Number one for English language teachers

Diary 4: The eighties are back!

In his fourth set of diary entries, DoS Saul Pope talks about the life of an English teacher in St Petersburg

Sunday 5th December

st petersburg

If I tell you that the biggest news of the week is that Bananarama are coming to do a concert in St. Petersburg, part of an eighties throwback thing that is currently plaguing Russia, you'll get the idea that this has been a quiet week. The city hasn’t seen anything quite like it since the Pet Shop Boys were here in 1997 (I’m not including the vastly overpriced Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston concerts of last year), and it will probably be some time before the residents of St. Petersburg are lucky enough to see something quite so special again.

Oh yes, I almost forgot, on Wednesday a teacher fell on the ice and broke a bone in his wrist. Better than the week before when three teachers were robbed; things seem to be calming down. The teacher in question can carry on working and will be out of plaster within a few weeks, and I count myself lucky that he’s the hardy type who wants to carry on – I’m sure other people, including me, would have been looking to get the first plane back home in the event of such inconveniences as a broken bone.

Apart from these two pieces of news the only other thing that springs to mind is that I’ve forgotten how to teach teenagers. As a spoiled DoS who chooses his own timetable and groups, last August I automatically gave myself the groups I knew I would get along best with and whose courses seemed the most interesting (and demanding) to me. In doing this I have improved my grammar teaching, my techniques for introducing advanced vocabulary and my general understanding of the CAE exam, but in bettering myself in these ways I have become blind, or at least immune, to one of the biggest problems my staff face on a daily basis – getting teenagers interested in English.

I’m sure Russia is no different to most other countries when it comes to teenage groups. There are always one or two well-motivated (and sometimes very pedantic) students in teenage groups, but the rest have far more interest in impressing their peers or playing with their mobile phones than the future perfect.

On Thursday I trekked to the very south-eastern end of the city to deliver one of our open advert lessons to a group of teenagers. Things started off badly when I realised that I was on my own (the lady who does the advertising at such events didn’t turn up, hence it ended up as not much of an advert lesson), but got a little better when I entered the classroom to see only twenty students. Over the past few weeks teachers have been shoe-horned into classes of forty and fifty-seven students for open lessons, though there is still a way to go to beat last year’s record of eighty one.

Open lessons are only forty-five minutes, but I’m sure the clock was going backwards as they devoured every task, ignoring the educational value of the process and instead looking for the quickest result, leaving me not really knowing what to do next. ‘They want to ask you about England’, hinted their regular teacher, so I gave them the chance to ask me. Silence - nobody had any questions. However, once the bell had (thankfully) rung for end of the lesson they suddenly found their tongues, and as they circled round me I was asked whether I am married, where my wife was and what my favourite football team is. One boy even took a photo of me with the camera he’d been playing with all lesson.

It worries me not that they were asking where my wife was or that they seemed to know nothing about Leicester City, but that they waited until after the lesson to ask. The atmosphere in the lesson was all wrong. It’s obviously difficult to build up a rapport with a group of people in such a short space of time, but it’s not impossible.

Time for a refresher course for me on teenagers; in doing this lesson I completely forgot the basics when it comes to teaching them – show them some respect and that their opinions count, make it interesting by doing tasks relevant to their age group and if they don’t like an activity lose it and start on something else.

To make things worse, a fight started on the trolleybus on the way back to the office. I turned my back on the brawlers and pulled my woolly hat tighter over my head to block out the grey day. Sometimes it can be quite depressing to live in St. Petersburg…

Tuesday 7th December

It’s getting more and more difficult to get up in the mornings. As if it wasn’t bad enough already, the fact that it’s gloomy outside until 10.00 at the moment makes it hard to make it to those morning classes. We’re fortunate that we get the opposite in the summer here; it only gets dark for an hour or two in June and July. Then the problem is not getting up but getting yourself to bed at all, as the city transforms itself and becomes an exciting place to live once again.

Two of my students are taking the CAE listening and speaking exams on Thursday – we did some practice today. Hopefully the advice I’ve given them is right and they’ll get on OK. These are the first students I’ve put in for the exam, so I’m a bit paranoid that I’ve missed something glaringly obvious; if this proves to be the case I’ll just have to frown authoritatively and tell them that the problem area must be a new part of the exam (before hurrying away to hide any similar practice papers I can find). Anyway, I’ll find out on Thursday.

Thursday 9th December

I noticed a funny thing today, on reading a recent email that I’d sent to a friend. I’m starting to write like a student taking one of the Cambridge exams that I’m teaching. Gone is the cutting edge language and rapier wit of before, replaced by something blander with a good beginning, middle and end and rather clumsy usage of slang. I suppose my school and university teachers would rejoice that I’ve finally learnt to write properly, but to me it means only one thing – I’m starting to lose the plot when it comes to my own language. It would seem to come out of being away from my native country for too long and, although not forgetting how to write properly, losing touch with how the language is evolving.

The same is true of speaking. I rarely hear native speakers. This coupled with the nature of my job, means that I’ve got too used to grading my language and speaking slowly in English all the time. When back for breaks in England I find myself talking to my mum and sister and thinking of how to say what I want to say in a simple and clear way so that they’ll understand. (If you read this either of you, no offence, I’ve just got used to doing that all day every day over here.) Another teacher told me of how he found himself in the pub back in Scotland, chewing the fat with his friends, asking them nice and slowly and clearly, ‘So, what – do – you – think?’ It’s a wonder he didn’t leap up to an imaginary board to revise question forms.

So, what can we do about this affliction which, as well as potentially turning us into social pariahs, almost certainly has a detrimental effect on our teaching (we can’t speak and write the language as well as we used to)? One answer is to spend a lot of time reading on the internet, but this isn’t really an option for a busy person who wants to socialise with the locals or other teachers. Another option would be for schools to send teachers who have been in-country for more than a couple of years on short ‘refresher’ breaks back home. All they’d need to do is pay for your ticket home and give you a week or so to reabsorb the way real English is spoken.

The speaking and listening CAE exam went not too badly today. A section on the history of cherries had them stumped in the listening paper but everything else seemed to be fine, and I can be proud that I helped them towards this. Hopefully the grade they get will justify their hard work.

Sunday 12th December

Getting closer to the end of term, and closer to the play. Our rehearsal on Friday was only hampered by the no-shows of three actors, meaning that we actually couldn’t do much rehearsing at all. Next rehearsal is in the theatre a week today, and I hope it’ll all come together at that point. Or at least that everyone will turn up.

I suppose it doesn’t matter too much if the play bombs; the audience will be made up of around 300 schoolchildren who don’t speak much English, so the fluffing of lines or poor comic timing will be largely lost upon them. The most important things will be to look good and pretend to be confident, as is the case with most things in life. What’s perhaps more at risk if the performance is bad is our collective pride and morale, and I don’t want that to be dented with a long Russian winter ahead of us.

On a lighter note one of my students, who has just been to London for a week, brought me back a copy of one of my favourite football magazines. He’ll probably get an ‘A’ in his next test. I spent a whole morning barely speaking to anyone as I ploughed my way though it, so as you can tell I am quite a saddo in my free time. Now I just need to get my hands on that elusive copy of The Guardian, which I still haven’t got round to buying …

theatre 2

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