Oh joy! Oh pain! Watching other people teach (Part 1)

Shaftesbury Avenue. International House was at number 40, on the right of the picture.
Shaftesbury Avenue. International House was at number 40, on the right of this picture, beyond the Trocadero sign.

Alvin was a stocky 21-year-old from Liverpool. He reminded me of a Liverpool soccer player called Tommy Smith, a man with a reputation as the hardest man in football. Search for Tommy Smith Liverpool on Google images and you’ll get an idea of what he looked like.

He (Alvin, not Tommy Smith) seemed determined to carve out a similar reputation for himself in the world of ELT. It was Tuesday afternoon, the second day of the old International House four-week course which was the precursor of the current CELTA course.

The Liverpudlian was doing his first ever ten-minute lesson. In front of him was a seasoned bunch of guinea pig ‘free lesson’ students. Some of them weren’t actually registered at the school, they just nipped in between their lunch and dinner work at nearby Soho restaurants to get some practice. Goodness knows what kind of English they learnt if they only came to free lessons.

Alvin stared rather menacingly at the students. Suddenly, his hand came crashing down on the table in front of him. The students jumped slightly out of their seats. I was sitting at the back of the room and I jumped slightly too, and my clipboard fell off my knee.

I was monitoring teaching practice on someone else’s  course, and only worked with the trainees in the afternoons. According to my notes, Alvin was supposed to present and practise a ‘common verb in the present simple tense’. And so he did. Sort of.

“I bang the desk!” he declared defiantly. The students stared at him with a mixture of fear and disbelief. Undeterred, Alvin repeated his model sentence. “I bang the desk! Everybody!”

“I bang the desk!” most of them repeated. One or two of them said: “YOU bang the desk!”

Alvin was momentarily stopped in his tracks by the mixture of ‘I’ and ‘you’ in these responses. He thought for a moment and decided to stride on with his plan regardless. He turned away from the students, faced the whiteboard and slapped that very hard, too.

“I bang the blackboard!” he yelled fiercely. “Everybody!”

This time, there was pure cacophony, as some students repeated what he said, some said the same sentence with ‘you’ and others decided to call the blackboard a whiteboard, as this is what the previous trainee had called it. The result was an unholy mish-mash din.

Alvin remembered that he had been told to encourage the students at every opportunity. “Good!” he shouted, and then winced as his hand suddenly began to hurt.  

I sat at the back smiling and nodding my head supportively, in the way the lovely Benetta Hamilton had done for me on my training course in the same building in Shaftesbury Avenue just three years previously. (See my previous blog about ‘How it all started’ to see how brilliant she was.)

But then things got a bit dangerous. Alvin turned to the whiteboard again, took a deep breath and said: “I bang my head!” And he head-butted the whiteboard.

“Alvin, shall we stop there?”

Working on a training course where the participants are inexperienced native speakers, the early days of teaching practice can be a real nightmare. The trainees are nervous, they don’t produce anything remotely resembling a lesson and they don’t respond very well to criticism.

However, as the course progresses, some (hopefully all) of the trainees blossom into effective teachers. Watching them progress is a postive pleasure.

By the end of that course, Alvin had got his act together. For his final lesson, he did something very successful, something I had never seen anyone do in an EFL classroom before.

He told the class a story which didn’t make a lot of sense the first time you heard it. It was one of those puzzle stories, something involving a ship-wreck and cannibalism. But all the class heard about was someone receiving an amputated arm in the post.

The class asked Alvin questions to find out what the story meant and eventually uncovered the back-story. It all went immaculately. Alvin smiled broadly at the end of it, and walked away from the course with a certificate and an air ticket to a job at a school in Spain.

He’s probably running his own school somewhere now, and good luck to him. He worked hard on the course and he was bright enough to learn from his mistakes. I changed his name for the purposes of that otherwise completely true story, by the way, so if you have a teacher or colleague called Alvin, it isn’t him.

I had meant for this posting to segue effortlessly into some more thoughts about NESTs and non-NESTs, but Alvin’s story ran longer than I thought it would, so I think I’m going to save that until next time.

I had some interesting responses to my last post about NESTs and non-NESTs and I’m going to ask a couple of the people who wrote to me – one from each camp, as it were – to send me more of their thoughts, and give them some air time in my first guest blog.

What I’m also going to talk about soon: The carbon footprint of the ELT superstars – is it time they improved it? Or something controversial along those lines. 🙂

I’m writing this blog from my wife Dede’s family home on the north shore of Prince Edward Island in Canada. This is the view from my office window.

36 Sea from the house xx

My daughter Rowan, who is also on the island this summer, helped me set up the blog two weeks ago and all my postings have been from here so far. I have found the whole experience extremely enjoyable, and I hope those of you who are still reading have been entertained by what you have read.

As I write, the sun is setting over the Gulf of St Lawrence at the end of the garden, and the evening has a golden glow about it. I’m heading back to London next week, so I promise to keep blogging, and also to try to keep the memory of this evening sunlight in my mind as I write. I think it adds warmth to the words. 🙂

 Whatever you do may be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it. Mahatma Ghandi

12 thoughts on “Oh joy! Oh pain! Watching other people teach (Part 1)

  1. Thanks for these reflections Ken. I know just what you mean about the early days of training courses. It reminded me of a particularly painful experience I witnessed when doing my CTEFLA in Leeds where one of the NEST trainees decided it would be “fun” to play pass the parcel with a group of volunteer students who were mostly very high ranking academic Iranian women who were at Leeds University on academic exchanges. You could have heard a pin drop and to be honest, it was the biggest wake up call I’ve ever seen with a trainee teacher who from then onwards forever remembered to configure context into her lesson plans! Very much looking forward to your carbon footprint discussion as this is something I have got some thoughts about so let us know when you’re ready! Thanks for your beautifully written musings – I love reading them. S XXX

  2. Thank you, Sara …

    I thought long and hard before describing such an awful experience because I didn’t want to appear to be making fun of vulnerable people. But the joy of the event is in the improvement that people make in their ability to teach and also in their self-awareness.

    I hope you are enjoying being a blogger. I wake up in the morning thinking what I’d like to talk about next. Do you?

    I have to change this mind-set and quick. I should be thinking about all the writing I’m being paid to do! 🙂

    I hope you’re having a great weekend.


  3. Thanks Ken – I am enjoying my weekend and I know what you mean about wondering which topic to blog about next! I don’t think your piece made fun – it illustrates that all of us need some guidance on how to teach. The trainee had the right instinct (i.e. trying to make the language “real”) but at that stage hadn’t thought about how to make that more accessible to an audience (in style and method) – teacher development very important for that reason and as you said, he ended up being a great teacher!

  4. Love your anecdotes, something I am terrible at myself. Do you have them all written down in a diary somewhere?? Been a while since I sat through a lesson that was almost physically painful to observe, but there have been a few…

    TEFLtastic blog- http://www.tefl.net/alexcase

    1. Hi Alex,

      i DO keep a real diary, but have been recalling these incidents from memory, and making a retrospective diary as I go along. It’s strange but I suppose to be expected that incidents from the early days seem to come back so much more clearly than more recent events.

  5. Your story of Alvin reminds me of the early 70s 40 Shaftesbury Avenue trainee who brought in a TV and a hammer to teach “smash”. It went well, except for the thousands of pieces of flying glass.

    PEI looks wonderful. I hope you’re seeing lots of wildlife up there.

    Love to Dede.

  6. Jeez Jeff – are you serious about the TV??? That’s hilarious! If feels a little like making fun of the afflicted, but these early-day stories are so rich, especially if the people involved went on to make a name for themselves in the business.

  7. Hi!
    I had a pleasure of meeting you in ACINE in Fortaleza 2008. What an event! I came back “home” full of great ideas.
    Anyway, glad to know you’ve joined blogger community 🙂 I’m also posting from time to time trying to improve my English by doing so.

  8. Hi Agata…

    what a great conference ACINE was – much smaller than BrazTESOL so more chance to meet people. I’ve added your blog to my blogroll, because it’s a place for real teachers to talk about their experiences.

  9. Ken, the spirit of Alvin lives on! I can remember this episode from France, early 1990s…

    One teacher banging his head against the classroom wall for several seconds … another teacher entering the class … the first teacher stopping the assault on his own brainbox.

    The first teacher was Yours Truly, and I and my colleague were trying to put across the notion of past continuous and simple … ‘My teacher was banging his head on the wall when teacher Steve came in’ … not to mention cause and effect, or at least some form of causality … ‘When Steve entered the classroom, Sandy stopped banging his head’.

    Absolutely true, by the way. And I still have the headaches…

  10. Hi Ken,
    your stories are such a good beginning of a day.
    How long will I smile when I turn to the blackboard(greenboard), imagining myself banging my head?

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