Archive: Death by hobbies


Any situation from which there’s no escape can become a kind of torture, and speaking exams are no exception. It’s probably rare enough to get an incisive answer from students speaking their own language; it’s nigh on impossible when the examiners’ job is to assess just how badly prospective students can’t do the thing they’re applying to learn how to do.

The procedure is as follows: ask the same limited set of bog-standard questions that nobody in the real world ever asks (What are your hobbies? What is your favourite place in your country? What do you want to be when you grow up? etc) until the student changes their mind and goes away. At the same time you should write down comments (such as “HA!” and “PFFFF”) to enable graders to discriminate in the case of borderline candidates, before assigning grades based on a rubric that is specifically designed to be wildly unfit for purpose, as giving teachers something to rant about between interviews has been positively correlated with a higher rate of sanity retention.

Bored souvenir seller

No no, go on… (by Adam Jones, via Wikimedia Commons)

And so you ask the same twelve questions in slightly different orders until the faces stop coming and the voices in your head fade away. After the fifth interview, the highly localized front-of-head pain sets in, the one that feels like a small but persistent imp is using the space between your eyebrows as a pin cushion. After the eighth, the nameless, unquenchable hunger. Come ten, feeling is lost in the lips and tongue. Any more than twelve and the shaking sweaty fears set in. The last teacher who did fifteen had to be stretchered out.

If left in charge of timetabling their own students, teachers will frequently start strong, rally, and end on a high, leaving those they imagine will bomb to hide in the middle and hopefully ride a wave of goodwill to glory. However for those of us that are wise to these ruses, there is only one thing that can jolt us from our cynicism: epic student failure.

I recall many a surreal placement test in which a pushy parent hovered behind their genius progeny, lauding their every achievement, top of their every advanced English class, their mastery of the art of public speaking, their rhetorical genius… while I waited patiently for an answer to the question “What is your name?” My most memorable testing moments would also have to include the elaborately beautiful gothic lady who burst in spectacular tears when asked to describe a picture story, then spent over an hour telling me, in near-perfect English, how worthless her English was.

But the best ones are where you actually, in spite of the system, conspire to learn something. For surprise value, nobody can quite top the Korean student who had a massive freak-out on learning that his speaking partner often slept with the fan on in summer. Apparently Koreans believe that this can cause ‘Fan death’, the only possible explanation for why people sometimes die alone in their beds with the fan on. I had no idea, and nearly fell off my own chair, thus creating a kind of culture shock domino rally. 

From here on November 25th 2012.

Archive: Enthusiasm makes my day

Student sleeping on desk

Teach. Inspire.

Asked to reflect on his school days, one student ushered in a new course together by writing “I wasn’t a good student in school because I am my personality are very lazy and I miss school for 6 months. I didn’t have any favourite subject because I didn’t like study and or also teacher because I don’t didn’t like school”.

Nice to feel needed, is it not?

From here on October 14th 2010.

Archive: Notes from the cliff face

Portrait of Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh, good at using the internet even before it was invented

Teacher: Does anyone know any older people who can use new technology?

Students (in unison): Alcohol!

Teacher: Alcohol?

Students: Yes, do you know alcohol? Alcohol is known in Vietnam, always use new technology! All Vietnam peoples are know him!

And then the penny dropped.

The moral of the story? Never underestimate Vietnamese students’ ability to turn any given conversation to Uncle Ho.

From here on October 5th 2010.

Archive: CELTA at IH Budapest – acquiring a TEFL safety net

Szechenyi Baths, Budapest

An intense four-week course, with some compensations.

I taught English for two years in Japan, what seems like a very long time ago. I’ve also taught one-to-one, on and off, for four years. So it’s true what they say – you can teach without a qualification. But there came a time when I no longer wanted to. Was I doing the right thing? Could I be better? Was I charging my students money just to hear me talk? Could I take myself in any way seriously if I was?

Some years later (the exact number a closely guarded secret), I took the plunge and headed off to Budapest to take a Cambridge CELTA teaching course. These courses are heavily focused on the practical, with the meat of the day being observed teaching practice, but also provide a way in to pedagogical theory and language analysis through afternoon input sessions. The aim is to show, in our later lessons, that we have taken these sessions on board.

The course was certainly intense, but I can’t fault the content or delivery. Expecting a month-long course to create super-teachers is a sure recipe for disappointment, but it does give trainees all the basic tools, practice and confidence needed to start out as a reasonably competent teacher of English. It also, crucially, encourages them to see their abilities objectively, as the basis for continued professional development rather than as an excuse to never stand in front of a class of students ever again.

So. Budapest, January 2009. The course begins gently, all ‘getting to know you’ and giggles. They seem like a good group from the off, and it’s nice to be among people who don’t look askance at a desire to travel and learn obscure languages. But we’re swiftly into the meat of it, planning our first 20 minute lesson for the next day. Hands are held tightly at this stage, but it’s still daunting. Will I remember the students’ names? All of which are harder for being unfamiliar. What if I run out of material (honestly, unlikely in 20 minutes)? 

The first lesson goes off without too many hitches, the students are super co-operative and seem to relish the cheap and sometimes shambolic option of studying with trainees. My previous experience comes in some kind of handy as I have no trouble grading my language for our pre-intermediate group.

That out the way, we’re on to 40-minute lessons. Hands still clasped tightly, we’re sticking mostly to skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) lessons, or revision of already-known grammar and vocabulary. The afternoons are spent being told how we’re supposed to do it, minus hand-holding, in the weeks to come.

Week 2, and our teaching group of 5 has formed a mutually supportive group of, er, 4. With feedback to teaching practice coming from other trainees as well as trainers, it’s a shame not everyone’s taking things seriously. Comparing people’s lessons to the sinking of the Titanic is about as far not on as it’s possible to be, but we rise above and overcome. Still, with essays, planning, and the growing feeling that I want to stay on and not lose my momentum, I rather shut myself away in the 2nd and 3rd weeks, choosing CVs and flat-hunting over beer and bonding.

In the 4th week, once teaching is over, I make a concerted effort to compensate for this, turning myself into a zombie-like creature whose head seeks out any flat surface – be it horizontal or vertical – for a bit of shut-eye. Still, I succeed in jumping across the wall into the teachers’ room for the subsequent week, allowing me to make the decision to stay on without too much food-on-the-table angst. And here I still am, still enjoying it immensely.

From here on April 10th 2009.

Archive: Boredom, thy name is Martin

A form

An emergency eye-remover

There is a man in work who sits at the desk across from mine. He likes to talk to me. He tells me little stories about his life. These stories are both unbearably snivelling and staggeringly dull, and they make me want to dig my eyes out with a fork in the vain hope that it might, for one precious second, shut him up.

And believe me, he doesn’t stop at telling me them once. I know all about his life. About his thirty years spent scuttling around the corridors of power, jumping into the shadows at the first sign of responsibility. About his evenings spent bending the ears of bored barmaids the city over before going home to his mum. About how hard it is to be him, despite his best efforts to care for no one in life.

Turning away, typing busily or showing a total lack of interest improves matters not a jot: he just comes and hovers too close for me to feign ignorance. What’s worse, he has recently undertaken to give me advice on my life and career, presumably mistaking my slack-jawed incredulity for grateful awe.

I try my best to be nice, but I will crack one of these days. Some days have been touch and go. I keep a fork in my desk drawer.

Help me.

Please, help me.


* All names have been thinly disguised to protect the non-identity of the culprits.

From here on December 4th 2007.