In much the same way as I once found it inconceivable that I’d ever suffer the indignity of reaching the terrifying age of 30, so it seems preposterous that this year marks the twentieth anniversary of my career in English Language Teaching! In acknowledgement and commemoration of this rather momentous life event, I’ve decided that over the course of the next twelve months I shall attempt to blog twenty pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned during my years at the chalk face . . . and in publishing and on the conference circuit.
In April 1993, I stumbled onto my one-month CTEFLA course at Westminster College, having spent the previous two years (since graduating in 1991) doing everything from building site labouring to making sandwiches in a factory canteen, from demonstrating ‘the ancient Chinese game of Jenga’ (TM) in Hamley’s the Toy Shop to buying and selling old records in the legendary and indeed infamous Music and Video Exchange empire, all the while trying my darndest to enjoy the many and varied delights, shall we say, that London’s nightlife had to offer. I was 24 and reaching some kind of burnout point. A change I was most definitely ready for!
As with many native-speaker teachers, a career in education was certainly never something I’d planned on. In fact, it was a fateful conversation in a pub in Soho with an old friend, the splendidly named Julian Savage, that pushed me on down the road I’ve been exploring ever since. A few years older than me, I’d first encountered Julian in Our Price Hastings and our initial bond was to do with the fact we both sported bowl cuts and loved The Byrds and The 13th Floor Elevators. Julian had himself wandered into TEFL a few years earlier as a way to facilitate his wanderlust and peripatetic lifestyle. Anyway, he was briefly back from a sojourn in Iran. Or was it Ethiopia? Or Indonesia? Anyway, we retired to a watering hole to catch up and shoot the breeze. At some point, I mentioned I was in need of a change of scene and was contemplating heading off round the works in search of thrills and pastures new – at which juncture a CTEFLA was suggested. “Why would I want to be a teacher?” I asked incredulously. “I hated most of my teachers at school!” “Well,” Julian countered, “that’s as good a reason as any for becoming a teacher! Look on it as a firm of revenge.” And thus my fate was sealed!
With a full set of negative role models to kick against, I stashed two grand away during a gruelling six-month stint working bars seven nights a week and embarked on a whole new adventure. Now, here’s the thing: almost as soon as I’d finished my first twenty-minute teaching practice, I had a strange and most singular feeling – here was some kind of work for which being me was not only no longer a profound disadvantage, but where it may actually be an advantage! In every other form of paid employment I’ve ever had, with the possible exception of second-hand record store work, at some point or other being me caused problems. I struggled to confine myself to the (often stark) parameters of the work; I struggled to keep my big mouth shut when confronted with idiotic rules and jobsworths; I struggled not to give in to the overwhelming desire to gouge my own mind out in frustration at the sheer tedium of so much of it!
In many ways, teaching didn’t feel – and to some extent never really has felt – like real work at al, certainly not when compared to trying to prevent the local apes from ripping each other’s faces off on a Friday night’s pub crawl down the Old Kent Road! As such, it’s probably worth considering why that might be the case.
Obviously, much of the early appeal, apart from (and let’s be honest here) the thrill of being in close proximity to so many beautiful and interesting young people from all over the world, was down to the space teaching allowed for whatever kind of demented (albeit well-intentioned) attempts to create my own lessons I could muster. It took me probably far too long to realise that not only were my students not massively interested in lessons based around David Bowie‘s God Knows I’m Good or A Clockwork Orange, but also – more crucially – that they weren’t teaching much of real utility.
I was also slow to grasp that stumbling into class pretending to be drunk really wasn’t the best way of teaching the present perfect continuous, but I was still intoxicated by the freedom allowed me and by the plaudits of being ‘dynamic’ that students rained on me.
In retrospect I can see that a lot of poor teaching is excused – or possibly even validated – by a kind of pedagogical relativity, where we persuade ourselves that we teach as we wish to be taught, as though this justifies all, or where rampant experimentation is not only tolerated but actively encouraged. the point is, though, that teaching is a broad church and one that allows you to explore and work through all of this and more. Which is why becoming an English language teacher felt to me – and I’m sure to many many others – like falling into a me-shaped hole.
I later learned, of course, that the Subud quote on the back of one of the early Funkadelic LPs about freedom being free of the need to be free is profoundly true when it comes to teaching, and that it’s perfectly possible to still be both completely yourself in class and yet operate within clearly thought-out and even fairly narrow parameters.
But that, perhaps, is an area best left for another day!