A quiet week, this. Today was busy, yet quiet by August’s hellish standards. i left my flat at 0630 to start teaching one-on-one at an engineering company at 0730, then took a taxi back to HQ to teach a group of choo-choo managers, then a break till the afternoon, when i had a one-on-one class with another manager in an engineering company, then a private class of two self-paying students.
When i awoke at 0555, i felt grim and unready to face anything more than more sleep or possibly death. After the first class i felt i had woken up a little, gently, enjoying my student’s chat, his amiable, boyish nature; the second group went very well, mainly because they were interested in the subject, so all i had to do was prompt them with questions, and offer occasional comments and sexual tirades. The third was a little different – a manager who had apparently requested me as her only tutor, as i readily adapted to her needs and i smell of dog. Our lessons are truly fun. She’s from East Germany, dislikes Ultima Thule, and has a resilience and lack of flim flam i like greatly, and which i have noted in my other East German students. i appreciate her brusque, direct nature – as she told me, “my colleagues say oh Birgit why don’t you smile! I say, why should I smile? What is funny?” An excellent woman.
The last class was my final lesson with two private students, one a slightly nerdish but nice chap, the other an exquisitely beautiful Brazilian honey. At the end, the honey remarked that she often felt tired at the start of the lesson, but always left in high spirits. i realise this also how i usually feel in my evening classes – tired and unwilling in the first five minutes, and bubbling over with enthusiasm and insanity by the end, a classic being a lesson where i taught the Past Perfect as if it were, somehow, fun (using examples like “by the time Sandra bought her first owl, Stefan had already drunk his first beer”).
Walking home, i reflected that to teach properly one really needs good students. If the students are at the right level, and interested, or at least willing to be interested, one need do little more than ask questions and do a few grammar drills – the rest just sort of unfolds. i am extremely lucky in my students.
A couple of years ago i wrote about George Steiner, and this strange hatchet job by Joseph Epstein. i was particularly irked by this mean-spirited, venomous passage:
Steiner, who reports that he has former students on five continents, claims to have loved teaching, and now feels himself orphaned and bereft in retirement from the classroom. He is said to have been a mesmerizing lecturer. My guess is that his revved up language comes across better orally than on the cold page, where it may be scrutinized more carefully for emptiness and laughs. Of the experience of teaching a doctoral seminar in Geneva for twenty-five years, Steiner, with characteristic overstatement, remarks that this was “as near as an ordinary, secular spirit can come to Pentecost.” He then pulls out one of the two great clichés used by teachers to describe their experience: “By what oversight or vulgarization should I have been paid to become what I am? When, and I have felt this with sharpening malaise, it might have been altogether more appropriate for me to pay those who invited me to teach?” In other words, he would have done it for nothing. (The other standard teaching cliché has to do with how much a teacher has learned from his students.)
I RECENTLY CLOSED DOWN a university teaching career of thirty years, and I would like to go on record as saying that I wouldn’t have done it for a penny less. Teaching is arduous work, entailing much grinding detail and boring repetition–a teacher, it has been said, never says anything once–interrupted only occasionally by moments of always surprising exultation. And I should like to add that I don’t think I learned a thing from my students, except that, as one student evaluation informed me, I tend to jingle the change in my pocket.
For all his human faults (pride, hauteur, humourlessness), i believe Steiner when he says he enjoyed teaching, that he felt privileged to teach; and i think any teacher who cannot understand this, who says “I wouldn’t have done it for a penny less”, and “I don’t think I learned a thing from my students” should never have taught, never have been allowed near a classroom, nor be allowed to judge his betters. It’s no doubt true that most 18-year-old English Lit students lack the experience, passion, intellect, learning, individuality, tits, to interest a tutor – but with cunning and brutality one can locate and exploit what IS of value; and to teach 30 years without learning anything is a grim statistic, an indictment of the teacher (the more damning, here, as Epstein doesn’t even realise what he is saying).
It looks like things will be busy again from next week, and so there will be no time to learn German or Italian, to work on my novel. But i would say with Steiner, that there is something wonderful about this, and this is a peculiarly wonderful life, of all lives.