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.
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