Friday, 16 January 2009

Memoirs of a Teacher Trainer I

Athenian cabbies would ask ‘so what do you do here, then?’ I would answer that I was a teacher trainer. I never really found the mot juste for this, because using εκπαιδευτής (ekpaideftís) for ‘trainer’ had conjured up bizarre images in the minds of some: teachers jumping through hoops, riding monocycles, dancing to a tambourine, using a litter tray properly, that sort of thing. So after a while I’d just say ‘I do seminars for teachers’. Sometimes this would not compute either. ‘What for?’ the driver would ask, ‘has the language changed?’ Όχι, όχι, no, no... I’d mutter about ‘new methods’ for a bit until the cabbie got bored and changed the subject. The next question would often be ‘is it true that London cabbies know every street in London? Really? Pláka mou káneis? You having a laugh?’

These ‘new methods’ are actually based on principles that have been in place for over a hundred years, but were news to many a teacher of English in the nineties in Greece. Lessons then were often conducted wholly in Greek, and focused exclusively on grammar. Students could parrot rules in Greek about ‘when we use the present continuous’ and give you a paraphrase of the meaning of any phrasal verb you could throw at them, but all this was like trying to teach someone to drive without ever allowing them on the road. An actual quote, I shit you not: ‘oh, I don’t let them speak. They might make mistakes.’

Mind-curdling grammar exercises made up the bulk of most lessons. Here is a task from a series of books that made it into almost every classroom. I invite you to try it.

Choose the correct form of the verb:

1. ‘Look! Diana ……………….. the candles!’

A. is blowing out
B. has blown out
C. will blow out

2. Stop talking, or ………………..

A. I kick you out.
B. I’ll kick you out.
C. I’m going to kick you out.

OK, time’s up. If you actually managed to narrow it down to one answer in each case, your language awareness needs sharpening. These tasks are impossible. In the absence of context, any answer is as good as any other. I used to have fun trashing this kind of tosh in my seminars, and trainees would join in with the gleefulness of the newly converted, but for a kid in a classroom, these are no fun at all. The brighter kids would see the ambiguities, but unless they provided the same answer as the teacher’s answer key, they got it in the neck, blamed for not being able to do an exercise that simply cannot be done.

Anyone who embarks on an introductory teacher training course of a hundred hours or so is soon up to the eyeballs in new ideas like context, concept, form and function, presentation, practice, personalisation, information gap, pairwork, skimming, scanning, etc., etc., and is often wishing heartily she had never started the damn thing. EFL is not for the light of brain, and anyone temperamentally unsuitable needs to be weeded out at the interview stage. It was this that I was not good at. I just couldn’t say 'no' to somebody’s face back in 1990-odd. The feeling was out there that any native speaker of English could become a teacher, and I interviewed loads of young ladies who said ‘my fiancé’s Greek, we’re getting married in October and he says I ought to teach English.’ One such was Angela.

Angela was an attractive and smiling young lady of twenty two or so and she wiz gauntae get married tae Dinos, and had no other topic of conversation. She got on her fellow trainees’ collective wick by going on about him and his family to the exclusion of all other considerations. I was spared this and only heard about it later, but I did soon realise that Angela was not one of my best selections.

1) Trainees in groups are given recordings of students of different nationalities, and asked to identify some of the ways in which non-native speaker speech deviates from their expectations of native speaker speech -intonation, certain sounds substituted or omitted, nothing too deep at this point.

‘It’s the way they say things!’ says Angela brightly. Well, of course.

2) A. is teaching a group of volunteer adult students and doing a lead-in to a short text about Einstein. She asks what they know about him. A Bulgarian bloke offers a brief but highly informed outline of the theory of relativity. When he has done, there is the slightest pause as A. considers how the hell to follow that. ‘Aye, that’s right’ she says.

3) We become a little more advanced methodologically and A is teaching a vocabulary lesson. Here’s what to do according to CELTA precepts: a) present your vocab items, using pictures, b) check understanding and pronunciation, and c) introduce a practice activity to help fix the words in memory. A. does a reasonable job of presenting a lexical set of animals, then comes on to checking the students’ understanding. In the input session, I or a colleague would have done a demo of how you might go about this: if your words are ‘she was made redundant / she got the sack / she handed in her notice, you’d ask for each one ‘was it her fault?’ ‘Whose fault was it?’ ‘Was it her choice?’ so as to get across the idea that the responsibility for the job loss is different in each case. And so A. wields a big picture of a crocodile and asks:

‘Right, what is it? It’s a crock-o-dial. Do crocodiles climb trees?’
‘No, they do not.’
‘Do crocodiles fly?’
‘No, they do not.’

Oh, God, I groan inwardly, where is this going to end? Do crocodiles drive Volvos? Do crocodiles bank at Nat West? Do they favour IUDs over Dutch caps? It’s going to take fucking weeks to exhaust the possibilities.

At length Angela is satisfied that her students know what a crocodile is – she is after all brandishing an A4 size photo, and none of them is under 45. Now she begins a practice task. Each student is given a card on which is written the name of an animal. The students must then ask each other e.g., ‘are you a crocodile?’ and see if they can discover what the other students are. Twelve well-upholstered, middle-aged matrons sit in a semi-circle and solemnly ask and answer one another ‘are you an elephant?’ ‘No, I am a hippopotamus.’ It’s not a sight I will easily forget.

Now, Angela had followed the guidelines to the letter, had she not? What she did was crap; perfectly executed crap, but crap nonetheless - a difficult concept to get through to the less agile brain. I can’t remember the feedback session. I think this means I handled it well, because anything I do not do well in human relationships comes back to humiliate me at three in the morning, and I get no bad vibes when I remember Angela. I just hope she never became a teacher.

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