15 November 2012

I'm a teacher. Can I still be me?

I had to invigilate a test yesterday. I hate invigilating (and testing, but I’m coming to that later) so I armed myself with a copy of How Languages are Learned from the DELTA reading shelf* and reluctantly sat down in front of my thirteen – unlucky for some – advanced level, adult students. We discussed International House rules about not talking, not showing your paper to other students, etc. So far so standard. You may begin.

About fifteen minutes into the test (or halfway through ‘behaviourism’ in HLAL) two students at the back of the room started discussing an answer. I gave them what was, I thought, a no-nonsense sort of stare, and they desisted. Uh-huh. But ten minutes later (‘innatism’) I looked up and realised that three or four other students were merrily checking out each other’s papers.

“You guys, seriously, test conditions,” I said, not sternly enough.

Silence returned until someone else put up their hand and asked me to pretty much translate the reading passage, and that was it. Domino rally.

“I need to go out,” said a student who has previously presented me with a drawing of a cobweb with his name in it**, and assuming he was going to the bathroom I nodded. He stood up, took cigarettes and lighter from his pocket and headed for the door. Before I could protest:

“I also need to go out,” said a student who has never drawn me anything.

“What does ‘summary’ mean?” asked a student who was about to fail the summarising task.

“Okay, enough!” I shouted. “Don’t make me write C on your papers.”

(I would never write C on their papers. Teachers are meant to write C for Cheat on the paper of anyone who speaks during the exam, and they lose 5% of their final mark. Ha frickin’ ha.)

I tried to go back to ‘interactionism’ but the momentum was lost, plus I was wondering when / whether Cobweb was coming back. What was going on here? I mean I can see how, on the face of it, this looks like the very picture of classroom management incompetence on my part. But I’ve been there, and it’s not how it felt. It felt like all fourteen of us were trapped in a stupid situation.

The students hated doing the test as much as I’d hated writing it; as much as I hated saying things like “Don’t make me write C on your papers” when in the real world that C might just as easily have stood for Collaboration; as much as I hated furrowing my brow at grown people who were bored and antsy and would, like me, rather spend their Wednesday evening chatting and smoking than sitting through a zero-stakes progress test. In short we all wanted out, and the ridiculousness of the whole thing made me confront an issue that’s been cantering through my head lately: how do I square the requirements of the job I love with the human being I am?

It was serendipity rather than drive that led me to this career, and however much I later came to love it I’ve always considered myself an accidental teacher. Can this be right? Can something as consequential as your life’s work (forgive the pretension; I’ve been a teacher almost as long as I’ve been an adult) really be down to a series of happy accidents?

Well, yes, because I just happened to start a temp job at the Department for Education and just happened to work for an amazing former ESL teacher who opened all kinds of doors for me. But also no, because I don’t think I’d have become an accidental anything if I’d needed to increase shareholders’ profits or promote right-wing politics or even, at the sillier end of that spectrum, wear a suit and heels every day. Like most people given the choice, I didn’t want to sacrifice my personal beliefs for a paycheque.

What does this have to do with ‘teachers vs humans’? Well, if I was never prepared to do a job that swallowed up my identity and spat me back out to face the world in a pair of black court shoes and a grimace, why have I recently been feeling this tension between Being a Teacher and Being Me?

On one hand, English language teaching allows for a whole lot of authentic self. Not only can I wear purple Converse and rhinoceros earrings to work, I get to do most of my favourite stuff on a daily basis: ponder and discuss the infuriating beauty of the English language; attempt to convey my love (of English, although perhaps this could also work with a romantic partner? You are welcome) through stupid mimes and voices; spend a goodly amount of time reading geeky articles on Twitter; and quite literally labour under the apprehension that I am being socially useful. It’s tangible and dialogic and nine times out of 10 I don’t mind getting up in the morning.

On the other hand, I’m supposed to coerce other grown-ups into taking tests I don’t believe in, and I’m meant to bite my tongue when a student says that gay people are the biggest problem in Georgian society, and that is absolutely not my authentic self.

Well, a sort of diversion. It's related.
There’s a good deal of conversation about LGBTQ in ELT right now, including two particularly readworthy posts by Tyson Seburn (here) and Michael Griffin (here) respectively. It was even the theme of this year’s NATECLA London conference so I don’t think, at this point, I can bring much extra to the party by recounting my own ‘Uh-huh, really? You hate gay people?’ stories, but a comment by Funky on Tyson’s blog really struck me:

"I simply say [when faced with homophobic comments] that this is not an acceptable view in Canada...and that this discussion is over. My only response is to shut it down because I cannot stand to listen to it...but at the same time, I feel like this is insufficient."

Me too. ME TOO. This is exactly what I do, and exactly what I feel. I mean the Canada reference would be somewhat lost in the Caucasus, but you take my point: Teacher 0, Human 0. It’s a massive cop-out. Do I really have to suck at being one or the other? Or both?

I suck as a teacher if I don’t allow space for opinions to be aired, and I suck if I abuse my relative power in the classroom to chastise someone for holding those opinions, especially when they generally stem from ignorance rather than thoroughly considered malice. But I suck as a human being if I don’t stand up to prejudice. You know what? You’re wrong to (say that you) hate gay people. You just are. Because what we’re talking about here is the right of one person to love another, and love is good, and hate is bad, and if that sounds facetious it isn’t meant to. I honestly don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.

That's enough of that.
To go back to testing, I must kind of suck as a teacher if I can’t fulfil the basic administrative duties of the school I have, after all, chosen to work for. I suck if I don’t give my students the chance to see what they’ve learned and to feel good about that – although I would still maintain that testing is one of the least effective ways to go about it. But I suck as a human being if I ask a group of people who I basically like and respect to jump through a series of hoops I’d be none too keen to jump through myself. Heck, I’d suck as a human being if I made a group of people I didn’t like or respect do that.

So what to do? Is authentic - in the existentialist sense of the word - teaching a workable reality? I guess the answer is yes, but only inasmuch as being an authentic human is a workable reality. I’m doubtless less authentic as a human than I’d have myself believe, since I daily forgo opportunities to tell people that I don’t understand (must appear smart) or that I love them (must not appear vulnerable) or that actually, I don't take milk in my tea (never mind). In the classroom as in life, maybe the best we can do is adopt a policy of Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By, and try to share our thought processes with other people even when those thoughts are difficult.

I read an article this week by a librarian/teacher called Carrie Donovan that blew my mind, and I’m stealing a paragraph of her blog post here to finish my own, because it’s better than anything I could say on the subject even if I had months to write a conclusion. 

Let’s go out and keep it real, yo.

“Authenticity. Something that is so central to the success of one’s craft could take an entire career to cultivate, without ever truly reaching the pinnacle of achievement. But, librarians out there, if you’re anything like me, you revel in your teaching escapades because they are the one aspect of the job that is challenging beyond all expectation, shaking both body and soul, and making you all-around better and stronger. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But teaching, like so many things that are worthwhile, will break you down before it charges you up. It offers up the sweetest rewards for those who are willing to take the hardest hits. Nobody could do it really well without the reality and rawness that comes with self-disclosure, which can be at times a breathtaking walk on a tightrope and, at others, a freefalling leap of faith.”

* Currently have DELTA envy. Been wondering if there’s an argument for doing another one since mine was six years ago. There isn’t, but hear this: I will be stealing your books and infiltrating your reading group wearing a high-quality synthetic moustache.

** What does this mean? I just don’t know.


  1. I <3 this... that is all I can say right now.

  2. Haha yep get to class! But what a cool comment, thanks :)

  3. What a great post, one of those where I am reading and nodding/smiling the whole way through. Thank you for an excecllent read on an otherwise dreary Thursday morning!

  4. Thanks for reading Ava! Hope your Thursday became less dreary as it progressed :)

  5. First of all, you most certainly dont suck...this post and your reflection is my evidence of that fact ;)

    Second of all I truly enjoyed this post and agree, teaching is a balancing act. I too began in an accidental/non-accidental type way and i too cherish the individuality and social +'s i think i am making. It's one of those things...

    In regards your diversion, (watch out...opinion coming :D)it's not sufficient to just say "thats not ok here...and squelch discussion". I think with lower level students it would have to be. With higher levels I would question them, why do they think so?, have they ever met anyone who is? what terrible societal things occur when the wrong two people love each other? Is what your neighbor does in their house your business? would you like people caring about what you do in your house? is hatred a nice feeling to have? I know most of the time it probably would go nowhere, but if they are forced to confront their feelings and even begin to question them, i see that as a positive step. ;)


  6. Hi John and sorry I've been slow to respond to your comment. I'm absolutely with you on your OPINION - last time it came up in class I did question it, and it kind of went nowhere but at least a dialogue was had. (Working overseas, I can't really get away with the 'Well it's just not acceptable here' thing any more anyway.) I think I'll be letting it lie much less often in future! Thanks so much for reading and for your support :)