Number one for English language teachers

Diary 10: Games

In his tenth and final set of diary entries, Saul Pope is glad that spring has finally arrived.

Monday 4th April

Dusk is approaching on this pleasant April evening, and to the greying of the evening and the hum of the traffic outside I find myself with a bit of time to take a look at what’s been going on in St. Petersburg over the last few weeks. Luckily all of our staffing problems have been solved, though perhaps it had less to do with luck and more to do with hard work in the shape of scouring the city for potential new candidates and creaming off the best ones. The last couple of months have been difficult, it’s felt as if I’ve been in a tent, desperately clutching the pole and trying to manoeuvre it into place to stop the whole construction falling down on me. Every time I’ve got the pole into place, someone has come and trod on top of the tent and I’ve had to start again. This makes me think that even though things are in place as I write, there are four more working days for things to go wrong and by Friday I could once again find myself messing around with that ridge pole which just won’t click into place. I remember my childhood days of camping well.

I start teaching my wealthy countryside clients at Foxes’ Nose again tomorrow morning, following a month-long hiatus. This always seems to happen with people not attached to a group of students; they have a week or two off for some reason or another, then find that they actually quite like not having to study relative clauses and words to do with shopping. More often than not they don’t return at all. I was surprised and pleased when the call came to carry on with these two.

The freedom has meant that I’ve had the chance to go observing teachers in the mornings, good for me but perhaps not so good for them; everyone I’ve observed has told me of how nervous they felt having me there, and one poor teacher told me of how he’d barely slept the night before. I’ve been pleased with what I’ve seen in general, though as usual it’s clear that we all talk too much, and in most cases, too fast. Not many of our jokes translate, either, unless you happen to be making fun of Americans (for the record I haven’t been doing this).

I’ve also been out visiting corporate clients in a bid to drum up business; one big fish we’ve managed to catch is a company that makes ringtones and screensavers for mobile phones. I’ve no idea why they need to learn English (though some of their more offensive screensavers do include English writing), but they want 50 or so people to study with us and are very pleasant people. It’ll certainly be a more interesting place for teachers to go and work at than the usual computer firm or sausage factory that we seem to get.

Finally, I’ve landed myself in it. This is the gist of a phone call I had a few days ago from our office in Petergof:

‘Hi Saul, I’m going to pass you over to one of the English teachers in a local school’

‘Hi Saul, we are planning an interactive game for our children to help them learn English. Can you help?’

‘Yes’

‘OK, that’s good. Is 15th April OK?’

‘Yes’

‘It needn’t be long, only a couple of hours, and there will be about fifty 13 and 14 year olds there. OK?’

‘Well…’

‘Great. See you then. Bye’

I’ve no idea what an interactive game is, nor how you make one last for a couple of hours, though I guess it has something to do with children running around whilst supposedly learning English and teachers being made to look rather silly. I’ve made the prospect of this game slightly less terrifying by enlisting the help of two other teachers and by splitting the game into three; one game will be about pronunciation, one about Britain and one about the Easter Bunny (which isn’t until the end of April over here). I’ve got the Britain section stitched up I think, and the pronunciation section shouldn’t be a problem. However, every time I ask the Easter Bunny if he’s got anything ready I either get no reply or promises that all will be OK by 15th. I’ll leave it a couple of days then give him another nudge.

Sunday 10th April

I know I’m always going on about the weather in this diary, but I’m going to do it again. At last Spring is well and truly here, and I’m revelling in the days of rain and cloud, days when you can walk around without a Michelin man coat and long johns. In the short break between the time when the mosquitoes get here for the summer and the frozen drudgery of winter is gone, St. Petersburg is blighted by something else – dust. Having lain and collected under the snow for five or six months, it has all now been released and whirls around the city, penetrating eyes and noses and mouths. Sometimes the city authorities send trucks around to water it, which is nice, but unfortunately it doesn’t do much to help.

Anyway, now I’ve confirmed the English stereotype that we all like grumbling about the weather, I’ll get down to business. People are leaving and others are coming in to take their places, some of those who’ve left are hanging round to have a go at the school, but I’m sure they’ll get bored soon. I’ve also finished teaching the wealthy students out at Foxes’ Nose. They build unique and beautiful houses for people with similar piles of wealth as they have, and have just received three big orders for new houses on the outskirts of Moscow. It’s a shame as I liked going out there and they are good people, but on the other hand I don’t have to get up so early twice a week and I may yet see them again – they told me that they may have a job for me if they decide to expand their projects to the UK.

In their place I’ve got another individual student, less of a high-flyer but no less enthusiastic. So enthusiastic, in fact, that she somewhat overestimated her level of English. I didn’t interview her, but apparently she called the school and told them that she had a high level of English and wanted to boost it with individual lessons, and accordingly I prepared some work for someone fluent in English. Ten minutes into the lesson, when I found myself explaining words like ‘narrow’, ‘wide’ and ‘neighbour’ as well as how to compare two things in English, I realised that my efforts in preparing an advanced lesson had been wasted and that some real-time emergency lesson-planning had to be done. Somehow we muddled through – at least I’ll know to be less ambitious next week, and never to trust what a student says about his or her own level of English.

Finally, the Easter Bunny still hasn’t responded. The countdown is beginning with less than a week to go to the interactive game. I’ll have to give him another nudge tomorrow, only a bit harder than the last one.

Sunday 17th April

'It was the best day of my life'. On this evidence, it’s perhaps fair to say that the interactive game went quite well. And yes, the Easter Bunny did come through with the goods.

Although the teacher’s quote at the school where we did the game was surely a little exaggerated, it’s nice to be appreciated. It’s also nice to be able to help out with ideas and even resources. As is the case with many countries where ESL teachers work, Russian state schools are stony broke, with their teachers receiving less than $100 per month, which is not even a living wage (my one-room flat, which is nothing special, costs $230 per month to rent, for example). A few sheets of green paper, left over after the games, were snapped up, as were six colour pictures of London that I’d printed off the internet. And the kids enjoyed it, even if I had a slight problem when it came to the time to award prizes. I’d arranged three small bags of loosely educational prizes (largely freebies pilfered from the British Council), and, perhaps typically, four students had equal top points when it came to the end of the game. Fortunately I managed to hastily rearrange things so that all four had prizes, and there was even something left for the students with the second highest points total. Of course, there were six of them, and I only had two British Council notepads and a Language Link t-shirt to share between them. Cue a quick tie-break, won by a boy in red suede shoes who knew that Birmingham was England’s second city. Or is it Manchester? Whatever, I suppose he was closest; his classmates’ guesses included Cardiff and Dublin.

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