TEFL Success Stories – Part 42

Melissa – Switzerland
A busy day online today. I start at 8.00am, still in my pyjamas and not yet woken up. Thank God webcams aren’t obligatory yet – our kitten is clawing her way up my back and going for my headset. I have 6 hours online today: three 45- minute classes this morning and three from 1.00pm. I must try and complete the reports immediately – I always leave them a day or two and end up with 18 to do and a nasty email from admin.
The students are regulars today, all Japanese, aside from the French bank personnel straight after lunch. I don’t enjoy that one…it’s taken weeks for the majority to ‘learn’ how to greet me. ”How are you Gilbert?” I say, ”I’m fine” Gilbert says. Silence. Every week the same. ”I’m fine thanks” I shout into the mike but the French don’t do irony – or perhaps Gilbert’s not even listening. Hard to tell with online classes. No problems today – no connection problems, no sound problems. Still, I’m glad when I turn the pc off. Gives me a headache sometimes and I swear I’m going boss-eyed.
I take a nap – can’t get through the day without one – then prepare my next class. At 5.00pm, I stroll round the corner to my private student for an hour or so. He only lives 3 minutes away and his parents pay me cash. If only there were more classes like this one. They’re worried about his grades – since the teacher changed his grades have slipped apparently. This new teacher seems fond of worksheets with lists of phrasal verbs. And tests. Seems to love tests. My student wants a lot of speaking practice – he does precious little at school and it shows: at times I haven’t got a clue what he’s saying. Nice kid though and seems to relish the opportunity to express himself. His face always lights up when I take out a bunch of cards or a game – and it’s been while since I had such an effect on an 18-year-old boy.
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At 7.30pm it’s off to the first evening class after the long summer break. It’s still warm here during the day and not yet dark when I arrive at the school. There’s the usual huddle of cigarette-puffing teenagers outside here for their first aid course – obligatory for all those after their driving licence. They glare at me as I pass and I smile, thinking of them on their knees, jeans straining against large backsides, cheeks reddening as they resuscitate that plastic dummy. They know how silly they look which makes me feel even better. Thankfully my students will be a little older and we get to keep out dignity this evening. I like this building, 19th century, a bit tired in places, wooden floors and relatively light and airy in the best Swiss tradition. In front there’s a huge fountain, the noise of running water can be heard from all of the classrooms. At first I thought it was raining every night. I wave at the centre manager but she is surrounded by new students signing up for their courses, money and books changing hands. She seems flustered.
No teenagers now but older people, looking stressed. Some of these people haven’t learnt anything for ages – though some are perpetual students and they’ll do a course in anything. I hope I don’t get too many of those in my class. They often lack drive and take courses simply to have something to do. I go downstairs to the staff-room – a smelly, dark room with a photocopier and a kettle. Smelly because there seems to be a problem with the drains in the basement and dark because there’s rarely anyone in it and the light is switched off. Tonight is no different. It looks like I’m the only English course tonight. This seems to be the one place in Europe where people apparently don’t want to learn English. There is no reason for me to hang around down here, there is nothing to photocopy and nobody to speak to, so after checking my cubby hole [ never anything in it] I head upstairs to room 7, facing the fountain, to meet my new beginners. The register says tonight there are seven students. A good size and a shame that half won’t last the month. I’m starting to feel hungry and not a little tired: I’ll be glad to get to bed tonight. Still, it’s always nice to be teaching students I can see and touch.
Well, I was wrong. After 5 weeks I’ve lost only one and a half of my beginners – and this week gained two new students. Roger, 31, giggled his way through our first lesson while Willy sweated and gulped for an hour and a half. They were sat next to each other like Laurel and Hardy. Willy was in his late 50s, a large, ugly man with a red face and a bulbous nose. He had never studied English in his life and was clearly suffering. He blinked at me repeatedly, licked his lips, and had trouble writing as his pencil slipped through his large, clammy fingers. In a mixture of Italian, Swiss-German and gestures he explained that he had a lady friend who spoke English. Willy valiantly stuck with it for an hour and half before bidding me good-night. We haven’t seen him since. Perhaps he decided that long-distance relationships weren’t for him. Or that the lady friend should learn Swiss German. Poor Willy – I did what I could. Roger comes every other week, though I would be happy if he didn’t come at all as he seems to enjoy talking to my chest. When he learns that the two new students are female and under the age of 25 I imagine his attendance will improve. Nothing like the opposite sex to motivate, especially when the opposite sex are wearing jeans so tight they should carry a health warning. One of the new students tells me she is learning English because her boyfriend’s from Ebbw Vale and will soon be moving here to be with her. Crikey. She tells me the Welsh accent is horrible. I then tell her I was born near Ebbw and that my father’s family hail from the Valleys. It’s not entirely true of course. I teach ”I’m very sorry.”
I don’t understand the other new girl easily – she’s very young, speaks rapidly, and seems to enjoy the confusion it brings. She is clearly nervous but noisily so. The other students also seem to have trouble following her or maybe they’re faking it to make me feel better. When she excitedly starts correcting my Italian pronunciation I emit a laugh that’s a little too loud and a cross between Basil Brush and Courtney Love. I catch some raised eyebrows and sympathetic glances from the older students – though who they’re sympathising with is not immediately clear. Do these kids KNOW that entire books are written on correction techniques?? No. Of course they don’t – and we’ve all met teachers who didn’t know either. Thankfully the rest of the group are great and there’s a very friendly vibe in the classroom. It never ceases to amaze me how a group of people, thrown together fairly arbitrarily, can form a workable, co-operative unit within a very short period of time. This group no-longer panic when I give instructions in English, they don’t correct my Italian unless I ask, immediately ask for help when they’re confused, understand what pairwork means and they’re making very good progress. We ended this week’s class with a sure-fire winner: the mini- presentation on ‘My home’. 10 hours into the course they have sufficient language to use I’ve got…it’s got…it hasn’t got…I haven’t got… my…his…bedroom…bathroom…big…small…flat…house etc, and there are always those who want to personalise with plunge pool, double garage, spiral staircase and the like. They applaud each other politely, they take mental notes on size and potential value of each other’s property and leave the class looking very pleased with themselves. As well they should.
My online teaching has been without incident this month. A couple of classes I clean forgot about (I admitted my memory lapse and have been forgiven), no oddballs, one fanatic and one very tedious individual, some thoroughly enjoyable conversations and two moments of pure joy: when Takashi produced ‘Well I wouldn’t say Bush was handsome but…Kerry is pretty ugly don’t you think?’ and when Mamoru bid me adieu with ‘Bye for now – thanks again’. Maintaining motivation is often a problem with all kinds of teaching but I wonder whether this is magnified with online work. I have taught some of these students for 18 months but with some I have never so much as seen their photo. Add to this the fact that many are speaking to me at ungodly hours, after a 15-hour day in some cases. I used to have one lady who spoke to me at 5.00 am before fixing breakfast for her family, running the kids to school and going on to her full time job. I am always impressed by the will power and the determination that some of these students show. Clock changes mess things up quite a bit however– all the Japanese students have moved forward an hour and the favourite times – from 13.00 through to 16.00 my time – are much in demand.
I wish my other ‘real’ group was as straightforward. Six intermediate students all signed up for a course that’s marketed as ‘Grammar Revision’ though in my needs analysis session I discover that they all want anything but: ‘My pronunciation is poor’; ‘I need Telephone English– I’m a secretary’; ‘I’m going to Australia next year’; ‘I just want to speak!’ They’ve all purchased the recommended grammar reference guide which was presented to me as ‘the course book’. Sigh. The result is of course that I spend an inordinate amount of time developing the course, sourcing material for a group of people who, if truth be told, don’t really know what they want. This wouldn’t be quite so bad if the school had any resources. One monolingual dictionary would be nice, (I did put in a request a year ago for some but the request was denied) but there is, as hard as it is to believe, virtually NOTHING in the way of resources. No books, no listening material, two videos (20 years old and for beginners), no worksheets, no games, no nothing. I am not at my best in this situation – and it is soon clear that the 20-stone diva with the inferiority complex is competing with me for the class’s attention. By the time I’ve finished massaging egos, boosting confidence, drawing people out, and attempting to meet needs [voiced and unvoiced] it’s time to go home. Perhaps we’ll get round to some English next week eh?
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