TEFL Success Stories – Part 43

Saul – Russia

If I tell you that the biggest news of the week is that Bananarama are coming to do a concert in St. Petersburg, part of an eighties throwback thing that is currently plaguing Russia, you’ll get the idea that this has been a quiet week. The city hasn’t seen anything quite like it since the Pet Shop Boys were here in 1997 (I’m not including the vastly overpriced Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston concerts of last year), and it will probably be some time before the residents of St. Petersburg are lucky enough to see something quite so special again.

Oh yes, I almost forgot, on Wednesday a teacher fell on the ice and broke a bone in his wrist. Better than the week before when three teachers were robbed; things seem to be calming down. The teacher in question can carry on working and will be out of plaster within a few weeks, and I count myself lucky that he’s the hardy type who wants to carry on – I’m sure other people, including me, would have been looking to get the first plane back home in the event of such inconveniences as a broken bone.

Apart from these two piece of news the only other thing that springs to mind is that I’ve forgotten how to teach teenagers. As a spoiled DoS who chooses his own timetable and groups, last August I automatically gave myself the groups I knew I would get along best with and whose courses seemed the most interesting (and demanding) to me. In doing this I have improved my grammar teaching, my techniques for introducing advanced vocabulary and my general understanding of the CAE exam, but in bettering myself in these ways I have become blind, or at least immune, to one of the biggest problems my staff face on a daily basis – getting teenagers interested in English.


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I’m sure Russia is no different to most other countries when it comes to teenage groups. There are always one or two well-motivated (and sometimes very pedantic) students in teenage groups, but the rest have far more interest in impressing their peers or playing with their mobile phones than the future perfect.

On Thursday I trekked to the very south-eastern end of the city to deliver one of our open advert lessons to a group of teenagers. Things started off badly when I realised that I was on my own (the lady who does the advertising at such events didn’t turn up, hence it ended up as not much of an advert lesson), but got a little better when I entered the classroom to see only twenty students. Over the past few weeks teachers have been shoe-horned into classes of forty and fifty-seven students for open lessons, though there is still a way to go to beat last year’s record of eighty one.

Open lessons are only forty-five minutes, but I’m sure the clock was going backwards as they devoured every task, ignoring the educational value of the process and instead looking for the quickest result, leaving me not really knowing what to do next. ‘They want to ask you about England’, hinted their regular teacher, so I gave them the chance to ask me. Silence – nobody had any questions. However, once the bell had (thankfully) rung for end of the lesson they suddenly found their tongues, and as they circled round me I was asked whether I am married, where my wife was and what my favourite football team is. One boy even took a photo of me with the camera he’d been playing with all lesson.

It worries me not that they were asking where my wife was or that they seemed to know nothing about Leicester City, but that they waited until after the lesson to ask. The atmosphere in the lesson was all wrong. It’s obviously difficult to build up a rapport with a group of people in such a short space of time, but it’s not impossible.

Time for a refresher course for me on teenagers; in doing this lesson I completely forgot the basics when it comes to teaching them – show them some respect and that their opinions count, make it interesting by doing tasks relevant to their age group and if they don’t like an activity lose it and start on something else.

To make things worse, a fight started on the trolleybus on the way back to the office. I turned my back on the brawlers and pulled my woolly hat tighter over my head to block out the grey day. Sometimes it can be quite depressing to live in St. Petersburg…

It’s getting more and more difficult to get up in the mornings. As if it wasn’t bad enough already, the fact that it’s gloomy outside until 10.00 at the moment makes it hard to make it to those morning classes. We’re fortunate that we get the opposite in the summer here; it only gets dark for an hour or two in June and July. Then the problem is not getting up but getting yourself to bed at all as the city transforms itself and becomes an exciting place to live once again.

Two of my students are taking the CAE listening and speaking exams on Thursday – we did some practice today. Hopefully the advice I’ve given them is right and they’ll get on OK. These are the first students I’ve put in for the exam, so I’m a bit paranoid that I’ve missed something glaringly obvious; if this proves to be the case I’ll just have to frown authoritatively and tell them that the problem area must be a new part of the exam (before hurrying away to hide any similar practice papers I can find). Anyway, I’ll find out on Thursday.


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