i had a bastard group this week, all day on Tuesday and mercifully just the afternoon on Thursday and Friday. They had a crash course, 7 hours a day Monday to Friday but had apparently no desire to learn anything, or to talk. i found them fairly difficult. Today we just watched a film in English – i suggested The Hangover, which two had already seen in German, and liked; i’d briefly considered Withnail & I, Rushmore, or Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, each being about 90 minutes long. i ruled out Rushmore because i left the DVD with Juniper in Kassel; we’d watched it together and she liked it, though i fear much of the dialogue went by too quickly for a German with even pretty good English; and the plot is, i realise, not exactly linear. Withnail & I and Sundance i decided would be too subtle for this group, so we went with the well-made but crude Hangover. They enjoyed it and i was glad to wash my hands of them. Just three hours in the same room, with one student giving a presentation about car seats, and then watching the film – that was enough to exhaust me.

There were three students, one guy (late 30s), a young bitch (mid-20s) and a bitch-MILF (early 40s). The guy was cool, a gentle friendly chap but alas almost incapable of learning English. The bitches were somewhere between cold and hostile. The bitch-MILF managed to hide it quite well but i was undeceived and was careful not to turn my back on her; the younger skank was openly contemptuous and would have murdered me had a gun lain to hand (she was a coward and would only have used a gun, or poison). They responded to every question with blank stares, long silences, then the usual idiot one-sentence or one-word answers, thus:

elberry: what do you do in your free time?

skank [long pause, with a hostile, baffled expression]: I make sport.

elberry: what sports?

skank [another amazed, hostile sneer, for about 5 seconds of silence]: I make jogging.

elberry: You go jogging. How often do you go jogging?

skank [exchanges amazed, hostile looks with the bitch-MILF, looks at me with open contempt for a few seconds, shrugs]: It is different.

elberry: Okay. What did you do this weekend?

skank [looks on the verge of vomiting with disgust at having to speak to me]: Nothing.

elberry: Where do you go on holiday?

skank: It is different.

elberry: Where did you go last time?

skank: I go to Tenerife.

elberry: You went to Tenerife. What did you do in Tenerife?

skank: Nothing.

And so on. They were unable to do roleplays, lacking even the tiniest atom of creativity or imagination. Roleplays that would last 15 minutes with any other group petered out after 30 seconds. i tried to teach them grammar but they responded with hostile stares and a Gandhi-like intensity of passive resistance, thus:

elberry: What would you do if it snowed tomorrow?

skank: It will not snow.

elberry: Yes, that’s why it’s the 2nd conditional. We use it for things that are unlikely to happen. Okay…would you come to work if it snowed tomorrow?

skank: Yes.

elberry: Can you make me a longer sentence?

skank [exchanges contemptuous glances with other skank]: I will go to work.

elberry: If it snowed, I would go to work.

skank stares at elberry with open loathing.

elberry, trying to maintain a vaguely professional manner and conceal his murderous hatred: Would you come to work if it snowed tomorrow?

skank shrugs and looks away.

And so on. Unspeakably tiring. Being in the same room with these worthless shits, for 7 hours on Tuesday, was hell. The only decent human being, the man (the worst ones are always women) seemed to have almost no ability to learn languages, but he was also the only one who made any notes. Bizarrely, he told me he never uses English at work and never will. The younger skank uses it every day but could barely speak it.

i sometimes fall to wondering why companies pay thousands of euros for these pointless exercises. i believe it is often for tax purposes, or because it’s nearly the end of year and they have to use up their budget, hence students who never use English, and never will, spend a week failing to learn English. i would prefer it if they just paid me to stay at home and watch DVDs on my own. i could watch porn and drink whiskey and read Edward Thomas and Rilke, activities which are unjustly condemned as unprofessional.

Yesterday one of my classes was monitored by the director of studies, this in a different school, a big chain. She said it was a good lesson but criticised me for not being firm enough in my error correction, and because i didn’t stop my students using German. It was a beginner group, so hard, but also much more satisfying than higher level – unlike the bastard group above, they really wanted to learn, and their English clearly improves with each lesson. i’m not concerned about failings in my technique, because i feel it’s good enough to do, and once you have adequate technique the rest is all about atmosphere, “rapport” (hideous word). With the nice group, i established a workable atmosphere, and then everything became easy, and they learn.

i shared the bastard group with another teacher, Cassandra, and was interested (and relieved) to hear they greatly preferred her and asked to have her instead of me. This has never happened to me before, though it’s often happened the other way round, i.e. that students say they want me because i’m more flexible and tweedy than some merely mortal teacher.

i asked the bastard students what they did with Cassandra – it mainly seemed to be working through photocopies of quizzes, with small talk phrases. i found this strange as i couldn’t imagine them consenting to do quizzes or practice small talk phrases with me, since they Gandhi-resisted me in everything else. i wondered if they just enjoyed being able to keep their heads down and read from worksheets, without actually talking. My own “method” maximises student talking time, and i see no point teaching anything if you don’t get the students to practice it in class, in structured practice, then more spontaneously (e.g. in roleplays or conversation).

i wished i could have seen what Cassandra did, but i think it wasn’t that she had better ideas, or better technique – i believe that the skank immediately took against me, so i felt their immediate dislike and suspicion, and everything that happened reinforced this. i did my best to keep my awareness sealed up during the class, and to act as if i was keen to teach them; however, the two bitches were constantly reinforcing & furthering their suspicion of myself, no matter what i did or said. The failing was, i believe, a failure not of technique but of charm – indeed, i would say my technique was perfect, but got nowhere because of the skanks’ sullen resistance; and there is a limit to charm.

i have my own way of teaching and could never found a school – there is no special technique, beyond my hybrid mutation of the techniques taught at the big chain. The elberry method works perhaps 95% of the time. i try to make the classes as close to real conversation, real language use, as possible, because in real life the students won’t use English to read grammar sheets, do quizzes, etc., but to talk – hence, i find roleplays useful, though mine are either very realistic (if the students all work in the same department and have shared expertise) or wildly exaggerated & bizarre. It doesn’t matter if the students argue about their right to slam doors at work (the last roleplay i did, in which half the class were workers who liked to repeatedly slam doors to vent their frustration) – as long as they feel the living language, it will work in other contexts; whereas worksheets, as in school, are more para-pedagogical.

Since i usually teach at companies, in the average group perhaps half want to learn and the other half were enrolled by their managers, or are only there because it’s free. i find this is workable – the energetic half are the engine, the dullards the freight. The bastard group were difficult because there wasn’t an engine – not a single student willing and able to learn. i rely on the students to come out halfway to meet me, indeed my favourite groups are where i do little more than indicate  the direction, and the students do the rest.

After the bastard group i slumped home on the s-bahn, reading Rilke and plotting pizza & whiskey (and lo, my plans were realised). i wish i could simply refuse to teach dullards, but even if this were feasible it was a usefully hellish experience: it confirms that i wouldn’t survive a week as a schoolteacher; it makes me appreciate my normal groups; and the prolonged effort, of trying to connect to dullards, is psychologically interesting. It can be useful, for a novelist of sorts, to look into a mind and see the contents. For example, the young skank had left school aged 16, done an apprenticeship, joined the company, worked in the invoice department for 5 years, then shifted to some equally tedious department, but said it was interesting. In her spare time she went jogging. There was absolutely nothing else. i probed, i tested, i asked cunning & exceedingly subtle questions to come to the hidden core of her humanity, but there was nothing. She spent all day looking at numbers on a computer; she went jogging; that was all. When she gets older she will probably go to spas and what the Bosche call “wellness” centres; she will get a differently boring job.

And yet, she was still human; there is no point below which someone ceases to be human, and becomes a source of extra kidneys for the Korean market. The breadth of human being is astonishing, at times – that, for example, Juniper is human and so is the young skank – but this is why teaching is difficult; if i could merely say “this skank is not human” and shoot her with a cattle gun, Chigurh-style, why then everthing would be easier. But that’s why i get paid so much – because i can’t.

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