’ and I said it was a Distinction.

‘Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!! Can I kiss you?!?!’ she said, and smacked one on me.

The feedback was ditched, because she immediately went into the office to phone her mum. So I am hoping for at least one such success story in January, and I’m glad I have something to look forward to through the English winter gloom.

Greek education then and now. In both cartoons the irate father is saying 'what sort of marks do you call these, then???' but note how the context changes! Thanks to Maria the Mediterranean Kiwi for the link.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

I Have Been Here Before

‘Did you have a good time?’ people asked me yesterday on my first day at work after three weeks off, with ten days back in Greece. ‘Well, you look refreshed and relaxed! All set to go, then?’

Yes, I had a fairly good time. The refreshed and relaxed appearance is an optical illusion, however, due mostly to the fact that my outfit is entirely crisp and new, and owing nothing to the way I feel. Am I all set to go? No fucking choice, sunshine, is there? I have to be here, ‘I want, I don’t want’, as they put it in Greek.

First day with a new class today. Now remember, Steven, they are individual human beings, not generic types, right? There’s the joker, there’s the one who is convinced he is in the wrong class and wants promoting even before the lesson starts, and the veiled Saudi ladies too timid to speak, whose mood must be inferred from the configuration of their eyebrows and crows’ feet. There’s the amiably smiling sort, the know-all sort, the earnestly frowning sort, and the… Ok, now stop it, what did I just say about ‘individual human beings’?

I launch into my usual Day One / Get to Know You and Diagnose your Level spiels, and diagnose the same issues we always get. They cannot recognise spoken words that would be utterly familiar to them in print, we all know that. The sexes do not interact and when I push them to do so, the women resort to monosyllables, eyes downcast. We knew they would; they’ll come round eventually. However odd my approach may seem to them, for me nothing about the day’s proceedings is in the least bit novel. It’s like a recurring dream, one that will go on recurring every day for the coming eleven weeks, then after a twenty-one day hiatus, resume for another eleven weeks, and then… Fucking hell.

Now, you might point out that there are people out of work and broke, and that I pass the Job Centre on my way into work every day and clock the huge queue there, and that I am well paid for working in a warm, bright, clean, dry environment, but you are being reasonable when I am having a moan, so cut it out. I’m cheesed off, and I’m not alone, so there. One of my colleagues has decided she is going to sod off to Australia for a year come April, otherwise she might flip her beanie. Another sympathised with my gloom because she is just back from Thailand, but in body only, and the prospect of eleven weeks' unrelieved EFL likewise fills her with big grey lumps of boredom.

I might just have something to look forward to, though. A colleague in Athens has suggested I might go out there for a couple of weeks every so often to help her in my old job of conducting teacher training sessions and teaching practice observations in schools. I proposed a fortnight in January. January, as any fule kno, is the absolute pits in England; the dank, glaucous days after the annual let-down that is Christmas, when you go back to work feeling as if you are being yanked from your cocoon and tampered with. You feel you should be lounging in your dressing gown having a Martini, not creeping like a snail unwillingly to room 2.41, for another dose of your intermediate course-book. But January in Greece brings the alkyonídes méres, the Halcyon days, a period of mild, bright weather when the sky is the colour of a vinyl swimming-pool liner and everyone who has just been home to the UK for Christmas forgives Greece for being such a madhouse. So I am clinging to the hope that the plan materialises, and they will not need to send the men in white coats to get me quite yet.

Sunday, 4 October 2009


A poem by Sappho, rendered into Modern Greek, set to music by Spyros Vlassopoulos and sung by Aleka Kannelidou, from the beautiful album Sappho. (The clunky translation is mine.) I once had the album on cassette, but it is now long since mislaid and I have never been able to find it on CD, although it has been recorded. Anyone know where it might be available?

Σαν άνεμος μου τίναξε ο έρωτας τη σκέψη
σαν άνεμος που σε βουνό βελανιδιές λυγάει.
Ήρθες, καλά που έκανες, που τόσο σε ζητούσα
δρόσισες την ψυχούλα μου, που έκαιγε ο πόθος.

Κι από το γάλα πιο λευκή
απ' το νερό πιο δροσερή
κι' από το πέπλο το λεπτό πιο απαλή.
Από το ρόδο πιο αγνή
απ' το χρυσάφι πιο ακριβή
κι από τη λύρα πιο γλυκιά, πιο μουσική.

Πάει καιρός που κάποτε σ' αγάπησα, Ατθίδα
μα τότε μου 'μοιαζες μικρό κι αθώο κοριτσάκι.
Συ που μαγεύεις τους θνητούς, παιδί της Αφροδίτης
απ' όλα το καλύτερο εσύ ’σαι το αστέρι.

As the wind in the mountains batters the oak trees, so love shook my breast.
You came, well that you did, for I cried out for you so much.
You cooled my soul that was burning with desire.

And whiter than milk,
Cooler than water,
Softer than your delicate veil.
Purer than a rose,
More precious than gold,
Sweeter and more musical than the lyre.

Years have gone by since I fell in love with you, Atthida,
but then you seemed to me a small and innocent child.
You who enchant mortals, child of Aphrodite, of all the stars, you are the brightest.

And whiter than milk…

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Some Pics

We are living in the last of the last days; term starts on Monday. The evenings are drawing in, the air's sharp of a night, and in Saudi Arabia and Libya bags are being packed and families bidden farewell as a whole new batch of students prepares to descend on us. There are but a few sunny, gold and russet days left to us, and so today I decided to take my camera with me as I crossed the town to Waitrose, and show you the pick of my pics.

I live in Stamford, Lincolnshire, and I work in a city some thirty miles away. The train to work costs me two hundred and thirty quid a month, and so if I were to move I could afford a bigger and better flat than the one I have here. However, Stamford is very pretty and the other place is very ugly. One of my young colleagues told me that in her first year of residence there she was mugged once and burgled twice. I don’t say this couldn’t happen here, but you are more likely to be pranged by a yellow-cardied old lady in a mobility buggy than happily-slapped in an alleyway. Fifteen churches attest to our piety, a range of charity shops to our philanthropy, and little artisan cheese and bread shops to our gourmet tendencies, and so I am reluctant to give this up and move, swapping my Jaeger twin-set for a sari or a shell suit.

St Mary's Hill, and her church at the top. I live just round the right hand corner. The yellow sign in the bottom left hand corner rubs in the fact that the holiday is nearly over.

Alms houses and 'iconic' British phone box, or booth, if you are from the US. I have never used it and so I cannot tell you if it has the 'iconic' British phone box smell of piss.
Below, sinister cobbled streets and alley-ways. To keep a low profile, dress in Pringle knitwear, a gilet and green wellies. On no account draw attention to yourself, or you may be forced at ballpoint to donate to the Royal National Lifeboat Institute.

The River Welland.

Well, do I swap this for the city thirty mile hence, and save the train fare???


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