Many thanks for your patience, chaps. I seem to have broken the back (at least for the moment) of my new workload. I am now at liberty to discourse, once again.
Contrary to what many of my imaginary loyal subscribers may believe, I have not spent the vast proportion of my time thus far in Mexico sodden by booze and languishing in the depths of an eternal party; I´ve actually been training to teach English as a Foreign Language. For those of you who do not know what this entails (I certainly didn´t when I reluctantly parted with the cash for the course), the purpose of the training is to allow a qualified individual to impart aptitude in spoken English onto a local population that doesn´t understand a word of the language. It´s all a bit colonial, like back in the ruddy good old days when we refused to acknowledge that the natives were probably an awful lot smarter than us, and things could be done much better if we paid some attention to the way that they lived in their natural surroundings. Nevertheless my experiences have been well worth the investment, and I´ve been instilled with a great deal of respect for the teaching method.
Trawling back through my journal reveals an interesting progression over the course of the month´s training. It´s probably worth noting that the school at which I trained (The Dunham Institute; a wonderful and highly commendable enterprise) has a specific way of doing things, both in the execution of their teaching and their TEFL staff training, and my experiences were most likely somewhat different to other ways and means of obtaining qualifications. The essence of the course, from the outline in the front page of our nice blue folders, was to put trainees through as much classroom contact time as possible, with a wide a variety of teachers and their students as was feasible, maximising practise, observation and teaching contact time. This was, naturally, a methodology that we all heartily agreed with.
Starting out fresh faced at the beginning of January, my course mates and I were cheerfully informed that we would be teaching an hour long class within 3 days, and leading classroom exercises by the following day. This naturally caused some minor concerns within the trainee encampment, and unfortunately for us this proved to be agenda by which the graduates of the Dunham Institute were persecuted with, generation after generation; either get thrown into circumstances over one´s head and survive or, alternatively, leave. The comparative quantity of teaching time in my current undertakings put my early shaky steps into rather stark perspective, but initially, leading an 15 minute exercise with ten little confused faces staring up at me as I tried to convince them to sort paper slips of nouns into two highly obvious columns on the floor was a teeth-grindingly hard challenge that I hadn´t faced before.
The key thing in the classroom that became apparent very quickly was the lack of comprehension of the things in language that we take for granted as native speakers that are simply not present in a learner. The language and mannerisms of the teachers I observed and eventually took over from were conducive to simplicity, and represented everything absent in the trainees; clear logical progression and linking between ideas, rigorously re enforced learning motifs, processes and patterns (repetition was a huge part of dealing with the earliest beginners) and slow, steady speech complimented by just about every medium of communication available to a human being; mime, dance, sounds, pictures, movement, body language and countless other routes by which the students could be brainwashed into understanding the significance of English vocabulary and grammar without the benefit of their mother tongue. It was these things that we all, without exception, managed to get thoroughly knotted in the early days, leaving the poor students with furrowed brows and slack jaws.
I became aware over the course of my training of the pains of lesson planning. As an exercise, planning a lesson is much like anything else; define your objectives and specific goals, and then break down preparation, actions and review process with these in mind. What caused the first few lesson plans, artfully conceived over long stressful hours to levels of intricacy equalled only by the choreography of a West End musical, was the black cloud of panic that descended upon us as we attempted to predict how a room of children, accursed agents of chaos, would react to our schemes. It was this, regrettably, that also caused our beautifully constructed 50 minute opuses to fall, for the most part, to dust. In trying to sculpt every aspect of the lesson, we became restricted by our rigidity.
Aah, English grammar. I was all too aware of my ignorance before I started the course, and I´m not in the least bit ashamed to say that my awareness was set on foundations of granite. Learning alongside trainees who had studied language in college, I found myself screaming up a near vertical learning curve, wrapping the loose strings of my brain around infinitives, tenses, prepositions, conjugations, participial adjectives, reported speech and all the other wonderfully cryptic terms used by linguists that I still, on most occasions, am completely confounded by. The scope of my grammar orientation was prescribed to the nature and progression of the TEFL process and I was led through the concepts as they would be introduced to students from a state of complete beginner to advanced. It was, by and large, incredibly interesting to see how my native language was constructed, and certainly a great help in catalysing my appreciation of Spanish language construction for the lessons that were due to start on completion of the course.
A couple of the more interesting things to crop up in my befuddled circumnavigation of English were;
1) Nouns (object words) are countable and uncountable i.e. they can or cannot be assigned a numeric quantity. For example, you cannot specify a quantity for the following; milk, traffic, sunshine, honey or chocolate. You can, however, assign quantity to loosely affiliated objects or measurements for these items; 2 bottles (of milk), 5 miles (of traffic), 3000 Joules per kg/greys (of sunlight) and so on, thus creating a world of confusion.
2) Statements can be classified as “passive” or “active” depending on the orientation of the “subject” and “object” of the statement. For example, “Steven (subject) read the book (object) to the class” is an active sentence, where the focus is on the subject. In the passive sentence, “The book was read to the class by Steven”, the focus is the book, and not the reader. It´s mildly amusing to note that a particular use for passive constructions is in the formulation of excuses, when someone wishes to distance themselves from an event e.g. “The vase broke when I was in the room”. It makes one wonder what other tendencies for language construction are wired into our skulls, ready for the knowledgeable amongst us to interpret…
1) There are 3 different types of conditional statement (“If…”), ranging in application from universal statements of certainty e.g. “If you heat water to 100 degrees centigrade, it boils”, to those that wistfully proffer desired alternatives to events that have already happened e.g. “If you had done your job properly, we wouldn´t be in this mess right now”.
As the course progressed and the colourful cross section of grave errors unfolded in my teaching practice, I stoically towed the line that anything that happened, however awful, during the classes would serve as a stronger learning experience, not repeated once my head was tucked inside the foxhole of eduction, my teaching campaign having actually begun. It was, for the most part, this simple maxim that dragged me through the training process and the seemingly impossible increasing intensity of the course requirements until, suddenly I found myself two days from the end of the course with all my task boxes ticked and my feedback sessions returning pleasingly positive responses. The heartless and despotic doctrine of the Institute had given me as much time as humanly possible practising the job that I would be doing, and poked and prodded me forceably in the right direction with rigourous peer and qualified teacher feedback for all my student contact time.
I would continue to make untold errors over the coming weeks with my class of completely fresh faced beginners, but my confidence and aptitude leading classes was a world apart from the first shoddy student activity that I´d fumbled through. Incredibly, I´d passed the course with distinction and was the unashamedly proud owner of a shiny TEFL certificate. My sense of pride was only overshadowed by the subconsicous terror of managing a workload four times of that experienced during the training within a few days of graduation, but I managed to hold this off with magnificent execution of flat denial, escaping to the seaside.
It´s been a highly liberating experience to cast myself into a completely new vocation and accepting the humility that comes with being a beginner, enjoying the white knuckle ride of a fast learning curve and appreciating the personal development that happens in such a short space of time. However, I´m glad it´s February; I´m bloody knackered.
Chiapa de Corzo
21st February 2009