Number one for English language teachers

Second-hand goods

Type: Reference material

In her first diary entry, Amthal Karim talks about the trials andf tribulations of teaching must and mustn't  along with the topic of buying and selling.

I’m early for the lesson. An hour-and-a-half early, in fact. I’ll argue though that if I hadn’t turned up before everyone else, the security guard would have promptly locked all the classrooms thinking lessons were cancelled and gone home to his family for the night! I’m sure that while I was arguing with him that the lesson was not cancelled, he looked at me as if I was a bit hysterical.

Teaching is not my one passion in life – like most people, I do it because it happens to fall within the career path that I have chosen and pays well. The biggest bonus – as my husband will agree when he arrives home after a long day working in a bureaucratic council job where no-one does anything and everyone thinks you're useless – is that I seriously enjoy it. It gives me a buzz to know that I have taught somebody something useful that they didn’t know before! Ok, so all the students are not that enthusiastic, but as long as you only remember the ones that are then you’ll always feel good about doing it.

Today, it’s talking about second-hand goods – buying and selling. Last week it was 'You must' and 'You mustn’t'. The variety of what you could be teaching day-to-day astounds me. As a prop, I pull out my mobile phone. Two of the students look weary already – borrowed from the intermediate class next door as the teacher felt sorry for me when I told her no-one had turned up. At 6.00pm the classroom was empty – at 6.05pm two Spanish students were lingering around the door not wanting to come in unless anyone else turned up! By 6.07pm I breathed a sigh of relief as seven students took their places.

I always find the beginning of the lesson the hardest part. For the first five minutes of the lesson, I feel as if I’m the only one remotely interested in buying and selling second-hand goods. I beam a big smile, jolt about the room and tell the students the phone was a 'bargain' – still no immediate enthusiasm. I switch the overhead projector on and the explanation of the vocabulary I have just used beams onto the wall. Bang! Everyone suddenly knows what I am talking about. A few difficult words along the way – explained promptly by the students from the higher class - and we’re on our way.

Every activity prompts varied responses from the mixture of nationalities I have in the class. The Japanese/Chinese whip out their electronic language translators and swear not to utter a word until they know what it means. The Somalian gentleman tries to wriggle his way out of every common answer to the task – no, you cannot ask to pay monthly instalments for a £10 table that someone just wants to get rid of! It is sometimes very hard not to laugh – even though the tittering from the other students prompts me to. After all, I might be responsible for this student’s emotional well-being – he might be so traumatised at being shown up, he may never want to learn English again…. What the hell – they’re all adults – they can take it!

The Spanish students are the biggest hurdle today – three of them whispering away fluently in their native tongue. They don’t care that I can hear them, whereas the Japanese quietly slip a few words to each other when the teacher is not looking. 'Only English please' falls on deaf ears, so what is the point of saying it! During the break, another Spanish student sits down – much to the delight of his fellow Spaniards and looks of 'how dare you arrive late' from the Japanese. The faces of the Japanese students turn into absolute horror as another Spaniard marches in midway through the second session blaring Spanish at her friends and plonks herself down on a chair. My smile is fixed as I watch her with blank eyes – I get the 'sorry' I was waiting for. I know a few teachers I trained alongside who would be blown away with shock at such behaviour – but then what are they doing teaching English to foreigners if they’re not willing to accept the cultural differences of the very people they are trying to teach!

For the final task, I split the students into groups. The Spanish are separated to get them talking in English but the Japanese students are kept together – the best way of making sure they actually talk! The adverts produced by the groups use the correct language and grammar but the concept seems somewhat warped. The Spanish group is advertising a sofa for FREE – which defeats the purpose of selling second hand goods and makes me wonder if they understood the lesson at all! The Chinese girl and the intermediate level student – who I think might be a teacher in disguise testing me her English is that good – are advertising an armchair that is comfortable, really!? The other intermediate student has given up with his Spanish friend and let her advertise the single bed for one hundred AND TEN pounds just as she insisted – he throws his hands up in the air in defeat.

Oh well, at least I managed to teach the students from the intermediate group a few new things – I saw them scribbling the meaning of a few words when they thought I wasn’t looking, then regaining their composure as if to say 'I know this already'. But then, that’s what its all about – knowing that the students have learnt something even though some of them would never admit it and others thank you respectfully as they leave the room!

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