In here final diary entry, Laura McGinnis tells us about the Czech Christmas festival of Mikulas, as well as getting to grips with phrasal verbs and misleading classroom names.
Even the most confident teacher gets a little paranoid when her students start whispering in Czech, so when Lenka and Dana launch into a third conference at the end of class I start to fidget. Is it my clothes? My hair? Was my lesson indescribably dull? Just as my skin begins breaking into hives, Dana pulls from her purse a St. Nicholas bag.
'This is for you,' she says, 'for Mikulaš.' The sixth of December is the feast of Mikulaš, which the Czechs celebrate the night before.
'We don’t know if you were good or bad,' Dana says, and she hands me the bag, which holds two chocolate statuettes: one saint, one devil.
Last year I had my classes brainstorm Mikulaš lexis, ostensibly to improve their vocabulary, but really because I wanted to learn about the holiday. Hell, was a popular response. Devil. Angel. Candy. Chains. Potatoes. Coal. Tears. None of them, I noticed, mentioned saint or bishop, the position for which Mikulaš is celebrated.
Radka and Klara elaborated on the holiday for me. 'At night, Mikulaš comes and puts in the socks many good things or maybe, if child is bad, potato or coal or onion. But children are not happy if they get the potato,' Klara said. It strikes me that this Advent grab bag is an apt metaphor for teaching – sweets and potatoes, and the occasional lump of coal. And the devil, I ask? People dress up in trios, they explained – one angel, one devil, one saint – and go to entertain the children. The devil tries to frighten them, the angel pleads on their behalf, and the saint offers clemency to those who can recite a poem or a song. Radka said the parents often let them know how the child’s behavior is. 'And maybe if the child is not so well in school, the devil he say, ‘Ah, I know you are not so good at school so maybe I take you to the hell.’
'You really tell your children they’re going to Hell?' I ask. They nod.
Ho, ho, ho.
Ivan has trouble with phrasal verbs, he says. There are too many in general conversations, and not enough in the book. Maybe we could study a few each week, in addition to the general vocabulary?
OK,' I say. 'Thank you.' At least, this is what my mouth says while my brain is cueing the sound effect of scuttling feet and a slamming door. I hate phrasal verbs.
I brought this on myself, I know. Frustrated by Elena’s continued misbehavior – a determination to make faces, ignore my directions, talk in Czech, roll her eyes and refuse to do the assignments which I ignored until her speaking partner started sending text messages – I demanded the class’s attention and asked them point-blank if they were enjoying the course. A few laughed, but most knew I was serious. I pointed out that their behavior problems suggested disinterest. 'If I don’t get feedback, I don’t know how to teach this class,' I said. I didn’t expect Elena to tell me how she wants to learn, but I suppose the more optimistic part of my brain was hoping she might give me something. And instead this: phrasal verbs.
One day in sixth grade I was discussing foreign languages with a friend. I don’t remember the friend, but I remember the conversation because her argument astounded me. English, she said, was the hardest language to learn because it used expressions, which other languages did not use. From this poorly elaborated nugget I concluded that foreign languages were devoid of metaphor, and I was bewildered. It seemed impossible to me, but my experience with foreign tongues was limited to Pig Latin, and I took my friend’s assertion on faith.
That bit of absurdity went uncorrected until seventh grade, when I started to study French. I quickly realized that other languages did use figurative speech, but I couldn’t understand what my friend had meant by her cryptic statement. Not until I started teaching English as a Foreign Language did I realize that she had been referring to phrasal verbs: those two-word verbs comprising a verb and a smaller word, generally a preposition, which are the bane of all my English-teaching friends.
Phrasal verbs are the most difficult part of grammar I have had to teach. They’re not logical. Why do we say that two friends with a good relationship are 'getting on'? And why is a pleased person 'getting off'? Secondly, most phrasal verbs have multiple meanings – and many of those meanings have multiple phrasal verbs. To make a phone call you can dial up, phone up, call up or ring up your friend – but you can also ring up the total on a cash register….
Like any native speaker, I use phrasal verbs carelessly, dropping them in my conversation without thinking, but as a teacher I have to make a conscious effort to avoid them. The first time I taught them as a grammar unit, I was a nervous fledgling teacher, so I addressed my students before we began.
'I know they’re confusing,' I said, 'but I think we can take them on and figure them out. Let’s give it a shot and see what we come up with.'
My feelings on phrasal verbs are best summed up by a conversation I overheard about two years before I moved to Prague. Long before I was an English teacher, I spent a week in Poland with my friend Nigel, who was teaching EFL in Krakow. Nigel had a close friend named Brad, whose father was visiting and insisted on taking us out one night. During dinner, he started chiding his son for what he considered a lazy career choice. Brad was instantly defensive, arguing that teaching English was quite challenging and demanded a thorough knowledge of grammar. His father continued to scoff.
'Just because you can speak English doesn’t mean you can teach it,' Brad insisted. 'For example, do you know what a phrasal verb is? What’s a phrasal verb?'
His dad swore at him, nonplussed. Brad nodded thoughtfully.
'That’s a good one,' he admitted.
I am two classes short of vacation, and they’re both substitutions. I prepared the lessons this afternoon: grammar for the exam class, and a holiday discussion for the conversation class. At the front desk I ask for the key to room 8, and the woman takes me there – unnecessary really, as I taught a class here last year. Room 8, mysteriously, is located in the basement, far away from rooms 1-7, and has terrible acoustics. I take out my worksheets, write a warmer on the board, and survey the tables, wondering how best to rearrange them.
When I check my watch I see that class started five minutes ago. And I have no students. I check my roster. In large, highlighted letters, the administrators have highlighted the information that this class normally meets in room 11, but is meeting in room 8 today. I call my boss, to confirm that I should be in room 8. I should. I run up the stairs anyway and check room 11. Empty.
My boss calls me thirty minutes later to ask if anyone’s shown up. 'I guess they’ve gone Christmas shopping,' she says. My second class isn’t much better. Three students arrive, out of 12. Still, the lesson goes well, and at 1930 I leave the school and head to the staff party with several colleagues.
When we arrive, I see my boss at the bar and I walk over to greet her.
“Laura,” she says, cheerfully. 'Do you know there are two classroom 8s at the school?'