TEFL Success Stories – Part 82

David – UK

Things are about to blow up in his face. Again.

So I start the lesson with a warm up multiple choice exercise, giving the students a test and then following up by going through it with them, picking up on any interesting bits as we go. Generally it seems to work, though I feel that I am not teaching so much as filling in the gaps in their knowledge. I end up pointing out one of two things, either that the correct answer is the result of a common collocation (A barrier is raised, not lifted, pushed or forced up) – score one point – or that it is because of the sentence structure (a threat to the city is correct, but not endanger to the city) – score a second point.

The students seem happy, I’m not. Where is the energy, the interest, the desire to learn?

I have an ace card for the second half of the three-hour lesson – six pages of The Independent, the headline of which states “There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.” My plan is to get some conversation going with a topical issue. We go through the main article together, then I give the students an additional article each – what Blair said, what the effect on the US election might be, what the final report actually said, an article from the perspective of one of the journalists and an article about Saddam Hussein bribing Russia and France. I give the students fifteen minutes to read through it, with the intention of instructing them to describe to the rest of the class what their article was about, as well as going over any interesting bits of language and vocabulary which they have found.


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Not a fantastic plan, but since I have been hitting the class with exam practice exercises for the best part of the week I figured that to end on a discussion was as good an option as any.

The class is small today – only five students. With that level of intimacy, splitting them up to do pair work just seems counter productive, especially since the students have resisted such an approach before. That’s the trouble with an advanced class: they have enough language to be able to argue with you. I opt for an open table discussion, which can often be a lot more productive provided you make sure that one or two students aren’t dominating.

Class make up: two Swiss students, one Brazilian, one Slovak and an Israeli.

Topic: WMD

Perhaps I should have known better? It starts badly. I open the topic of Iraq and the war, and then give the articles to the students. At which point the Slovakian starts to tell me that the war was quite okay and that Iraq was a threat and “We” had to stop “those people.” Perhaps I am just on a short fuse at the moment.

Perhaps I am running out of patience. Perhaps I was just shocked to find that someone I had previously assumed to be a normal human being was prepared to justify wholesale murder.


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I retorted back “Wrong Answer!” In any other class it would have got a laugh. With this class it just created immediate tension. The Slovak insists on her point of view. And then she makes the big mistake. Then she tells me that ‘those people” were responsible for the twin towers. They were a threat.

Good grief. Help. I try to keep calm, and to use this as a discussion point, but it is hopeless. The Slovak maintains her quiet certainty. I appeal to Switzerland. I know that both of the Swiss students have strong opinions on this topic. But they see a conflict coming and duck it. Why that should surprise me, I don’t know.

The Brazilian has already started diligently reading her article. I turn to the Israeli. His response is to simply say that it’s a complicated issue, which really gets the conversation going. Cheers.

I give up. Actually, I start to privately sulk. What’s the point here, really? It’s an interesting topic, the US themselves have admitted that there were no weapons in Iraq, and yet this is what I get. About as much interest as a neutered cat in sex.



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I set the students their task, get them to give feedback on the articles they have read, get them to pick out any interesting bits of language. I try to make amends with the Slovak and the Israeli by going out and giving them photocopies of the lesson they missed on Wednesday. I finish at 1 o clock promptly. I am beginning to understand how working in the UN must feel.

What really really irritates me is the way that this set of students seem to be expecting to be spoon-fed. Try as I might I can’t seem to get them interested and activated. I can’t seem to turn their inquiring minds on, or create any enthusiasm for the language. Surely this is the level at which it should become really interesting, because by this level the whole language has opened up to them. So why on earth are they so utterly disinterested? Why are they not asking me questions? Why, if they have no interest in engaging with even the most basic of conversational exercises, are they here at all? If they are not prepared to use their language to discuss one of the fundamental aspects of our lives – the politicians and politics which dominate us – then what is the point in teaching them to speak at all? Perhaps I should simply have gone with the other headline of the day, which was the outrage caused by Channel 5 showing Rebecca Loos “extracting sperm” from a pig ? Perhaps we could have a serious conversation about that instead?

Fundamentally, though, this is a personal question: why the hell has my approach that worked so well for five months and well over a dozen classes suddenly stopped working? Is it me? Have I lost my powers? Am I now just the Clark Kent of the ELT world?

I sloped out of the classroom feeling dejected yet again and consoled myself with the though that at least I have a fantastic girlfriend. She’s Slovakian too.

But where oh where oh where is my mojo?


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