The Secret Life of an English Language Teacher

07/02/2012 03:29

The Secret Life of an English Language Teacher


The mind of an English language teacher is a curious place. `None curiouser,` as the protagonist of Lewis Carroll`s Alice In Wonderland (1865) might have said to the Dormouse floating amongst the teabags in the pot. Spending most of my classroom time in a reverie that has little to do with the stud`nts in front, and almost nothing to do with ELT at all, what they don`t prepare for in `Classroom Management` is trying to remain awake when explaining for the zillionth time: `The sun is yellow`. The worst aspect from the professional`s point of view is the built in obsolescence of the old grey matter. Our head chuck occasion system emphasizes brightness and sharpness, but how quick does a mind have to be to explain the color of grass to, let`s say a Frenchman, who already has the French adjective vert in their vocabulary? ELT is often a bit like telling people that the sky is blue, and they can`t see it. Chuck, the Head.



 `Drilling` is what it is often termed. However, the well of understanding is often dry. The indefinite article can be explained till the face is as blue as the sky. However, if the stud`nt can`t perceive the logical flaw in saying `a orange` and `an banana`, it`ll take a road drill to make any impression. Without saying absolutely that ELT classrooms are replete with dullards, for a teacher with even a modicum of intellectual ambition, the giving of lessons can be a dull and dulling procedure.



`We want grammar,` the stud`nts never tire of demanding, `what`s a gerund?` When the pocket with the grammar book finally produced the answer (the first time this question was asked), it was laughter out loud. It is, of course, the -ing ending. Thinking it might be something challenging, and of some interest, no. It was the verbal noun formulation. In possession of the knowledge what to say is known, but the first time it`s an unwelcome trial. Now classes receive this brief exercise in the hope that someone will see that there`s fun in there somewhere:


Put one of the following into the gaps in order to make a complete sentence.


screaming, driving, laughing, swimming, ululating


Q 1. The __________ of the spider monkeys was like the sound of a cat hurtling down the street with twelve empty umbadinga bean tins tied to its tail.


Q 2. In the __________ onslaught of the heavy down pouring of rain there were no dalmations.


Q 3. The __________ of the children belied the fate of the hapless squirrel as he tried to climb out of the ditch he had fallen out of the oak tree and into.


Q 4.  The __________ of the fish in the river was likened by old Tom the gardener to the movement of leaves on the tree in a stiffish breeze.


Q 5. The __________ of Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy The Vampire Slayer helped send the tired philatelist to sleep that very same evening.



 Most unsolicited questions are unwelcome. Generally, politeness expedites swiftly passing on. Moreover, most quizzing is ungermane, or beside the point. `I`ll explain it to you, but we have to look at this today,` is usually sufficient to obviate the quizzer. A stud`nt asked me, `What did you have for lunch?` `Wrong!` he crowed when receiving a thoughtless reply. Apparently he`d been sitting at a table in the cafeteria opposite and had seen the consumption of the comestibles first hand. This is what most quizzings are about. To admit lying through the teeth when advertising that the present continuous of the verb requires the present tense of the verb `to be` together with the main verb and the gerund (-ing) ending. This exercise bolsters veracity. However, the heart knows that it’s already been tried and convicted:


The following sentences need to be completed with the correct verb endings.


Q 1. The gerbil in the cage is __________ his food. (paint)


Q 2. The hamsters are __________ strip poker. (play)  


Q 3. Each rabbit is brilliant at __________ a basket for the LA Lakers. (make)


Q 4. Every guinea pig is __________ six packs of Rothmans a day. (smoke)


Q 5. Both white mice are __________ a gambling casino in Shoreditch. (run)


 Being interviewed by telephone for jobs in the Muddle East lasts at least 30 minutes, and takes in the guided tour of self-promotion. A common task is elaborating upon how to tackle a class with the debilitating lack of not being able to understand the difference between `countable and uncountable nouns`. The gamut is run. Explaining that the SS must be checked to know their `indefinite articles`, then `some` and `any`, and that `some` is for countable and uncountable but that `any` is for questions and negatives, the `phoners get this short test as an instance of how the teacher learn the extent of the SS` apprehension:


Use `a, an, some` or `any` to complete the sentencing.


Q 1. Are there __________ elephants at the disco?


Q 2. There isn`t __________ elephant in the fridge. (more than one answer is possible)


Q 3. __________ elephantine traces have been found in a shoe box behind the garage. (more than one answer is impossible)


Q 4. The missing elephant was discovered in __________ local supermarkets at the back of __________ shelves. It had carefully concealed itself inside dozens of tins of spaghetti meatballs that were now well past their sell by date of January 5th 2007.


Q 5. Several people questioned admitted to having knowingly eaten __________ elephant that morning. (clever trousers)



 The idea that there were elephants in Yarubeer surprises; just as much as calling the people ‘a beer’ where alcohol is ‘haraam’ (forbidden). Looking upon the empty wilderness of the desert cultivates the imagination, if nothing else, when walking through it. Remembering the science fiction novel, Dune (1965), by Frank Herbert, and its `worms`, for example. Huge creatures, like hose-pipes, with maws as wide as a canyon. Called Shai Hulud in the Dune series of novels, they are called Shaitan by the Yarupric-style peoples of Herbert`s worlds: rising to the sound of footsteps in the sand to swallow everything in their locale. As Massai warriors, who kill lions to prove their manhood in Africa, the people of the planet of Arrakis, where Dune takes place, ride their worms. `Shaitan` translates as `Satan` in English and, as might be anticipated, it’s an evil djinn (genius) in Yarubeer. In Dune the worms` waste product is the spice mélange, which navigators of ships between the stars ingest to be able to guide themselves and their cargo instantaneously through the vastnesses of space and time. During ISIL`s wars to create an independent Levant, the wheeled konks of Yarubeer, that is, the big noses up that way, filled their tanks with oil, so that the metal elephants could rogue throughout the Muddle East having a long drunk. That Herbert’s prescient genius with the Dune series was the world of the wheeled worm in segments.


 Always aware of the need to be culturally sensitive, exercises in Yarubeer were liberally laced with references to local flora and fauna. Like this exercise; for example, in which the ss are invited to use the appropriate form of the verb `to be`:


Q 1. Abdul __________ riding his camel with his friends.


Q 2. The camels __________ being heavily ridden by the young boy and his friends.


Q 3. The camel __________ excited and eyes begin to roll.


Q 4. The boy and his friends __________ now tired.


Q 5. The eyes of the camels __________ now clear and __________ looking homewards to where soft pillows and mother is waiting for them.


 Receiving invitations from young men in Yarubeer to go out into the desert in their SUVs to ride their camels, be careful. Camel riding can be a dangerous pursuit. Men return from a camel ride barely able to walk the following day. Although camel riding is traditional in the Muddle East, most Westerners are not used to such cultural diversity. A good rule of thumb is to first check and be assured that there will actually be camels present.



 Watching camel riding on TV, it`s a strange sport. Feeling concern for the tiny monkey on the camel`s back as the creature lunges around the race circuit, `How does the poor thing stay on there?` The stud`nts freed me from anguish by explaining that the `monkey` was, in fact, the camel`s `guidance system`. This horsey set`s equivalent of the cattle prod, without which the apparently monkey-ridden (but actually completely riderless) camels would probably lollop around bumping into each other for a while; before having sex and falling asleep in the sand. Like people, in fact: the resemblance is uncanny.



 Coming back from a particularly hard spot of camel riding with my young friends in the desert (just watching), was to understand that going anywhere fast as an ELT pro wasn’t to be. The problem of conjugating the verb `to camel ride` had been writhing around in the bonce for much of the sojourning there amongst the palms and clear blue waterfalls and pools of the local wadis and oases. Touching a bald spot to find fingers aflame, the path must`ve been subverted by a shaitan. Indeed, according to Yarubean tradition, another class of djinn was needed, the afrit, which are believed to be able to control a shaitan. In the West, afrit would be categorized as being amongst the `little people`. Moreover, controlling Satan is a titanic task. Crushteens offer only the example of She`sus, while the djinn (as is She`sus) are a part of the teaching of the Muzzlem’s Gran. Perhaps she could help me? Obviously, spending all my free time being taken for a ride in the desert, bouncing around in SUVs, was pitiful. Pondering in the sand, `Is it possible to believe in fairies and She’sus?` Musing, and trudging on amongst hills that look like heaps of gold dust, `Well, She’sus is all I`ve got.’



 Visitors to London’s ‘big smoke’ from Yarubeer expect to find streets `paved with gold` and are disappointment when they see grey flatness and cigarette butts, `Wait until you see Buttapes!` It`s ironic when, with all the azure of sapphire sea, and gold of the sand to attract, the precious stuff in Yarubeer is the black stickiness and smelliness of oil. Discarding her burkha, Sumiya stood beside me in the Portobello Road. I`ve never seen anyone wear a T-shirt better than her. Yarubean women are like that. Western women choose clothes they like. Yarubean women choose clothes to wear. Somehow wearing the black sacking coverall of the burkha from puberty protects them from being deformed by ill-chosen fittings of garments that, though fashionable, aren`t conducive to womanly development. In the eight-inch platform shoes of the 70s, I learnt to play soccer with a tennis ball. However, at 16 osteomyelitis crippled me, a bone-crumbling illness, and at 27 the local hospital in ‘Ull wanted to amputate a leg gone gangrenous. Not knowing when to sacrifice fashion for healthy bodily development means trouble.



 Working for London based language skulls, like Language Wank, without working in London, or England, it`s the interminable vetting through application forms, and police checks, that deter. Contemplating England is to be accused of being a paedophile junkie, and guilty until proven innocent. As a professional teacher, prima facie accusation isn’t a basis for seeking employment. Then there’s the `dummy lesson`. Offered a job in Buttapes teaching `companies`, agreeing to arrive at the place of activity by 7.15 am would have meant my daily rising from the lump of undifferentiated folds of bed fabric at 5.00 am. However, a twenty-minute ‘demo’ was suggested. The same question comes into the mind as when cogitating working in the UK, `Do you want a teacher, or do you want an applicant?` Many companies employ from within, although they advertise publicly as a government requirement. Consequently, the jobless apply for positions already filled. Companies complete their quota of application forms to conform to Whitehall`s fetishistic desire that the unemployed are kept moving in their circle of hell. When asked to demonstrate my skills of fifteen years` acquiring, ‘Are they seriously going to offer criticism?’ Witness the post-apocalyptic feedback:


`Congratulations. That was very good.`


`Thank you.`


`There`s just one thing.`




`Your pronunciation of `distributor cap`. Shouldn`t the emphasis in the word be on the second syllable?`


`That would by `distreebutor cap`, wouldn`t it?`


`Yes, that`s right. [half non-apologetic smile].`


`I believe my pronunciation is the correct one.`


`Yes, of course. I was only wondering.. [tails off into semi-accusatory limbo].`


`Was there anything else you found noteworthy?`


`You know that `eat` in English and `itt` in Hungriun sound the same but mean different things entirely, that is, `eat` in English means `to consume food` and `itt` in Hungriun means `here`?`


`Yes. `Itt at Jo`s, for example`.`


`But your name is Robin, yes?`


`Yes, I was joking.`


`Really [scribbles on paper and looks wary].`


`I think humour is important in the classroom.`


 `Yes, we do. Have you heard the one about the Englishman and the Hungriun. They go into a pub together and the Hungriun orders a meal. The Englishman can`t understand the menu. `Learn Hungriun` says the Hungriun and carried on eating. `Do you know any Hungriun?`


`Kicsit [a little].`


`Nagyon jó. Szép beszél [very good, you speak beautifully]. Welcome to London nyelviskola [language skull].`


`Thank you.`


 That was the interview. I`d already `performed`. Here`s the most memorable extract.


`Good afternoon [pregnant silence, festering like a boil on the buttock of eternity].`


`First, I would like to introduce myself.` I draw a picture of a robin on the board. `This is what my name means in English,` I tell them. R-O-B-I-N I write the legend onto the wipe board. `It is an Xmas bird. Or, as you say in Hungriun, `karácsonyi modár`.`


`Nagyon szép beszél Magyorul!`


- and I`m in.