Number one for English language teachers

Private students

Type: Reference material

Laura McGinnis' third diary entry talks about the joys of teaching private students.

A few weeks ago, I got a call from a woman I didn’t know. She’d got my number from an American she met at a nightclub that weekend, she said, and gave the name of a distant acquaintance, a friend of a friend I’d met a week before. 'Great,' I thought. 'So this guy gets drunk and starts handing out my number to random Czechs.' I was making a mental note to start screening my calls when she asked if I’d be willing to give private lessons. A friend of hers wanted to improve his conversational English and wanted personal lessons with a native speaker.

Private conversation lessons are the icing on the cupcake of the TEFL scene. Maximum pay, minimal preparation – who wouldn’t say yes? So I agreed to meet her friend at a café to see if our schedules were compatible. And that’s how I met Vitek.

I’ve tutored businesswomen, college students and retirees, but Vitek is my first bodyguard. I find him fascinating. He doesn’t like violence, particularly when it’s near him, which gives him an interesting perspective on his occupation. Our lives are one hundred eighty degrees apart, which makes for incredibly entertaining conversation classes:

L: What do you think about Czech drivers?
V: I think they can drive maybe aggressive.
L: Are you an aggressive driver?
V: This is…. I think that no if I am just me, but if someone is chasing us then yes.

Private lessons run the educational gamut, depending on the needs of the student. You can meet in your home, in their home, in a café, at a park – whatever works for both of you. And your subject material varies greatly. Ana wants to take the CAE, so we meet once a week to do practice exercises and discuss testing techniques. Eva simply wants to practice speaking, so we meet in her office after work. She tells me about her family and her work at the bank, and I prepare basic grammar review lessons.

Nela is my biggest teaching challenge.

When we met, she knew two English words: 'hello,' and 'thanks.' Her daughter married a Swede, who speaks about as much Czech as she speaks Swedish, and they decided that English would be a fair middle ground. We meet twice a week to cover the basics. So far we’ve stuck to simple conversation, numbers, letters and nouns. Eventually, we’re going to have to discuss articles (which don’t exist in Czech), and I’m not quite sure how that’s going to work, given that my Czech barely extends past, 'Please forgive me, I speak very little Czech.'

At my school, Beginner and Elementary level classes are taught almost exclusively by Czechs. The higher levels are split, so that each class meets twice a week – once with a Czech and once with a native speaker. We are strongly encouraged to let the Czechs teach the bulk of the grammar, the idea being that they’re more familiar with the specific problems of learning English from a Czech perspective. I know very few native speakers who delight in the grammatical snarls of the English language, so most of us are very happy with this arrangement. But with Nela, I’m on my own.

Independence is the greatest advantage and disadvantage of private tutoring. Without the restraints of a school, you can set your own schedule, your own pace, your own materials. On the other hand, schools provide a level of structure and support that you can’t recreate in a solo environment. Still, I appreciate all of my private lessons, if only because I get to know my students so much better than I would in a structured classroom environment.

One-on-one classes allow you to devote all of your attention to one person. There are drawbacks, of course. You have to pay attention constantly, and you never get breaks while the students are working in pairs or small groups. But the relationship you develop with an individual is much stronger than the relationship you could develop with a class.

I have nineteen students in my post-secondary class, for example. This week we’re giving them exams that determine their student status and eligibility for student benefits from the government. Over two days we met all of the students privately to assess speaking ability. And while most of them performed as expected, two or three were absolutely shocking – a few students who never volunteer to talk in class and clam up when called upon proved to be quite fluent in a more intimate setting.

One of the greatest things about the act of teaching is that it both allows and forces you to learn. This is especially evident in the private classroom. Meeting one-on-one allows your students to speak to you about what’s closest to their hearts. From my private students I’ve learned how to apply for a study-abroad scholarship from the Czech Republic, where to request a loan, how to bake Czech holiday cookies and how to disarm an assassin.

At the end of the day, private lessons offer a degree of intimacy and friendship you can’t achieve in a classroom, and at the peak of an Eastern European winter, that’s the kind of blessing that can get you through to spring.

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