Laura – Czech Republic
Two weeks before the FCE exam, and my students are freaking out. We’ve just completed a practice examination and their foreheads are already puckered in anticipation of mistakes made. “Let’s correct these,” I say, thumbing to the answer page in the back of the book. “Number one, A. Number two, C.” I try to sound cheerful as I call out the answers, but it’s hard to ignore the sighs, the clicking tongues, the pinched faces.
“How do I correct this?” I ask myself. With two weeks to go is it more important to increase confidence or accuracy? Do I stress my faith in them, or do I scare them into a kamikaze course of listening preparation? As I proceed through the list, the audible and visible signs of their distress increase and I’m beginning to panic a bit myself. What’s my responsibility here? With a limited amount of time for improvement, what’s the most important error for me to identify and correct?
“Laura?” Ivana raises her hand, and points to her own book, where she is checking the answers as I read. “I have something different.” Her finger rests on the answer sheet for Test 3, which, I immediately realize, is the answer sheet I should be reading. My own book is opened to the answer sheet for Test 1, which we completed and corrected several weeks ago.
“Whoa, I’m sorry,” I say. “Let’s try that again. One, C. Two, D. Three, D.” The sighs and clicks fade as I read through the correct list, replaced by a scratching of pens and the occasional relieved giggle. “OK,” I say when I’ve finished. “Are their any questions about the correct answers?”
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I’m teaching a poem about expatriation which involves some difficult vocabulary. “What’s an ancestor?” I ask before we begin. They know that one, so I move on to the trickier words. “What’s a coffin?” This time they pause, eyes shifting uncertainly. I wait out the silence until Lenka looks up. I raise my eyebrows and she ventures a guess: “It is some kind of muffin?” she asks.
Assignment: Tell us about your partner’s favorite room. Which room is it? What does it look like? What furniture is in it? What do they do there? Why do they like it?
Michal begins slowly. “Eda’s favorite room is bedroom,” he says. “He likes it because it is … it is an anti-pickle room.”
In the fractional second it takes me to recognize the word untypical, my mind conjures an image of a heavy wooden doorframe, from which a terrified family of pickles flees. The walls are covered in angry posters declaring PICKLE GO HOME! It is the most unprofessional moment of my teaching career.
What starts as a private chuckle is soon a very un-private, uncontrollable ribbon of laughter. I take a deep breath, which only increases the volume of my hysteria. I turn to the board and write the word untypical in quavering letters across the surface, the squeaking chalk punctuated by my muffled snorts and hiccups. The laughter is barely suppressed when I turn and face my students through teary eyes. I can feel it swelling, but before it bursts out I make one last noble effort. I square my shoulders and draw a long, slow breath.
“Class dismissed,” I say.
Elena slouches in the back row, arms folded, with the majority of the class.
“How is everybody today?” I ask, and their stony faces blink back at me. I raise my eyebrows and tilt my ear toward them, smiling. “Fabulous?” I suggest. “Mediocre? Outrageously bad?”
“Tired,” somebody says, at last. After six solid hours of teaching, I’m hardly sympathetic. It’s 19.30, I’m positively knackered, and I can’t even leave the school until 21.00 – at which point I’m looking at a forty-minute commute.
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“Normal,” somebody else says.
“Fantastic,” I say. “Please take a look at the board.”
More students roll through the door as the class dawdles through the warmer. I drag them through vocabulary practice, paired speaking exercises, group speaking exercises, error correction, and large group feedback. I have a brief respite during the listening activity, but getting them to discuss their answers in pairs afterwards is a struggle. Mid-exercise, Elena drops her voice and rattles off a stream of Czech to Adam. She catches my eye, and continues, even after I raise my eyebrows.
“In English,” I say. She smiles with her cheeks, pulling her lips over her teeth, but her eyes don’t change expression. Her voice drops lower, and Adam laughs.
With thirty minutes left, I tell them to write the essay we prepared for in our last lesson. Most of them look bored, but pick up their pens and start writing. Elena, Adam and Ana are talking – and even with a beginner’s knowledge of Czech I can figure out what they’re saying.
“If you’re writing, you’re not talking,” I say. They keep talking. Ana laughs. Elena rolls her eyes. One of the other students joins the conversation.
“I’ll repeat myself,” I say, loud this time. “If you’re writing, you’re not talking.” This time, they stop. I skim my pen over the paper in front of me, adding articles and circling misspelled words, looking up every few lines to check on their progress. Most of the class is writing. Elena is staring directly at me. When I meet her gaze she widens her eyes and raises her eyebrows. She smiles with her lips.
I tackle another paragraph, and this time she shifts when I look up and I realize she’s mimicking me. Her arms are crossed at the same height, her legs balanced at the same angle, her eyebrows arched at the same height, her lips pulled back in the same expectant smile, but her eyes burning.
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“Can I write this at home?” Ana asks suddenly.
There are three reasons we are writing in class today. Number one, I want them to practice under exam conditions. Number two, I like being available for grammar and vocabulary help. Number three, when I assign writing for homework, I generally get half of the papers back. Then again, they won’t take the exam until June, so they have plenty of time to practice exam-style writing. The class watches me think.
“What do the rest of you think?” I ask, and they stare at the floor. “Elena?”
“This is fine,” she says, grabbing a pen and beginning to write.
In the end we compromise. The class agrees to write the essay, and the two students who refuse come out into the hall and do a speaking activity with me. They think writing in class is a waste of time, they tell me.
“We think it is better to do maybe vocabulary and speaking,” they say, and I notice that we are terribly, temptingly close to a balcony. Speaking? They want to do more speaking? Am I going to have to rip the words one by one out of their lungs? But I swallow my anger and ask them for some ideas, and although I’m maddened by the inconsistency of the request, I appreciate their honesty.
Like every teacher, I hate it when students challenge my authority or complain about my lessons, but I know it’s better to teach them the way they want to be taught, and I’d rather have them tell me directly than stew over it and be unhappy. As a teacher I know I need the authority to motivate my students to do onerous tasks, but I also need the flexibility to change my plans when my assignments don’t work for them. We all need to be open to improvement. In the end I thank them for their suggestions, we do a quick speaking activity, and I dismiss them and return to the classroom.
Elena is still speaking in Czech and stretching dramatically. When she catches my eye, she pretends to yawn and continues to speak, grinding a fist into her palm. “How do I correct this?” I wonder.
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