21 September 2012

Help! I've forgotten how to teach!

Well, gamarjoba. I’m in Tbilisi, and very pleasant it is too. Lest anyone is interested: it is currently 20-25°c in the daytime; you literally can’t move for BREAD; sheets of toilet paper are twice as long as they should be and light switches are upside down; and here is where I am right now (International House staffroom):

IH Tbilisi staffroom
But this blog post will be less about the fascinating city I’ve ended up in and more about my shaky return to the EFL classroom after a two year absence. Teaching, it turns out, is not quite like riding a bike (I blogged about this back in February).

Actually, although I say return to the EFL classroom, really this is my first EFL job apart from a disastrous three-month stint in a Chinese university that I’ve attempted to scrub off my CV. In London I taught – if you still believe these acronyms hold water, and I kinda do – ESOL, and Sri Lanka and Malaysia were ESL contexts (an aside: Georgia, as a post-Soviet nation, is culturally more baffling to me than either Sri Lanka or Malaysia as post-British colonies, and there’s something a bit wrong about that). So I guess one of the first challenges is getting my head round the fact that I’m truly teaching a foreign language here, in spite of Tbilisi’s scattered environmental Roman script and English-menus-available-on-request.

I definitely went into my first class on Monday with my ESL hat on (Lord knows I wish that was an actual hat, alas no) and I think perhaps that was at the root of some of the problems I had. The students were very weak for Upper Intermediate, I decided, and this was going to be an issue because the designated coursebook for the level, Speak Out, is already extremely dense and challenging, and we have only sixteen weeks to get through it, and there was no way we could possibly…

…aaaand breathe.

As I flopped down in the staffroom during the break, babbling agitatedly about levels and testing, my three wonderfully sane and rational co-managers pointed out:

(a)  I’m not in Borneo any more (in case the BREAD was too subtle a clue). Although coursebooks, testing and other remnants of a somewhat bygone education system are still the norm in Georgia, they need not dictate what I do in class; our purpose is still to teach. (Huh? And no-one’s going to complain if I don’t complete every single exercise?)

(b)  As an ADOS, I actually have the power to change things – or at least, I have the ear of the person who waves the wand of change. Novel.

(c) The students have just returned from a three-month break in which they were likely exposed to minimal or zero English, and they therefore appear weaker than they are.

We're not in Borneo any more
I’m still not sure I can guide students though a whole level in 100 hours when for many of them, the material is interlanguage+2 and requires considerable scaffolding – but the obstacles are definitely not insurmountable. I’ve spent the last couple of days drawing up a sample syllabus and mapped test, based on the book. Yesterday I also suggested (in a hamster voice, I suspect, as it was my first management meeting and I’d already sat in Someone Else’s Chair) a move towards continued assessment, which wasn’t immediately balled up and chucked out the nearest window, so time will tell.

There will be other, more personal challenges too. I noticed a lot of rustiness in my own classroom practice, for example:

* I talked way too fast. My CELTA tutors were calling me out on this nine years ago.

* The students all spoke over each other and I felt powerless to stop them (‘Welcome to Georgia’ – DOS), although things were slightly better in the second class when I knew their names.

* My instructions assumed far too much prior understanding and I think I may even – once – have checked them with ‘Is that clear?’

* I had to look up the rules for indirect questions. For me that’s less shaming than not looking them up, but I’m pretty sure I knew them a couple of years ago.

* My boardwork was shocking, like a kid had set about the wall with a crayon. In the absence of IWBs or OHPs, I’m going to need to plan what to do with my shiny white metre-squared much more thoroughly.

* The last time I taught a language class I hadn't joined Twitter, and now I know how very very very much I don't know, I'm apt to be hypercritical of a perfectly acceptable lesson :) But maybe this is good?

Respect my authoritaaii.
On the plus side, one thing that hasn’t disappeared is my love of teaching. The five classes I’ve taught so far have been a pleasure, in spite of cringing at myself every few minutes, and the students have left each one smiling. I’ve convinced myself fairly thoroughly that these were smiles of pleasure rather than bemusement. I've realised I actually learnt a lot about pronunciation in the last twenty months, having been forced to focus on it in Borneo, and I'm now hearing and challenging stuff that would previously have passed me by. And another huge plus is that the majority of students here are professional people with study skills and opinions and pretty strong motivation to learn. It’s nice just to feel that I’m not dragging horses to water.

So no, teaching is not like riding a bike, and I might need stablisers for a while yet, so I feel fortunate indeed to be surrounded (both physically and virtually) by such knowledgeable and supportive educators. As for the other part of my job, 'managing' - well, haha, there's a project of many years' duration, if I'm ever batpoop-crazy enough to apply for another senior post. At present I have the authority of a handkerchief, so expect more posts as events warrant.


  1. Very interesting read Laura. I suspect it won't be long before you find your feet and are comfortable. I look forward to hearing about your experiences in Georgia.

    1. Thanks so much Barry for reading and for the support. Sending virtual khachapuri (like cheese pizza but better, for it has cheese on the INSIDE also) your way :)

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hello Phelps,

    It is so great to read your thoughts here. Thanks for sharing. Also, thanks for the nice mix of laughter an insight.

    As I read your post I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps you were being a bit hard on yourself. I felt this might be expected after spending a lot of time observing/mentoring others, meaning that your awareness is very high for the types of "mistakes" or "errors" that teachers make.

    As a personal example, I heard myself say, "any questions" quite recently and I sort of cringed. Thinking back it was not really big deal (partially because a student asked a great question that seemed to be worth thinking about for everyone involved.)

    I think it is great that your awareness is very high and that there are so many things you are thinking about and focusing on.

    You wrote that your speaking was way too fast. I wonder if there was a specific example from students not understanding or if this was based on something else.

    I am certain you are going to love the teaching and it is great to see that you are re-assured of your love of teaching. Great news for you and the students.

    best wishes,

    ps My board work is almost always shocking. I am probably not as embarrassed about this as I could be or others might think I should be.

    1. Thanks Anonomike. I have NO idea who you are.

      The talking fast thing is a problem in my real life as much as in the classroom. Before I started teaching, I would often try telling friends a story, and I'd finish and they'd burst out laughing and go, 'WHAT?! Didn't hear a word' - I only managed to slow down (a bit) when I had to, to do my job. The Ss didn't specifically complain about that, but it was definitely a factor, as were crap and unchecked instructions. But yes, at least being aware of it, you can stick post-its all over your textbook, pencil case etc saying INSTRUCTIONS and that kinda helps.

      As always, grateful for your reading and commenting.


  4. Hey Laura,

    I'll tell you one thing, as an amateur (is that the name for me and those like me?) educator, it is nice to hear some of the same questions and worries popping up in your mind after a time away from the classroom. I will say that I am happy to hear it, because, for me, the classroom is an incredibly dynamic, fantastic, complex environment that requires one to be "on" everyday. I've begun to think that it should not be something someone should just be able to waltz into again without some adjustment period. It is nice to have some confirmation of that fact!

    OH! and standardized tests, coursebooks, and all the rest of it are still the norm here in Korea I assure you. As much as I would wish it not to be.

    Great to read your post and I'm looking forward to hearing about the future and how your new found power will revolutionize Georgian English language education. ;)

    Enjoy the bread! God knows I am missing it still (even after 18 months)!

    John Pfordresher

    1. Hi John. Thank you so much for reading, and you know what, you make an awesome point that if a person can walk back into a classroom after two years and just *teach* then they're either some kind of robot or they've stopped thinking/caring. So perhaps it's all good.

      I'm not sure 'amateur' is the right word :) - I think when you're new(er) to teaching you bring something totally different that I sometimes wish I could get back. A kind of freshness and sense of discovery, maybe? Whatever stage you're at, I guess you can choose do anything to the minimum standard or to the best of your ability, and that's what counts.

      'Dynamic, fantastic, complex.' Bring it on!