Number one for English language teachers

Diary 2: Christmas party

In his second diary entry, Saul Pope talks about writing his schools' Christmas play, and trying to get his class through the topics of 'stress' and 'jobs'.

Friday 29th October

Halloween is almost upon us, and I haven’t been sent any free Halloween lessons by email. I just hope they get their act together in time for 5th November. Although all these free lessons are nice to have, I tend to find that they only really come into their own at holidays and festivals. I don’t think you can go wrong with the free Christmas lessons, or at least I hope they won’t this year - I can’t get the Wham! Last Christmas gap fill and discussion activity out again…

Sunday 31st October

No trick-or-treaters tonight – I don’t think they bother in Russia, and very wise too. As I sit on this cool St. Petersburg evening it is therefore not the potential knock at the door from an evil child that gives me slight discomfort, but the fact that tomorrow is November. After that it’ll be December and time for our Christmas play, and at present I don’t have a clue what to do. This is my third year at Language Link, and it’ll also be my third play. The difference is that before I wasn’t in charge, and had nothing to worry about but learning my lines and the odd bout of stage fright. Now things are a bit different.

My involvement so far has been thus. Two years ago I played a kebab seller, a role seamlessly slotted into the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. There were two main problems with this production. The first was that, as we found out the day before we were due on stage, the play would be staged in a huge room in a nightclub. The room would have been perfect for drum ‘n’ bass music, but when it came to us trying to project our reedy English voices through thirty-odd rows of chairs, the high ceiling kind of did for us. As much as our school director shouted at us to speak louder, nothing could make us be heard properly.

Perhaps having already half surrendered after this rehearsal was the biggest cause of the second problem. Much of the cast was rolling drunk by the time we took to the stage on Saturday. I arrived at 10am to find teachers already getting stuck into bottles of Baltika beer, and once the bar had opened (we were, after all, in a nightclub), things began to go decidedly pear-shaped.

Aside from me leaving the stage two or three lines too early we got through without too many foul-ups, though it was clear that nobody in the audience really knew what was going on. We took our sparse applause gratefully at the curtain and quickly repaired to a local restaurant for yet more Baltika, vowing never to take part in any more Christmas plays.

A little less than a year later, as ADoS, I found myself with little excuse for not getting involved again. If I was trying to press-gang jaded teachers into starring in the show, there was no excuse for me not getting up there myself. And, if I was honest, I’d enjoyed the teamwork and camaraderie of the previous year’s effort. In my new role I was promoted to playing the Russian Father Christmas in a story where he and his American counterpart clash over who gets to deliver the presents to Russia. Things get resolved in the end with the Russian Santa deciding that he and his merry men ought to learn English at Language Link (funny that).

The effort that went into this production was tremendous. Not only was the script well written but also we had some excellent songs which one teacher went to great trouble to write. The feeling as we celebrated in a Chinese restaurant (again with Baltika) afterwards was that the whole thing had been a great success, and that we’d deserved the applause, photos and invites to Christmas parties that we’d received afterwards. It really was a great production (and a great after-party).

So now it’s my turn to come up with something decent. I‘d better get my thinking cap on…

Wednesday 3rd November

Got a Bonfire Night lesson by email today, so they’ve made up for Halloween. Unlike Halloween I quite like 5th November, and was happy to spend a good section of my favourite class today discussing it. It’s a good class topic as it’s about the only British festival nobody knows much about. Try asking them about Christmas or Valentine’s Day and watch their eyes glaze over, but Bonfire Night is different. I think I like it not just for the fireworks, toffee apples and sparklers, but also for it’s ambiguity – are we celebrating the fact that Fawkes, Catesby et al were caught, or is it the fact that someone came close to doing away with the government that appeals?

My other duties mean that I only teach two groups, both of CAE students. I’ve got my favourite group and my less favourite group. The problem with the favourite group is digression; lesson plans are starting to go out of the window, and there are even digressions off the topics of digression. I’ve already written about the less favourite group, where things have certainly improved (hence they are now my less favourite group rather than something unprintable) but are still somewhat less than perfect. Things have been spiced up for me of late by the addition of my boss’ son to the class. He’s a nice enough guy, but it adds that extra bit of pressure to an already tough group.

Saturday 6th November

AM

I did it. Yesterday I got up at the crack of dawn, opened my laptop before my eyes were even opened properly and knuckled down to some serious creative thinking. I kept this up all morning, aided only by my wife’s suggestions and copious amounts of green tea, and by early afternoon we had it – the Christmas play. I’ve stolen quite a few ideas from last years play, including the excellent song, but there are plenty of chances for the audience to get involved (they’d better...).

Now I just need to find some actors…I’ll put it before the jury of teachers on Tuesday.

PM

I didn’t quite do it after all. Just ran through the play with my wife (we played all the parts) and discovered that the play is actually half the length it should be (half an hour rather than an hour). Oh dear.

Wednesday 10th November

We were lucky enough to have a day off on Monday, due to a public holiday. I spent it wisely – firstly I got my hair cut and secondly, I worked on the Christmas play. I now look a lot smarter than I did, though the hairdresser spent the entire operation looking like a footballer going in for a particularly brutal and cynical tackle, so I was for a time worried. Having said that, getting my hair cut in Russia is no longer the logistical nightmare it once was.

There was nothing brutal or cynical about my work on the Christmas play, fortunately, and I added quite a chunk to it without many problems. And my staff, bless them, really liked it when I showed it to them yesterday. All have agreed to take part, and the first rehearsal is tomorrow. The students are already getting excited – whole groups have already promised to come from what I’ve been told, so we shouldn’t have any problem selling tickets.

Perhaps my attention has been taken away from teaching due to the play, because for my lessons so far this week I’d give myself a big round six. Not what I was hoping for when I turned up full of energy on Tuesday morning, but it seems the topic of stress wasn’t quite as fruitful for producing speaking practise as I’d hoped. According to the test we did in class nobody is stressed in either of my groups, and that kind of limits the work we can do on the topic. So tomorrow it’s back to basics – jobs. I’ve spent so many classroom hours talking about jobs and finding out about what people think are well-paid/ badly-paid/ interesting/ dangerous ones that I could probably write a book on the subject, but as yet jobs and stress have remained uncharted territory for this group. I wonder what they think are the most stressful jobs in Russia.

Friday 12th November

Although it’s certainly not number one, teaching EFL perhaps rates pretty highly as a stressful job in Russia. Half the Thursday nightmare group (the good half) got on with the jobs and stress stuff well; the other half wriggled around in their chairs and gossiped in Russian, only lapsing into English when they had some triviality they figured might interest me. I hate having to get angry with students, especially ones who are old enough to know better, but it had to happen yesterday and probably will again very soon. Of course you’ve got to cut teenagers some slack, but they’ve got to learn that they’re not the only people in the room as well. And when I’m talking, they should be quiet.

That’s enough of them anyway; I’ll let my grievances with them lie until Tuesday’s lesson, for which I’ve planned a doctor/ patient stress role-play (I came up it with whilst I was doing the washing-up tonight). Any more bad lessons, and I’ll be the patient.

Anyway, that tiring and noisy hour was without doubt the nadir of the week. Good points included getting out of presenting, in Russian, a summary of our winter camp programme to forty eager travel agents; well, it’s hardly a DoS’ job, is it? My Russian is good, but it’d certainly have taken a turn for the worse up in front of forty-plus native Russian speakers.

We’ve also started rehearsing the play and so far things aren’t going too badly though, admittedly, it is early days. We all need to learn to speak clearly and sl-ow-ly. And in a new addition to the script one poor actor has got to try and make the 300-strong audience stand up, touch their heads and turn around before sitting back down again (it wasn’t my idea). He doesn’t know about it yet, so make sure none of you tell him.

Finally, I keep having happy recurring dreams of immersing myself for several hours in a crisp copy of The Guardian, only to wake up and remember where I am. The Web editions of newspapers just aren’t the same. One of these days I’m going to stop these dreams by going to the only place in St. Petersburg that sells (admittedly overpriced) day-old Guardians and get myself a copy. If I’d had time today I would have got myself a copy.

Here’s a question for all those out there who think teaching EFL must be a walk in the park. What tense was the last sentence of the last paragraph in, and how would you explain when to use it to someone who hasn’t got a clue what you’re on about?Answers with the next diary entry.

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