Sunday, 31 October 2010

Déjà Vu

‘Tis upon us once again, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness and pre-intermediate students from Saudi Arabia. The other day I was walking down the street and saw coming towards me one of my Saudi students from last year. It’s amazing how good you can get at recognising individuals from a distance, despite their shapeless swaddling and muffled face. We drew close and Manal emitted a sudden, blurted, over-loud ‘hi!’ as she passed, which made me think that she had been nerving herself up to greeting me ever since she had become aware of my approach. Twelve months into her stay in England, it still goes very much against the cultural grain for her to greet a man in the street. The recent arrivals are still at the stage where the ladies are uncomfortable in a classroom with men and slightly resentful of the arrangement, and so they occupy a table of their own and spend most of the lesson chatting in Arabic.

After a frustrating few weeks of the same situation last year, I decided to force the issue and get the class to do a ‘Find Someone Who’. This is a bewhiskered bit of EFL teacherly schtick, aimed at getting the whole class talking. You give everyone a questionnaire something like this:


1. Has been to the USA
2. Has eaten Chinese food
3. Has studied a language other than English

…and so on, up to fifteen or so categories. Then you get everyone to stand up, circulate, and see if they can find a class member who has had each experience. If they find someone, they can request further details. This usually produces a most gratifying buzz, and if the teacher joins in, the students can ask him questions and learn that he has a life as well and doesn’t simply turn to dust, vampire-like, at three o’ clock each winter afternoon. During the lunch break I explained to Khalid and Nawaf what I had in mind, and asked if they thought we could make it fly. This is a tried and trusted activity for maximising student talking time, I said, and should not be interpreted as an incitement to carnal impropriety. They iffed and butted for a while and then decided it would probably work, so long as the ultra-devout Faisal was not present. This is because everyone must defer to the scruples of the most pious member of any group, and Faisal did not really approve of females being allowed out of their kitchens, far less occupying the same classroom as him. Later, much to my satisfaction, he was put in a class that had three female teachers.

Well, I suppose Faisal must have been absent that day, because the Find Someone Who, that oldie but goldie, worked a treat. I might even have put on a CD for a little background music, a classroom habit of mine that has incurred the displeasure of the pious on occasion. I was crowing inwardly, and couldn’t wait to report to my colleagues who shared the group with me that I had finally overcome all resistance and integrated the sexes. I crowed too soon, though. The activity was like the Christmas Truce. The following day the women had reverted to type and resumed their self-protective huddle on the left side of the room.

History is repeating itself in the classroom this year. The women behave as if the lesson were not aimed at them, but rather as if it were some blokish discussion of cars or football that they cannot reasonably be expected to enter into. The lessons are no such thing, obviously, but we cannot expect these ladies to put aside years of conditioning and enter whole-heartedly into our way of doing things within a month of their arrival, or indeed within a year. I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that if the university bowed to the Saudi women’s frequent requests for single-sex classes, the ladies would make faster progress. The class would have to be for Saudi women only, though, as women of other nationalities are hardly likely to take to the idea and, pace Faisal, most Saudi men love to have around a few (relatively) scantily clad young ladies they can chat up. If anyone reading this has any suggestions as to how to integrate Saudi women into mixed-sex classes, do please let me know.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Unsplendidness in the Classroom

A colleague of mine had a pet theory. People who are good at language learning, she said, often don’t make the best language teachers and teacher trainers, because they have never experienced the learning difficulties faced by those not so gifted. She was not especially good at language learning herself, which I suppose explains the attractiveness to her of the hypothesis. There’s some truth in it. People often become teachers because of their enthusiasm for a subject, and their enthusiasm may well be born of a facility with that subject. In my experience of school, sports teachers were the most likely to be blinkered by their own zeal. To a man, they seemed to me humourlessly competitive Neanderthals who lacked any capacity for empathy with those of us for whom sport is a mind-numbing bore. My hatred of sport as a kid was so strong that I managed to be the only able-bodied schoolboy in British history to avoid compulsory games completely for my entire secondary school career. After a protracted period of non co-operation in games periods, I was finally allowed to go and teach myself Spanish in the library while my coevals went out onto the playing-fields in blizzards to break their noses, legs, collar bones, etc. I did eventually take up weight training in my thirties, but that was no thanks to the eyeless, deep-chinned, track-suited bone-heads who taught games at school. OK then, facility with a subject does not automatically confer the ability to teach it effectively.

I have always been quick at language learning. I’m a good mimic and I have a capacious memory for vocabulary items, chunks, collocations and colloquialisms, so way back in the early eighties I expected that this would make me able to teach languages pretty effectively. If nowadays I have any talent as a teacher of languages and trainer of language teachers, and I think I do, I reckon it has been honed largely through contemplating my own fuck-ups. I am not naturally endowed with great sensitivity to others, and such sensitivity as I have developed has had to be learned consciously through observation and deduction and negative feedback. In 1982, then, I got taken on at a summer school for adults in Cambridge, and although I wasn’t exactly bursting with self-confidence, I was ignorant enough to imagine I wasn’t doing too bad a job, God help us.

One hot August afternoon in 1982, the 23 year-old me decided that with my upper-intermediate class I would make use of a text by Alan Coren that had amused me greatly the previous day. So I went in, and read it to them. I think it ran for about five pages. I was sensitive enough to mood to be aware as I read that nobody was beating their fists on the floor in helpless mirth. In fact, nobody reacted in any way until about half way through my recitation, when a Spanish woman stood up and through tight lips, excused herself on the grounds that she had headache. I let her go – her loss, I reckoned. She never came back, ever. At the end of the piece, I asked detailed questions about the text but nobody seemed to have an awful lot to say, the miserable gits. I don’t know how we made it to the end of the lesson, but after a while the next teacher came in to take over. I hadn’t noticed it was time to wind up. ‘Time flies when you’re having fun!’ he quipped, whereupon I jovially told him to piss off, and skimmed an exercise book at him, but missed and hit a student instead. Later, I used the same text in the same way with another group, but didn’t whiz any exercise books at anybody on that occasion, I don’t think.

Quite a while later, the school principal invited me to his office to discuss 'the incident with Miss S.', a German member of that first group that had so pathetically failed to appreciate the wit of Alan Coren, and the one whose head had stopped the exercise book in its trajectory. It is shaming to confess that no event with that class had stuck in my mind as an ‘incident’, and not until the principal read me the lady’s complaint about how the class had been bored comatose, left uncomprehending, sworn at and had exercise books shied at them, did I have any inkling that matters might have been handled more delicately.

I must say that the principal, a man renowned for being autocratic and high-handed, was very understanding. He probably thought the woman was being too touchy (I don’t) and being a linguist, he mused that ‘piss off’ is a perfectly natural rejoinder in a number of possible contexts. It just happened that that very morning I had found in my pigeon-hole a letter from another summer school student, a French gentleman who had been in one of my lower-level classes. In it, he thanked me for my lessons and commended my humour and patience. This I was able to produce for the principal’s perusal. ‘Well, that puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?’ he said. Now, I think the French bloke’s interest in my twinky self probably had little to do with my teaching ability because at the time I didn’t have any, but I agreed eagerly that that did indeed put things in perspective, and the ‘incident’ was not alluded to again. Only after I had become a trained teacher did it begin to haunt me along with other three-in-the-morning memories and guilts.

I learned over fifteen years in Greece that many teachers there don’t seem to have much understanding of the concept of development: for them, either you are a born teacher or you aren’t. Trainee teachers I have worked with would often fall into depths of self-recrimination over minor mistakes and misjudgements they made during observed lessons, and have to be dissuaded from quitting the course lest they screw up again. They really do think that their tutors are, and always have been, perfect teachers. Well…

An Invitation

…a while ago a colleague proposed that the trainers in our centre should produce a paragraph each about their most ignoble hour in a classroom. These would be placed in a file which would be at the disposal of our trainee teachers, just to prove to them when they feel bad for misspelling a word, giving a silly explanation of a vocabulary item in class, or over-estimating their students' level, that they are not alone and we have all been there. We never got round to creating the file, so I’m starting one now, and I invite those of you who teach to submit an entry. Here is the task:
Write a short description of the most stupid, insensitive thing you have ever done in a classroom. Describe the most avoidable-by-an-empathetic-human being, toe-curling, sphincter-clenching act of unsplendidness you have ever perpetrated.
I’ve started the ball rolling, but I know I am not alone in holding such secrets as this, so fess up, now, mes semblables, mes frères. I want to take a few paragraphs from you back to Greece with me in November to show the DELTA candidates just how awful we can be when we try.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Find the ring-leader and...

It's tempting sometimes.

I left work last Monday feeling quite cheerful because I was pretty sure I wouldn't need to teach Sa'ad again. He’s a petulant little know-all of thirty-five going on sixteen. He speaks pretty good English but has the infuriating custom of cracking jokes in Arabic to the other members of the group, who then respond in Arabic, with the result that I often feel rather like a TV set in the corner of a bar, there to be watched or ignored depending on whatever competing stimuli might present themselves. Attending English lessons and speaking in Arabic for their duration is pretty silly, I tell them. It’s like paying for a big meal in a restaurant and sneaking out without eating it. I’ve been trotting out this analogy for years. All analogies break down at some point, I suppose, and maybe I haven’t examined this one sufficiently for cracks. Sa’ad at least has not found it particularly telling.

What was I on about? Yes, Sa’ad’s departure. It has been postponed, and he will be with us until the end of the month. I had been told that today he would be away for a medical, and rejoiced at the news, but somebody got the date wrong, and there he was. Sigh. Why do I let these individuals get to me, I wondered. Old-time school-masterly thoughts come to mind: ‘any sign of trouble, find the ring-leader and jolly well crush ‘im’, but it’s too late, and Sa’ad’s low-key sneeriness is rubbing off onto some other members of the group, though fortunately not all.

The first task today was a lead-in to a reading text which required the students to look at a bunch of statements and separate them into facts and opinions. For some of those present, this was a novel idea. After all, if you have Sa’ad’s mindset, ‘my opinion’ equals ‘fact’ and that’s all there is to it. After allowing time for cerebration, I asked Mahdi to chair a discussion.

‘OK,’ he said, ‘for sentence number one I get opinion. You?’

‘Opinion’ they said.

I was about to screech ‘WHY?’, but Mahdi was moving on.

‘For two, I get fucked. Do you get fucked?’


‘Do you get fucked with the next one?’

I couldn’t help it, I should have corrected his pronunciation, but I just fell about, and on realizing what I was laughing at, so did everyone else. After that brief jollity, it was back to the usual level of discussion and participation where it’s like pulling teeth or using benzocaine cream as a sex lubricant. OK, analogies break down, but you get the idea.


I’m going to Greece for a week the day after tomorrow, for a desperately needed change of scenery. Sa'ad and crew are someone else's problem next Monday.

Τα λέμε αργότερα.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Fog patches

My mental weather is exceeding bleak at the moment, and I can’t see the point in anything. Books, music, food, getting up in the morning – I mean, why? All the world’s a stage, and the production is a tatty one. I went up north last week to my mother’s. With my customary reluctance and guilt for same, I went just once to see my dad in the nursing home. He was always active, immensely practical, a joiner and builder who made furniture, built extensions, tiled, plastered and painted – all things I’m hopeless at – and now he can’t speak or move, feed or bathe himself. I think he recognised me, but I may be wrong. I hope I am. It would comfort me in some small measure if I could be sure there was nobody home, because to be stuck immobile but conscious in that bed for however much longer is left to him, unable even to switch off the relentless twaddle of daytime telly, must be hell. It wouldn’t be so bad if he were ninety, for then we could be reasonably confident that he would not have to endure this for long. In fact, he’s only seventy-five and has the constitution of an ox. All my mother’s contemporaries are aging and ailing to some degree, and so naturally much of her conversation is devoted to who is taking this or that medication or undergoing this or that medical procedure, and there is a constant undercurrent of apprehension - who's next? Even if I get away to see a friend of my own age up there, the conversation hardly changes, as her father has had two massive strokes and so our discourse is of aging and disability, digressing occasionally but inevitably returning to it. Oh, yes, and then my sister’s partner’s mother died last Wednesday and the funeral’s on Friday. I’m going over to Suffolk on Thursday to look after my sister's menagerie while she and Pete attend it.

So, what with one thing and another, it’s been pretty damn gloomy around here this last couple of weeks. There is still no certainty of more teaching work, and so tonight I cancelled a rendezvous for dinner at the local Thai. Bloody hell fire. Things are getting bad when I start entertaining notions of thrift.

So. Reasons to be cheerful? Well, today I do believe I saw Sa’ad for the last time. Next Monday he is going for a medical. All the pilots have to get one before they leave us. I once saw the checklist, and it’s quite a going-over. I was curious as to why a helicopter pilot needed a rectal exam, but I suppose helicopters are so dangerous and accident-prone that ace sphincter-control is required. I asked the admin assistant if I could put forward some suggestions as to possible medical attentions that might be necessary. I had in mind anything terminating in ‘-ectomy’, but my request was turned down. Still, this means that his sulky, resentful presence has been removed from my life. They’ll be poking things up his bum round about lunchtime on Monday the eleventh, and I’m going to Greece on the twelfth.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Joining the Leisured Classes

I have bugger-all to do at the moment. The new term begins on Monday the fourth, but as things stand, it hardly involves me. After two bumper years when students from Saudi Arabia descended on us in heavily-perfumed droves, the department has reverted to normality and only fifty students have booked places this term, which means that in all probability about sixteen will actually show up on Day One. Unless at least as many more come trickling in through October, there will only be one group and I will not be teaching it. I was scheduled to teach on the MA in TEFL, but that has gone by the wayside too, as again there will only be one group, and Johnny-Come-Latelies like me don’t get to muscle in. I still have my Algerian pilots twice a week, but they won't net me enough to live on if things don’t look up a bit before Christmas.

But are we down-hearted? Well, not yet. Popping over twice a week instead of dragging my arse there every day is quite a pleasant prospect in the short term. Even teaching Algerian group C is something I can do with equanimity in the circumstances. I’m going to Greece for a week on the 13th of this month to bash a few teachers into shape, and again in November to do the same thing. I’m reasonably confident that enough students will join us during the term to necessitate the setting up of a second group. I do hope so, because otherwise not only will I be forced to look for work in some crappy language school (and all language schools are crappy – there are no exceptions) but I won’t have anything to write about. Where will there be Divas, Hassans, Nouris and Larbis? If things don’t improve by new year, I shall probably decamp to Greece for a few weeks and look for things to amuse or infuriate me over there.

Meanwhile, I am a gentleman of leisure. I got up absurdly late this morning – six fifteen – and am sitting here in my bathrobe, the umpteenth cafetiere of tarry black coffee to hand, at ten to ten. On non-work days, my levée usually takes about six hours. I have only three days of teaching in the next two weeks. I ought to be worrying, I suppose, but it is such a mechaieh not to be in the unvarying routine of train-teach-train-cook-bed for a while that I can’t find it in me to be too concerned.

But what can I bloody write about???


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