Number one for English language teachers

Survival stories

Type: Anecdote

Here are some survival stories and advice from fellow teachers.

Copping it

The most memorable teaching experience I survived was … when my entire class was detained at the police station!

At the start of my career, I worked for a company that partnered with call centres to offer them month-long training programs. The goal was to help learners polish their speaking skills and hopefully engage with English-speaking customers in the UK more effectively. The learners were generally of a lower proficiency in English and there was intense pressure from the clients to get them up to speed in just 15 days.

It was an extraordinary incident that occurred in the last few days of the programme which were usually marked by assessments and a race to finish curriculum. The day started like any other day with lessons and role-plays. It was then time for our morning coffee break. I returned to the classroom to find it in a complete tizzy.

One of the students – let’s call her X – couldn’t find her expensive mobile phone. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find it and no one else except my students had been in the classroom where X claimed she had left her phone. We started the next lesson but X seemed distracted and asked if she could go to the restroom. I told her she could go and then launched into an activity that required a lot of teacher-involvement. As a result, I forgot all about X who had still not returned from her trip to the restroom. X came back after about thirty minutes and she wasn’t alone. She had brought a police officer with her. It seemed like, on her way to the restroom, X had decided to visit a nearby police station and file a complaint. The police officer wanted to inspect the scene of the crime, i.e. my classroom, right in the middle of a listening activity. The policeman looked around, questioned the students and then frisked the men. He was clearly not happy. He informed us that we would need to accompany him to the police station since it was patently obvious (to him) that one of us was the mobile phone thief. Mumbai police stations are not the most pleasant of places and I could see that the students were becoming quite fretful. We couldn’t say no, though, so we found ourselves at the police station – all 15 of us.

The station was small and there wasn’t enough space to sit. The police officer’s surly flunkey took our details and they let us stew. The strategy, I suspect, was to get the thief to confess out of fear or perhaps boredom. I was anxious too but about falling behind on my lessons. We had already wasted a couple of hours. These students badly needed focused practice because they were at risk of failing their assessments which were done by third-party evaluators. Thankfully, I had grabbed copies of a test before I left the training centre and I passed them around for people to do. After they finished, I got them to correct each other’s tests. The policemen became a tad suspicious, casting wary glances our way. Then, I put everyone into groups of three and asked them to role-play some job specific scenarios followed by error correction.

I was worried that we were taking too many liberties; after all we were suspects in a crime! Fortunately, the cops seemed fascinated by the impromptu lesson. The students were hungry so we ordered pizzas which we shared with our captors who were by then becoming more amiable. Our late lunch was followed by a great discussion about unexpected situations like the one we were in and how best to deal with them. X apologized profusely for having dragged everyone into the mess but all of her classmates were understanding and supportive. She told us that she filed a complaint because her phone was insured and she couldn’t make a claim without a police report. I found out later that this particular police station was under pressure to investigate mobile phone theft cases because of too many fraudulent claims. I think we wore out our welcome when the students decided to play some circle games and ended up making a lot of noise. The police officer, who was clearly not impressed by how much my students were enjoying their detention, told us to go home and never bother him again. As I was leaving the station, he called me back. With a sinking feeling, I returned to his desk. He told me that he found my teaching style interesting and that he would like me to teach his son who despite his best efforts, was refusing to speak in English. I think I said something non-committal before running out. And that’s how I survived the day my entire class was detained at the police station.

Adi Rajan, India

Keeping your wits about you

You wake with a start. The first thought: you did not wake to an alarm. Second thought: what time is it? Fortunately you have not slept in: 05:08 glares red. Since completing your TESOL, and then getting a job and teaching your first class, you have been getting up early to plan lessons. Anxious thoughts probably jolted you awake; last night you tried to take a quick power nap and then slept all the way through. Good intentions to make detailed lesson plans have been disrupted by an increasing number of late nights spent catching up on grammar, or trying to create your own materials. This is the bane of the perfectionist.

Now panic sets in as you realise you have to plan your lessons on the bus. This is not your style; you like to be prepared. A few minutes are spent in frustration as you isolate the precise moment you decided to take a nap; you curse your former self for passing on the responsibility.

Today you will teach modals and you will have to rely on the book and your wits. Will the students see through your guise and discover your lack of preparation? It is a truth universally acknowledged that sometimes these are the best lessons. Some teachers thrive on this tightrope. But when you start teaching there is a packet of fear that rests against your stomach ready to burst. It can cause you to stand at the front of the class and speak strings of incoherent words to blank faces. It can cause you to freeze or forget the grammar points you read the night before. Worst of all, you can be halfway through explaining something on the board, only to realise that a vital part is missing, and the whole edifice begins to fall apart. Furthermore, whether you are as prepared as you want to be, or not, there is the ticking bomb that is the student who knows the grammar better than you, and who is looking to catch you out. You wait for that moment when they question you; they might not be correct but your head will swim and doubt will sprout up like weeds, clogging your thoughts. At that moment the class will feel like your jury, and you await the verdict of ’bad teacher’.

Despite this, you will survive. The class likes you; they are sympathetic. They are improving their English with you at the helm. You are their teacher and this means something important to them … and to you.

Jonathan Wilton, UK

On a (toilet) roll

The most memorable teaching experience I survived was … my first demonstration lesson as part of an interview for my first ever teaching position. I had arrived in noisy, crowded China a week earlier in the middle of the SARS outbreak, before heading to the city of Shenyang where I was to meet a guy who had promised to assist me in finding employment. Having worked in recruitment myself, I had innocently assumed he was part of an agency but, on being met by him at the airport, I found out that he was a young, American student making some money on the side by introducing foreign teachers like myself to schools in the area.

He took me to my hotel which was to be my accommodation for the next few days until work was found for me but they refused to let me stay! As I had come from Beijing and SARS had taken hold there, they were reluctant to allow me in. This was the same story in the following three places we tried. In the end he snuck me into his student residence where I spent a lonely, cold night in an empty apartment wondering what I had got myself into. Over the next couple of days we traipsed to a number of different small academies where, again, SARS reared its ugly head and most classes had been suspended so there was no need for a new teacher. Finally on the fourth day we headed to Talenty Education. We met with the headmaster who invited me to come back the next day to do a demonstration class. I spent a restless night tossing and turning trying to imagine what the next day would bring.

When I arrived at the school the following day I presumed I would be given time to prepare what I would do in class – no such luck.
’Here is the book we use for this class,’ the headmaster told me. ’You are teaching a lesson about family and we are waiting for you in classroom number 12.’
I entered the classroom expecting to see a number of nine and ten year olds as well as the headmaster and one other teacher. As I opened the door, I heard the excited gasps of the kids who reacted to my blonde hair and blue eyes; then my eyes fell on the crowd seated behind the twenty or so students. Not only were the parents of the students present in the classroom, but the grandparents too! It turns out that everyone had been invited to watch my first ever demonstration class.

Much of the lesson was a complete blur as I was so nervous, but I do remember a funny moment when I used an idea I picked up on the onestopenglish website. I had taken in a roll of toilet paper to class and asked the students to choose how many sheets they would like after I demonstrated that I wanted to have five. Some were cautious and asked for one or two, a few braver ones said five but then one cheeky chap asked for sixteen sheets. I then instructed them that they had to tell me a number of things about their family in relation to how many sheets of toilet paper they had picked. Well, the face of the poor little boy who had asked for sixteen dropped. I promised him I would give him time to think and come to him at the end. So, we went round the class, all the students successfully shared their family information using vocabulary which had come up in the lesson and then I came to Pizza (yes, he chose that name for himself). He started off well:
’I have a mother and a father and a grandmother and a grandfather.’
Nine sheets of toilet paper were used fairly quickly then there was a slight hesitation.
’My uncle is short, my father is tall, my cousin is short, my mother is short, my grandfather is tall, my other cousin is tall and my aunt is tall.’
He finished!! We all gave him a round of applause. That was all over ten years ago. I spent five years in China where the onestopenglish website was an invaluable source of help during those first years of teaching. I have now been teaching for over ten years from Latvia to Oxford and now in Basque Country and still find inspiration on onestopenglish.

Catrina McDonald, Spain

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