Number one for English language teachers

Diary 1: Time to start

Type: Reference material

 In his first set of diary entries, DoS Saul Pope introduces himself and his role.

Sunday 3rd October

Time to start I suppose. The week is beginning in earnest and it’s that time of year when there never seems to be a quiet moment. You can go into school with nothing in particular planned aside from the day’s usual duties (planning, testing new students, cleaning up after messy teachers), when suddenly ten people run up to you with ten different jobs for you that really cannot wait and before you know it you’re left with just five minutes to take a cursory glance at your materials before heading into class. Anyway, this week I’m going to make sure I keep on top of things by planning Monday’s lessons on Sunday. ‘Pre-empting’, as they called it on my training course; just a pity I’m not very good at it.

Anyway, my name’s Saul and I’m DoS at Language Link in St. Petersburg. This is my fourth year in Russia altogether, but my third year at this school. My first time out here was seven years ago when, as a student, I met the wonderful woman who is now my wife and got my first taste of EFL teaching. Things were pretty different then; it was enough just to be able to speak English if you wanted an EFL job and there was no real quality control, but I’ll go into more of that a bit later on. Fortunately things have changed a lot and for the better.

As I write on this cloudy St. Petersburg evening I’m past one of my biggest challenges of the week and awaiting the other one. The one behind me was an open lesson, a free demonstration session open to anyone planning to study with us. It wasn’t until after this open lesson was well underway that I realised that it was to be one of my biggest challenges of the week. It was a children’s open lesson and I’d prepared some games for kids. What I didn’t realise was that all the children's parents had been invited to attend, as well as some local Russian teachers of English. I’m DoS, and I can’t refuse such people to watch my ‘master class’. I was glad when the lesson was over; I have to think back to my early days of teaching those seven years ago to remember the last time my hands were visibly shaking during a class.

The other big challenge of the week is the class that’s started to go wrong. You’re no doubt familiar with my tale; what was once my favourite group has suddenly been turned on its head by the addition of one new student, who has in record time managed to make enemies with another student. The age gap is perhaps the biggest problem – the new student is, I guess, in her forties whilst the rest of the group, including her nemesis, are all teenagers or in their twenties. It also doesn’t help that this older student is by far the weakest in the group. Anyway, the older woman’s constant protests and rude comments are beginning to get on my nerves, and I can see that something is going to have to be done this week. I need to save things before I begin to dread Tuesday evenings for no other reason than two adults who don’t get on but should know better. There is, of course, another adult here who should know better; I should know better how to deal with the problem.

Wednesday 6th October

AM

As a DoS you have to spend a lot of time putting out fires, usually caused by someone else but sometimes by your own mistakes. This week has already seen several, but perhaps the most annoying administrative faux-pas was the one that caused a teacher, just a month into her teaching career, to have to teach a new 9.00 in-company class yesterday, having only been told about it at 8.00 the previous evening. I count myself lucky to work with professional people who are ready to take on such difficult challenges without moaning or getting overly worried. We have a very good staff in this sense this year; not a cyni-teacher amongst them.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the cyni-teacher – the type of teacher who has been teaching for a couple of years, thinks that he can get no better at his job and so doesn’t even try to, preferring instead to skip seminars so he can stay in bed, arrive at the school five minutes before lessons start and spend (overly long) breaks moaning about the lack of material in the resource cupboard. Over the past couple of years Language Link has had its fair share of such people, and unfortunately their attitude seems to rub off on the others as the year goes by.

As could have been predicted my Tuesday nightmare class was not one of the biggest challenges of the week; it actually went well. I’d give myself a seven out of ten for it, using the kind of scale Sunday newspapers use to rate footballers in the previous day’s match (if indeed they still do that; it’s been a long time, too long in fact, since I cradled a Sunday newspaper in my arms). I’d give myself a six or six and a half for all the other lessons of the last couple of weeks, except the one where all the other teachers and parents watched me; that gets a five, saved only from the depths of four by a game of hangman at the end (some parts of Russia still find this game exciting, though I only use it in emergencies).

I’m glad my Tuesday nightmare didn’t materialise, and what’s even better is that the two parties concerned seem to have accepted each other - one even asked the other for the meaning of a word yesterday, so peace must be breaking out. I’d just better make sure that when we meet again on Thursday I can give myself another seven, or else we could be back to square one…

PM

This afternoon as I was planning a lesson when a colleague, Ed, came up to me with an exercise book that a student had left behind after one of his teenager classes yesterday. Last year I taught the group in question, and this year he’s taken over and is currently putting them through their paces in preparation for the FCE exam. Anyway, it seems that the exercise book hadn’t been solely used for taking notes on the Use of English paper, and there was a written conversation (in English) that two of the students were obviously having during the course of Ed’s last lesson. It was quite interesting to read (and I have to say I was impressed by the lack of mistakes), but perhaps the highlight for me was the following couplet:

‘Do you like the teacher?’

‘Yes, but I miss Saul, even if his lessons were boring.’

Perhaps I should have given myself a few more fives out of ten rather than sixes last year for that group. Or perhaps I should just make sure that Ed gives them extra homework for the rest of term. Either way, I was both complimented (they like me as a person) and disappointed (they thought my lessons were rubbish) and a bit confused for a few hours.

Only a bad workman would blame his tools, but the choice of course book for this group was a bad one; as good as it is, Cutting Edge is not a course for teenagers. But the majority of the blame has to lay with me – I was guilty for a time of being a cyni-teacher as far as that group was concerned; the most important thing for me became the clock running down towards the end of each lesson, at which point I felt I was free of an unpleasant burden at least for another couple of days. They wore me down, as did the long and cold St. Petersburg winter I was working through, and the textbook wasn’t much cop, but they deserved better from me. I suppose we all become part-time cyni-teachers when things get rough, and none of us seem to realise until it’s too late that cyni-teaching actually saps more of your energy than planning and teaching a 100% wholemeal, fat-free and nutritious lesson. I’m going to try and make sure that all my lessons, even the ones involving teenagers, from now on are packed with vitamins and wholesome pleasant things.

Friday 8th October

As I sit and relax this Friday evening with a healthy yoghurt drink (the Friday night beer came almost the moment I finished work) and my wife Katya, I’m gathering my thoughts on how the week has gone. In fact, I’m going to try and gather them a bit harder and make this into a worthwhile piece of writing seeing as Katya is wholly absorbed by the Russian version of Fame Academy or some other such frightening programme and so isn’t much company at present.

Fortunately for me the rest of the week has gone quite well. Much of it has been taken up by observations, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve been surprised (in a good way) by what I’ve seen. Before I go into this, I’d like to give a bit of insight into what a DoS does (or at least what I do) during an observation, apart from seeming to scrutinise you and your lesson unpleasantly and scribbling equally unpleasant notes.

The notes are nothing to be scared of; there’s a more than even chance that they’re saying something positive about your lesson, though in the case of particularly tedious lessons they could be a shopping list. Notes are also not a knee-jerk reaction to what has been seen a microsecond before – when I’m observing I prefer to reflect, and my notes tend to be general thoughts about how the lesson is going. All too often teachers (including me in the days when I was observed) see a scribble and start worrying that they’ve just committed some grave EFL sin and spend the next ten minutes trying to work out what it was.

Also, please don’t try and do the crafty ‘I’m just coming over to the part of the room where you’re sitting to monitor the students so I can have a sly glance at what you’re writing’ trick. It won’t help you, especially if the DoS is indeed writing his shopping list. The best thing to do with observations is just to get on with it; ignore that looming presence, teach the group as best you can and save your DoS-antagonistic energy to argue like hell if you think the criticism you get at your feedback is inaccurate or unfair.

Hopefully this week there hasn’t been too much ill feeling in my direction, as most of what I’ve seen has been very impressive, besides the usual new teacher weaknesses of too much TTT and not giving instructions very well. For someone to move over to Russia, have to adapt to the vast differences in culture and language and then go into a classroom of 15-year-olds and keep them entertained and educated five nights a week is no mean feat. I salute you all, and not just the Language Link lot – there are loads of you new teachers all over the world doing just as good a job.

Oh yeah, my Thursday night class stank (the Tuesday/ Thursday nightmare one), or at least the second half of it did. I shouldn’t have given them sweets; I think it made some elements hyperactive. Back to square one, or at least somewhere near it, next Tuesday evening.

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