Sunday, 24 January 2010

Busman's Holiday



A TP is a teaching practice, and every trainee teacher has to do several under the eye of a tutor. In a prescriptive, authoritarian, test-driven educational context like that of Greece, TPs tend to freak teachers out, and knickers will often get twisted to elastic-snapping point in the days leading up to someone’s first attempt. It doesn’t matter how helpful and approachable tutors may be, the teacher secretly feels that it is she, and not her teaching, that will be weighed in the balance and found wanting. I used to reassure gibbering rookies that it didn’t matter if they missed a stage, fluffed the instructions, mispronounced a word or found they were a photocopy short, as the students would walk out of the classroom alive, despite the gaffes. This is one important respect in which teaching differs from, say, brain surgery, so for fuck’s sake relax, you neurotic bitch. This sort of reassurance convinces nobody, though. TPs are the bane of most trainees’ lives, at least in the early stages of a course.

The bane of my life was getting to the schools, or frontistíria as they are called in Greek. Before the opening of the Athens metro, we relied entirely on taxis. You stood at the traffic lights at an intersection and when a taxi came by, you hollered your destination through the window if you could get close enough. Most drivers responded with barely perceptible movements of the eyebrows for ‘no’ or ‘get in’, and it took years of practice to distinguish one from the other. Once you got into a cab, the responsibility for arriving at your destination was assumed to be yours, not the driver’s, as they never had maps, sat navs were still to come, and they knew the city only in broad outline. In the nineties I spent what must have amounted to several weeks of my life hailing taxis and sitting in them, watching the metre whiz round whilst the driver stopped at every kiosk and kafeneion* to ask directions to the place I needed to be at within the next ten minutes. These were the nice drivers. You could just as easily happen upon some miserable git who would lose his temper and treat you as a time-waster because you couldn’t supply exact directions to the school. After an altercation with one such, fuck it, I got angrily out of the car and decided to walk, despite not having a clue where I was. A scowling old woman was standing near me as the taxi made off.

‘Is this Kamateró?’ I asked her.

‘No’ she said, crossly.

‘Where’s Kamateró?’ I persisted.

‘Αλλού! Somewhere else!’ she replied, and stalked off.

Eventually we decided that we needed to get our own A-Ω and photocopy the relevant pages before setting off on a TP expedition. I never got over a slight feeling of apprehension when setting out, though: about being late, about endless traffic jams, and about the querulousness of Athenians and their taste for conflict. By the end of the decade, I would set off early and walk almost any distance to a school to avoid all such hassles.

*****

Last week I was in Athens once again, and scheduled to do a TP in one area at five in the evening and another at eight in the back-arse of beyond, just as in the good old days. I had been told by the teacher that the second school was ‘quite a way’ from the metro station but remembering that young Athenian ladies are usually disinclined to travel more than a couple of blocks under their own steam, I decided the distance was probably negligible and I’d walk from the metro to the school. It took me fifty minutes in the rain. People I stopped to ask directions raised their eyebrows and said ‘it’s a long way, get the trolley!’ but I persevered and still arrived half an hour early.

The school was down a little alley way off a small square and possibly the best-hidden frontistirio in Athens. Where the hell did they get students from? I went in and there was nobody visible, but school was in session, as evidenced by the sound of young female teachers doing what a colleague used to call their ‘balcony voices’, i.e., addressing the small class at the same decibel level one would employ from the fifth floor to engage an interlocutor at street level. Volume replaces classroom management. After a few minutes the school owner appeared, shook my hand and asked me if I wanted a drink. This was very hospitable of him and I would have loved to accept, but I decided professionalism required that I refrain from breathing Jack Daniels over the kids, so I asked for tea instead. I’ve just remembered that there is some busy-body EU directive that forbids smoking and alcohol in schools, and am pleased to see that the Greeks are ignoring this interference with life's small comforts, just as I expected they would.

The lesson. Well, I can’t go into detail. There’s no educator's Hippocratic oath or pedagogical omertá that prevents me from doing so, but let’s have a little scruple here, served with whipped squeam and sprinkles of tact. It wasn’t out of the top drawer, but it was a first attempt by someone who has the potential to be very good. It was the kind of teaching we had to call ‘traditional’ when I was training people full-time. The teacher did all the talking, all the explaining, all the recapping, all the work. A tedious exercise from a tedious book was done by asking a student to do one question, then asking another student to do the next, and so on. The result was that some of the kids got bored and restless, some just copied down what they heard, and only a couple were engaged and ready for more challenging stuff. Flawed, but not a complete waste of everyone’s time... only of most people’s. I can’t pass it. Still, I don’t recall passing anyone’s first TP.

The nice school owner had called a taxi for me when I came out of the lesson. He repeated his offer of Jack Daniels, which again I politely turned down, showing quite commendable restraint, I think. So I got driven to the metro at Agios Antonios, thence to Fix, where in driving rain I miraculously got straight into a taxi at the traffic lights and was in Palio Faliro by ten. I showered off the acid rain and had a long-awaited Jameson’s or three before dinner, deciding in the whiskey glow that it hadn’t been a bad kind of a day, at all at all.

*****

Kafeneion: spartan coffee shop patronised by elderly gentlemen playing cards or backgammon over tiny cups of tarry coffee.

12 comments:

Fionnchú said...

"Volume replaces classroom management." That and the booze & cigs at school sums it all up! Well told, and what a scene to endure.

sophia said...

Great!It reminded me of my TPs!Funny to read about the Greek taxi drivers too.I think they are too rude to bear!

vilges suola said...

I didn't mean that teachers routinely breathe alcohol fumes over kids. I was a foreign visitor and therefore Greek hospitality required that I had to be offered whatever the host could give me. I respect that, although I did think it was a bit odd to offer me JD in that particular situation. But I had arrived wet and cold, so it was kind concern for me rather than indifference to the students that motivated the offer!

vilges suola said...

Sophia, yes, there are some dreadful ones - didn't meet any this time round. Are they getting more civilised?

Nik_TheGreek said...

More civilised? huh... OK... Hard to believe...
I'll check on that and let you know...
By the way, I've just nominated you for one of those blogging award meme things (see my blog). As Dyl told me, don't feel obliged. x

Mediterranean kiwi said...

those were the days - and thankfully, they are over (for the time being; in this shotty economic climate, you just never know)

Alex Case said...

Great anecdote, and reminded me of how it was Greek taxis drivers that forced me out of a publishers in Athens and back into the classroom in Italy after just three months...

I was just writing a piece on teacher training and asking where the teacher training blogs were. Fancy doing a guest piece on my TEFL blog?

vilges suola said...

@Alex - yes, if you can suggest a possible subject / angle, I can try to come up with something.

Alex Case said...

Hmm. How about Teaching vs Teacher Training- A Suprisingly Difficult Choice.

Or

How Teacher Training Ain't Just Teaching Teachers (Leave Your Mingles At Home).

Or

How I Lost the Battle with Grammar Translation

Or

...will try to think of some more. Can you email me (via the Contact Me link top right on my blog), as will definitely be reading more but perhaps forget to come back to this particular post.

vilges suola said...

OK ,let me think about it.

Marisa Constantinides said...

What memories you have conjured up… Oh those famous RSA DOTE days of trudging round frontistiria and getting lost in taxis, waiting in dingy hallways while suspicious teachers looked on… Meeting your trainee, who, with fear in her heart and the weight of her colleagues' collective consciousness upon her (hating her guts 'cos she WAS really ruining their show by trying to be better and, sin of sins, become a TRAINED TEACHER), tried to impress you with the famous opening line: "Now close your books, children. Today we're not going to be using our books...we're going to do something REALLY exciting"...

Immediately, of course, you thought..."Hmmm...who knows what boring stuff she does all the other days of the year...and she thinks I am clueless enough not to figure this one out…" Then a little voice from the back of the class really showed her up by saying "Miss, aren't we going to do our dictation from the Companion?" and yet another voice asked when they were going to read aloud. With great anxiety too!

These days, are thankfully mostly in the past for me... the CELTA and the refugee classes at my school have liberated me from the ethos of the small neighbourhood frontistirion owner who panders to the parents as if they were Mark Prensky… or Henry Widdowson (whichever way your pendulum swings) and doesn’t really want their teacher to be following your course because she will just want more photocopies and her class disturbs the other teachers because the students are talking (and sound like they’re having fun, dammit!).

“It’s my country and I’ll cry if I want to”…. but your pictures depress me.. I thought they were OLD… (since I'm out of that scene), and they haunt me because they’re still there….

vilges suola said...

Well, Marisa, some stuff doesn't change, but I did see some very good stuff as well as the same old same. These were early TPs with people who were just beginning to shed the old skin... after fuck knows how many years. They have to start to trust that what they have been told really works on flesh and blood students!

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