Laura – Czech Republic
I hear it while I’m taking attendance: the muted beep followed by rapid clicking. Technically, class doesn’t start for three minutes so I let it slide, but I decide to say something before I start teaching.
“OK, guys,” I say, emphasizing the first syllable to get their attention. The chatter drops off, but persists in a murmur too low to identify the source. I decide to ignore it. You have to choose your battles carefully when you work with teenagers. I plow on, slowly, making sure they all understand: “Please, please, please turn off your cell phones before class starts. It drives me crazy when my lesson gets interrupted by a phone.” Sheepish grins. Raised eyebrows. I see a few hands dig into bags, and hear a scattering of beeps as my students comply.
I gave them the cell phone lecture on the first day of class – all of my classes got it. But as the semester progresses, mobile phones have been interrupting my lessons with increasing frequency, particularly in this class.
Post-secondary intermediate English (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) is the only class I have to discipline. Part of it is the nature of the course: Post-secondary classes are full of students who completed high school but failed to pass their college entrance exams. Many of them are taking the course as an alternative to working — in other words, not a highly motivated classroom. Most of the students are nineteen or twenty years old, which is a disciplinary problem in and of itself. And with nineteen, it’s my largest class.
Every other course I teach is exam preparation, FCE and CAE. And while I love these classes (motivated and mature students, well-designed curriculum, clear goals), I appreciate the variety and challenges that my P2 classes provide. Really. And if I repeat it enough, it starts to sound true.
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No, no, I’m just joking. Kind of. These classes are a lot of fun, and I do appreciate the challenge. It’s just that some days I open my mouth and suddenly find that I’ve turned into that humorless teacher I used to make fun of back in high school. The one who said things like, “Is there something outrageously funny about this lesson? No? Then I’d appreciate it if you’d stop laughing and pay attention to what I’m saying.” At twenty-three, I’m a little young to be a member of the adult establishment, and yet here I am: the target of their rebellious impulses and the only disciplinary authority in the room.
Class starts well. They write news articles about UFOs, based on a speaking activity we did yesterday. They like the topic, and as I walk behind them I can see a lot of creative ideas: headlines, photographs with captions, quotes, descriptions. They are completely engrossed, and (rare blessing that it is) ten minutes pass without my hearing a word of Czech.
Every day is a battle against a verbal Czech invasion. “In English!” is my catchphrase, and I find myself repeating it like a broken toy. I mutter, holler, hiss and shout the words a dozen times every lesson, ruefully thinking of my high school and university teachers. How many times was I subject of the same command: “En francais! En espanol!” And did I really think they didn’t know what I was doing when I lowered my voice? But today I’ve been granted a respite. We’re halfway through class and I haven’t once had to yell, “In English means in English, not quieter in Czech!” Peer evaluations are a little more vocal, but I let it slide, hoping they’re giving each other feedback and not commenting on my shirt.
And here, I suppose, is the real issue at hand. The trouble with teaching students who challenge your authority is that you begin to question that authority yourself. And if you are only three years older than your students, one year out of college with minimal teaching experience, your confidence will occasionally wobble. Every good class validates your self-confidence. You are a fabulous teacher, an authoritative disciplinarian, a creative and inspirational human being. Bad classes, of course, justify every doubt you’ve been harbouring about yourself since high school. You’re dull, uninspired, out of the loop. You command neither respect nor admiration. The only thing you inspire from your students is scorn – for your weak classes, your unfashionable clothing and your horribly flawed personality.
Fortunately for me, this is a good day. They liked the alien articles, and there’s been minimal rebellion. If they’re speaking in Czech, they’re too quiet for me to hear. During the second hour we focus on transportation: vocabulary building and a reading activity. Once again, they’re completely engrossed. Together we brainstorm modes of transportation, then make a word web for “cars.” I break them into groups and assign a different mode of transportation to each one. As a class we review the vocabulary and I prepare them for the reading activity.
They’re attentive today, obedient and interested. As I pass out the reading, the narcissist within uncorks a bottle of champagne. And it is at this moment, as I’m smugly congratulating myself on my success, that I hear the cell phone. It’s a distinctive ring, and I instantly identify the culprit. Me. I dash to my desk pursued by giggles and raised eyebrows, which quickly drop when I turn around again. Their lips are twitching. I know they’re dying to say it, but none of them have the nerve while I’m in the room: Laura, it drives us crazy when your lessons get interrupted by a phone.
There’s a moment where I hover between my two roles: authoritative teacher and ordinary human being. I’m mildly panicked and extremely embarrassed, but I can’t deny the irony of the situation. Moral authority in shambles, lesson disrupted, I have to laugh.
“OK guys,” I say, and I hold up my hands. “I’m a terrible human being. Let’s look at activity two.” They laugh then, and — even better — they look at activity two.
So the champagne’s a little flat today. It’s not a perfect lesson, and I’m not a perfect teacher. But we all learned something in class. And as I circle their desks, listening to them discuss the article in pairs (“Remember to use your opinion phrases.”) I don’t hear a word of Czech. Perhaps I’ve retained a scrap of authority after all.
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