Watching other people teach (or sometimes not)

A street in Lviv in Western Ukraine
A street in Lviv in Western Ukraine

Depending on where you’re from and which language you speak, the biggest city in Western Ukraine is called Львів, Lviv, L’viv, L’vov, Lwów, Lemberg or even Leopolis. Despite being one of the many in Central Europe that has suffered at the hands of all kinds of invaders and megalomaniacs, Lviv has come through its tribulations largely unscathed. It’s a fine city with many beautiful buildings in the centre, although some of them could do with a bit of a clean.

At least that was my impression when I went there in the mid-90s. Having been to the Ukrainian capital Київ/Kiev/Kyiv more recently, I can vouch that the place has changed remarkably since my first visit and maybe Lviv has too.

I was invited to Lviv jointly by the British Council and Macmillan Publishers. The Council had a wonderful office and resource centre for teachers in the former Polish regional parliament building. Say what you like about the British Council – in places like this, the work they do and the resources they have are heaven-sent. The place was buzzing.

In addition to doing some drama and music workshops at their office, I was also in Lviv to do some research for my book Prospects. And so it was that I arrived at the grand but slightly crumbling front door of a school one dark and rainy November morning.

Oh. I forgot to tell you one rather interesting fact about Lviv at that time. Almost every day, there was an unannounced power cut, which usually lasted for two or three hours. These could happen at any time of day or night. Tourists with claustrophobia were advised not to use hotel elevators after the hours of … well, at any time, really.

With my Macmillan minder beside me, I walked into the gloomy entrance hall of the school. A woman with a dazzling smile walked towards us. She extended her hand in greeting.

“Good morning, Mr Wilson, I’m Natasha Vasylyuk, and I’m the head teacher. Welcome to our school.”

As our hands met, all the lights in the entrance hall went out. Wow, I thought, that’s a clever trick. Does she do that to impress ALL her foreign visitors?

“Oh, a power cut,” she said, making it sound as unimportant as running out of brown sugar. “Follow me.”

In the sudden darkness, we groped our way up a wide stone staircase and then down a corridor which had windows to the street on one side and classrooms on the other. Each classroom door had a large window in it. As we walked down to our final destination, the room at the end of the corridor, I was able to see what was happening in all the other classrooms.

I watched in fascination as the children took candles out from under or inside their desks and lit them. They created enough light to read their books and do any written work. Their teachers shimmered in the darkness at the front of the classroom.

Natasha opened the door of the room at the end. All the candles were lit, so it looked like a rather nice French bistro rather than a classroom. At the front of the class was a tall woman with blonde hair. She was holding a cassette in her hand. When she saw me, she moaned quite loudly in Ukrainian.

I imagine what she was saying was something like: “Oh fiddlesticks. That’s all I need. A foreigner watching me teach during a power cut!”

I could see the situation clearly. The teacher, whose name was also Natasha, had intended to use a cassette and she couldn’t do it because the power was off. Her lesson plan was, to use the technical term, knackered.

See how quick we NEST experts can be? 🙂

I walked across the room and spoke quietly in her ear.

“Don’t worry,” I whispered. “If you run out of things to do, I can do something with the class for the rest of the time.”

“Oh, thank you so much,” she whispered back.

“You’re welcome,” I whispered in reply.

We both then looked at the class, a bright-looking bunch of 12-year-olds. They were all smirking at the sight of their beloved teacher whispering to a strange grey-haired foreign bloke dressed in black.

Natasha addressed her brood. “Boys and girls,” she said brightly. “This is Mr Wilson. He is your teacher today.”

And she sat down.


The thirty-two respectful 12-year-olds looked at me with a mixture of amusement and expectation.

“Hello!” I said, rather too loudly.

“HELLO!” they bellowed back.

I suddenly thought I could use the time to do a bit of research.

“Um… I’m a writer,” I began. “I write books like this.” I picked up a book that was on the desk nearest to me. I waved it at them, which made them titter. I looked at the book and realised it was a Ukrainian comic book.

“Er no… like THIS,” I said, picking up a copy of the course book they were using. “I’m writing a new book. Maybe you will use it one day.”

They looked at me as if to say “I doubt it, chum”.

“Anyway,” I continued. “I was wondering… which people in the English-speaking world do you know about?”

It wasn’t exactly what I’d wanted to say, but it got an immediate response. A boy put his hand up.

“Yes?” I asked. I rather expected he would say David Beckham or Brad Pitt, or one of the usual suspects. His actual response rather threw me.

“Queen Elizabeth the First,” he said confidently.


“Queen Elizabeth the First,” he repeated, a little louder in case I was a bit deaf.

“Queen Elizabeth the First?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Not Queen Elizabeth the Second?” I paused. “The one we have now?” I added, rather unnecessarily.

“No, sir. Queen Elizabeth the First, 1533 to 1603. She was queen from 1558,” he added for the benefit of both his classmates, his teacher and, as it happens, me.

By this time, everyone was staring at him with great interest.

“I like history,” he said, by way of explanation.

I discovered later that both his parents were history teachers and he grew up in a house where all the books with coloured pictures were history books. He knew them all backwards by the time he was seven. Not only could he recite the kings and queens of England (which I couldn’t – could any of you?), he also knew the Emperors of China and the US presidents.

I was thinking that, if he was in my class, I would use him as my source material for anything about history. Whenever anything historical came up in the course book, I would ask him if it was right. What an opportunity, I thought. I mentioned this to Natasha the teacher afterwards.

“I can’t do that,” she said.

“Why not?”

“Because I’m the teacher. I’m supposed to know everything.”

“But you’re an English teacher, not a history teacher,” I protested. “Or a science teacher. Surely you aren’t expected to know everything about those subjects as well.”

“I’m their teacher. They expect me to know everything.”

From this conversation, I had something else to add to my list of differences between NEST and non-NEST teachers.

More about this soon!

In Kiev 2008. The geezer behind me wrote the Ukrainian constitution. Can anyone tell me his name so I can caption him in the way he deserves?
In Київ/Kiev/Kyiv 2008. The geezer behind me wrote the Ukrainian constitution. Can anyone tell me his name so I can caption him in the way he deserves? Yaroslav the Wise – thank you Diana Fingal!

15 thoughts on “Watching other people teach (or sometimes not)

  1. This post brings back memories. I was also teaching in Ukraine in the mid-1990s. I was with Peace Corps and was in Yalta from 96-98, another electricity and water deprived place. I loved the British Council and taught at conference with several folks from the BC.
    You really described the classroom well. I wonder if our paths ever crossed back then. I stayed in Ukraine until 2002 and after Peace Corps worked as editor of the Kyiv Post.
    By the way, the geezer in the photo is Yaroslav The Wise.

    1. Thank you Diana!

      I think I went to Ukraine four times in all, the most recent being last year, by which time you would have been gone, right? Was in Odesa three times, and did a nice talk at the lovely BC office there, can’t remember which year,

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog.

  2. This post shows a very common teacher attitude in Argentina too.
    Teachers are supposed to be the experts and fear they will lose face if they say they do not know something.
    How on earth are supposed to know everything??!!
    We must start using our students’ knowledge to our advantage and as a model of the lifelong learning attitude so essential these days!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Vicky – this idea that English teachers should know everything is a very destructive thing, If we shout about it a little more, maybe people will realise what a ridiculous idea it is.

  3. I like to destroy my students pleasure of catching me on not knowing something. Right at the beginning of the course I tell them: “I know a lot, but I don’t know everything, so I can only teach you what I know”.

    1. “Destroy your students pleasure” eh? That sounds like something my pugnacious teacher trainee Alvin might have said – classroom as battlefield 🙂

  4. I am fortunate enough to teach in The Netherlands where you don’t have to know everything. I can simply tell my pupils I will have to look it up. The only thing you absolutely can’t do is forget to do that, of course.

    1. Nice one, bluejay! I do think the Netherlands is different in so many ways when it comes to education, and I hope your excellent attitude is shared by all your colleagues. Try to inspire non-NEST teachers from other countries to do the same when you meet them.

  5. Hello. Ken ( I am blushing a little while calling you by your first name). I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to you when you came in Romania as a guest at Macmillan conferences and I have your blog address from Lindsay Clandfield, who gave a lecture on blogs at this year’s Macmillan Conference. I read your post and I think that no teacher should be afraid to show that he or she does not know everything. At the same time a teacher should never be afraid to ask for help. even if it’s from one of his or her pupils. ( check my blog, I am still at the beginning of blogging career )

    1. Hi, blushing Romanian!

      I completely agree with you. There is the opposite problem of course – the teacher who knows everything and thinks that the students know nothing, and have nothing to offer.

      If you give me a name – just a first name is enough – i will add your blog to my blogroll.

  6. sorry I haven’t answered your request about my name, I’m still new with this kind of stuff, my name’s Adriana. Please add me to your blog. I would be very honoured.

  7. me again. trying to find something specific in my blog, I hope I haven’t removed your subscription, please write soon and let me know to check my stupidity. ( p.s. I loved F2F, we should learn this stuff, pupils use them too much )

  8. Hello, my name is Marina. I was born in Lvov, Ukraine in 1983 and left to live in Chicago in 1997. I only finished 8th grade in school #9 on Kopernika Street, near Lvov downtown. I was just wondering, from your story, did you happened to visit that school at night? Because back then there were 2 shifts: 9-3 and 3-8. I really don’t remember the outages that much, but if foresay there were some, it must of been night, because during day we didn’t use candles. I’m sorry if this sounds silly or stupid, but i’m just curious of details. thank you again for your time!!!

    1. Hi Marina, nice of you to visit.

      I don’t remember the name of the school, but It was definitely first thing in the morning, and there were definitely candles. It would have been difficult to read anything without them during the first lessons -v dark outside because of the rain. Visiting the school was a most enjoyable experience.

  9. As an English Teacher here in Kyiv for over 12 years, I totally agree with the above comments. What keeps English teaching interesting are the students and their questions. Their questions forces you to look at things you have taught from different angles and interpretations.

    Thank you

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