Well, it’s not all bad. i’ve had many good classes of late, though i feel generally pissed off by the charade of teaching. Above a certain level, the only improvements i can make are to fluency. i’m unsure how long such improvements last, without further practice, but i hope that if i can get the students into the habit of using English without cogitating & translation, this will stand them in good stead later. Cosmetic grammatical errors are unimportant, especially given how hellishly difficult it is to get rid of them.
What i enjoy – persuading people to talk. Sometimes it’s easy, i only need to steer the conversation so it doesn’t dry up. Sometimes it’s not so easy. i had a very pretty 14-year-old girl last week, preparation for an English boarding school in September. She’s one of these vivacious, thoughtful, slightly nutty young girls who are often wary of me at first but quickly respond to my evil sense of humour and then without warning or even any clear context do things i could be sacked for. Luckily, this particular girl didn’t suddenly do anything Heloise-like but we got to talking about how shit school is and she lit up and went from short, wary answers to voluble explosions of language, condemnations, interrupted by fits of giggling. By the end of the lesson we were fast friends though no doubt she totally forgot me within 2 hours, Christopher Robin-style.
These kind of lessons i enjoy, circling around a taciturn student, probing, considering each answer, and then getting the scent and heading that way, asking more specific questions, getting closer to their true interests. Sometimes it works by accident, i mention something by the way, like Tai Chi, whiskey, Proust, murder, rape, and it turns out they share my interest and this is the great passion of their life. Sometimes it just doesn’t work and i bring in grammar exercises in lieu of actually teaching anything (this is mercifully rare).
My favourites are roleplays. i have a funny group on Mondays, engineers with a surreal sense of humour. i gave them the following roleplay:
Holger – your manager is an alcoholic and needs cake to soak up the booze, so he can function in meetings etc.; he sends you to buy the cakes and has instructed you to keep it under your hat.
Florian – you are an HR manager and some of Holger’s colleagues have complained that he leaves the buildings several times a day, for cake. Grill him.
We had a rather spiffing one a few months ago, where Florian had constructed a head-mounted light assembly, painted all the windows black, smashed the overhead lights, so the only light came from his HMLA. His colleagues had to reason with him. i think in the end they agreed that everyone would have his own HMLA, as a working compromise.
i usually improvise these in the moment from things the students tell me about their week. Risky, as if my improvisations fail, i’m left gasping and stuttering, but i can usually create something, even if it’s only a modification of an old roleplay. i wish i’d recorded some of them, as with creative students it can work well. A group of sexy bitches i had only wanted roleplays and refused to do anything else, so every lesson i would improvise something. They were usually to do with obnoxious behaviour, for example a student called Carina said she hates seafood so i immediately devised the following:
Bettina – you love seafood. You eat at your desk because the canteen doesn’t have good seafood and you like to work while eating. You order fresh seafood from a nearby restaurant. Yesterday you ate a live squid at your desk, scooping it up and forcing it down your mouth, its tentacles waving helplessly until you swallowed it whole.
Carina – you are allergic to all seafood. Just the smell makes you vomit. Anything remotely related to seafood makes you feel violently ill. Bettina sits opposite you.
This was one of my best roleplays, though in fairness the real genius emerged from Carina’s hysterical loathing, which seemed quite genuine, and Bettina’s insouciant contempt and lack of sympathy. There were some great lines, e.g.
Carina: BettIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINA! Don’t bring this disgusting horrible things to work, you know it makes me ill!
Bettina: What are you talking about? Squid is beautiful. You would look good with a squid on your head, it will match your expression.
Carina: What are you saying? Don’t say things like this. I want to vomit on you.
Bettina: You know I hate this job, Carina. And I hate [the company]. And I hate you. So I must eat squid or I will jump out of the window.
Carina: So do it, jump.
Bettina: The windows do not open, Carina. I must eat squid instead. Next time, I will order one for you too.
And so on.
i do want to quit teaching, because the pay is too shit and not every lesson is cool, but in the meantime i feel it is useful for me. i think it serves a similar purpose to temping – to teach me to let go and just accept things as they are. My worst lessons fail because i somehow don’t see the students as they really are, and try to coerce them to do things that don’t suit them, or i fail to locate the students’ centres of gravity and end up nervously talking too much, in the hope of sparking something in them (which sometimes works). Because i rarely plan a lesson very closely, i have to just go in and hope i can get the bastards to talk. i sometimes bring an article but if i can’t get them to talk about it, i feel it’s more of a time-filler than anything else (they hardly need a teacher to read articles). This means that if i fail to feel where they are, and to respond to it so they respond, i have nothing. This happens maybe once or twice a month.
On the other hand, i am at my best with almost no plans, just a vague idea of what i might do; this frees me up to react to the moment. It’s one reason i wouldn’t write academic-style essays again (too organised, planned) and am not too upset by my enduring temphood.
[…]what you really needed was a flexibility far greater than anything the technology could provide, some generous, spontaneous gift for accepting surprises, and I didn’t have it. I got to hate surprises, control freak at the crossroads; if you were one of those people who always thought they had to know what was coming next, the war could cream you. It was the same with your ongoing attempts to get used to the jungle or the blow-you-out climate or the saturating strangeness of the place which didn’t lessen with exposure so often as it flattened and darkened in accumulating alienation. It was great if you could adapt, you had to try, but it wasn’t the same as making a discipline, going into your own reserves and developing a real war metabolism: slow yourself down when your heart tried to punch its way through your chest; get swift when everything went to stop and all you could feel of your whole life was the entropy whipping through it. Unloveable terms.
(Michael Herr, Dispatches)
i often bitch about my temporary life, never knowing if i’ll have work tomorrow, no health insurance, no pension, no sick pay, no holidays, etc. However, looking at this and my last life i would say this is simply normal for me. Likewise in my last life, nothing worked out the way i expected, and i only got irritated when it seemed to. Bizarre things happened, things you would dismiss as contrived & far-fetched in a fiction.
So i try to accept the uncertainty of things, and just take things as they come.