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…
…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.