Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Gurus, Twerps and Huggy Bears

I have recently found the blog of The TEFL Tradesman, and reading him and his debunking of TEFL-oid softness in the head has reminded me of the kind of Teaching English as a Foreign Language woo-woo that my present job protects me from. For instance, between January 8th and March 2nd 2007 in Vermont, you could have done this course for teachers, had you been present. (Otherwise, let’s face it, you couldn’t have.)

Being Present: The Key to Seeing, Accepting and Understanding
This course explores what it means to be present, the impact being present can have on any situation or relationship, and the skills we need to develop to be more present in our work. The major focus of the course is the experiential application of presence within our work context. Through reflection we examine how presence or lack of presence influences the situations and relationships of our context. We also share insights into what supports us to be present in the moment or what is missing when we are not present. A selection of reading assignments support the experiential and reflective work

It may seem perverse to share this with you now that the course is over and done with, but I do feel we all might still derive profit from reflecting dynamically on how our absence from this course has affected our lives and those of the people around us. In what way – or indeed ways – has my being nowhere near the venue in Vermont impacted those to whom I am a teacher, a brother, a son, a good customer for Johnny Walker Black, or that shady figure from the upstairs flat? Fact: I was not there. Recognizing this as a reality situation, how has my life developed from that point? In what ways, what directions, have I grown as a sentient being following my absence from this event?

This sort of arrant twaddle is the teaching equivalent of reiki and aromatherapy, and people who get bored senseless with presenting the Present Continuous over and over are sometimes tempted to become practitioners. In Greece in the nineties it was easy to become a TEFL guru. As the Greeks say; ‘είσαι ο, τι δηλώνεις’ - you are whatever you announce yourself to be. Have a set of business cards printed that say you are a teacher trainer, and immediately that’s what you are. People who methodologically didn't know their arse from a hole in the ground, and who would not soil their hands in a classroom full of testosterone-crazed teenage boys would give - nay, vouchsafe - seminars on allegedly up-to-the minute TEFL methodology and fall prey to the allure of being big fish in a small pond. This condition (which I have termed microlimnic ichthyomegaly) is characterized by belief in one’s own press, a deep love of the sound of one’s own voice and an attitude of unbearable patronage to anyone on the shop-floor. The bona fide teacher trainers all got lumped in with the wannabes in the minds of teachers and school owners.

TEFL gurus tend to go for ‘humanistic’ methodologies, as opposed to the robotic methodologies everybody else uses. You might think that a humanistic approach would involve pinpointing the strengths and weaknesses of your students, and then doing what you can as an intelligent, sensitive and well-trained teacher of your subject to help each student get to where she wants to be. Well, that’s not going to get you onto the seminar circuit, is it? Offer to put teachers in contact with their innermost souls, attempt to convince them that ELT is part caring profession and part Path of Spiritual Unfolding, and you might get a few more bookings. You can help your students to contact and tap their inner whatsit as well. Some ways to do this that I have seen recommended include:

  • Hugs and physical contact.
  • Writing words with the index finger on a partner's back. Partner guesses the word.

Imagine how well this sort of stuff goes down in Muslim countries. If you are thinking that anyone with an ounce of sensitivity would not propose these activities in such an environment, well, it was in Malaysia that a colleague of mine saw TEFL guru Mario Rinvolucri demo the 'back writing' technique. So much for sensitivity. And logic. What's the bloody point of that anyway?

  • Dance, preferably Greek, or anything else that requires holding hands.
  • Composing doggerel.
  • Mime and drama techniques.

Avoid these with your intermediate English for business group, though, or they might just feel you are wasting their time. If you are not a rookie who accepts anything a guru says as gospel, you probably will exercise some judgement here. Still, always remember that as a teacher you are a free bird flying over your imprisoned and stunted fellows, and it is your duty and privilege to (con)descend and untie their wings.

When I was but a trainee on the RSA Dip TEFLA back in nineteen-eighty something, a seminar leader had us sit in a circle, and ‘to emphasise our groupness’, requested each of us in turn to look at the person to our left, and say publicly just what we liked most about that person. Well, the group dynamics were not such as to permit this sort of mutual wanking, and half of us sent up the activity mercilessly, to the irritation of the other half who were inclined to take it seriously. ‘We’re not used to validating one another,’ one nice lady said, in a tone that managed to combine both impatience and forbearance. (Stop it. Spoiling it for others.)

I wished I had been sitting next to the Leader himself, so I could have turned and said ‘y'know, what you’ve just got to love about Jerome is that he’s a pompous, humourless little twerp and quite unrepentant about it,’ but such opportunities are rare in this life.

I started occupying EFL classrooms (cannot call what I did teaching) circa 1982. I did a four week TEFL Certificate course in 1987, and thus initiated, served a year’s apprenticeship in a language school in Cambridge before starting on the year-long in-service Diploma in TEFL. At the end of the diploma course, and at no point before, I felt entitled to call myself newly qualified. Who can be arsed to go through all that any more? Look online and you can find any number of companies offering ‘TEFL weekends’ that claim to equip you with all the skills you will ever need in something like twenty hours. Some of these are taught by young ladies who have a Certificate and three years experience, which today makes them almost venerable. In 2007 I had an interview to become a tutor on such a course, and was invited to observe a TEFL Weekend at a hotel in Leeds before I could teach one on my own. Sigh. I’d taught any number of 20-hour jobs in Greece, although I never claimed they were more than the merest tip-of-the-tongue taste of TEFL - after all, what of lasting value can you learn about anything in 20 hours? If they’d sent me a course outline I could have put it all together in a weekend at home, but they were not to know that. So I went up to Leeds.

The course tutor was a large huggy-bear sort of bloke. He had a large plastic box full of ‘realia’, the toys, balls, food containers, bottles, plastic fruit and veg and other assorted odds and sods that are useful for teaching concrete vocabulary items. I knew exactly what the weekend had in store, and groaned inwardly. I introduced myself and he asked me not to reveal that I was an observer, but to pass myself off as a course participant. Fucking great, I thought – pretending to be a greenhorn for two long days. The thirty or so real participants trooped in, and the tutor began trying to memorise names. I began to feel very anti the whole thing, as these people were going to do voluntary work overseas and EFL was not their main concern. Then the tutor said in his best animateur voice:

‘Right! Now, can we push all the chairs back against the walls, and all the bags to one side, and I want everyone to make seven points of contact with the floor!!!’

‘I’m out of here’ I thought, as people started giggling and trying out various ways of complying with that last command. I grabbed my coat and shot off to the station where I threw myself onto (rather than under) a train home. Yeah, yeah, I know I didn’t really give the course a fair trial, I know the tutor was wholly professional and good at what he was doing, but warm-ups like that just make me freeze over.

I do hope that at some point in those fleeting twenty hours, a little time was devoted to cultural sensitivity. The countries these people had chosen for their service overseas tended to be the poorest and most religiously conservative parts of the developing world. If any bright young Caucasian vivacity fresh off this course thought it was accepted practice to kick off the first lesson by having the students grovel on the floor in front of her, she might not get back to Blighty whole.


The TEFL Tradesman said...

Another excellent posting, dear, erm, whats-yer-name. Did I ask if I could add you to my blogroll? Well,
I'll do it anyway.

vilges suola said...

Steve is the name. 'Vilges Suola' (Sami for 'White Thief') is just a nom de bloggeur. By all means add me to your blogroll. I've added you to mine.

Mediterranean kiwi said...

clearly the seminar missed the point - they should have focused on a different point: "on being absent" which i am getting a lot of lately

vilges suola said...

Well, God knows what it meant. Someone got paid to do it, though.

Μαρίζα Κωνσταντινίδη said...

I love this post!!! Haaaa haaaa... Just this past weekend, George V and I had to sit through a few agonised moments of self-degradation when the local self-proclaimed teacher-trainer-cum-manager-expertise person we all know, a well know Walkyrie, by the way, made teachers and very serious people in the audience stand up and "applaud themselves" because they liked bananas, wore nice new shoes, had come to listen to all this rubbish, etc... in other words we had a veritable Mario in our midst... I was out of that room by the time I heard she asked "happy teacher trainers" to stand up and applaud themselves... and a good thing, too, because I would probably have reacted in a most unhappy way....

Good stuff!!!

vilges suola said...

Καλώς την! OMFG, they are such an embarrasment, aren't they?

George Vassilakis said...

fantastic post, Steven. And even before I read Marisa's comment you reminded me of the exact same weekend she mentions - it was more than embarrassing, it was actually mortifying... And yet, people did stand up and happily applaud themselves!

vilges suola said...

Hi George, Christ, it's been a while since we met! Thessaloniki, early 90s, an thymamai kala. One day you'll have to tell me who this person was - is s/he still peddling this rubbish?

Marisa Constantinides said...

Still is monsignor and very profitably as well...


vilges suola said...

So I understand.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve

Since coming across your blog, the weeping with relief and unbridled hilarity I have been afforded is THE best antidote to the mindless buddy-buddying and ego- massaging that goes on elsewhere.
I shall continue to browse and comment at random and at will, if that's okay.


Vilges Suola said...

Hi Candy, thanks a lot, very glad it amuses you. Comments always welcome. Steve.


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