Teachers. Sometimes, it seems we have few joys. Long class sessions lecturing on topics only we care about (example: my American Women’s Suffrage lecture Friday night, at the end of which a student asked, “what country are you talk about?”). Sleepless nights preparing for the next day’s class, meticulously scripting lesson plans and formulating thematic arcs to get to class in the morning and find that NO ONE did the homework. Policing during tests and catching cheaters; screaming over copying and plagiarism in take-home assignments; deciphering hieroglyphic student handwriting; finally memorizing the names of the one hundred students in the section on the last day of class. It’s too often thankless.
But as an English as a Second/Foreign Language (ES/FL) teacher, life can get extra punchy. I’ve taught in a variety of classrooms for the past eight years, from literacy-level refugee learners crowded around folding tables to pre-graduate international students writing 15-page research papers in air-conditioned university Smart Rooms. We’re expected to be expert linguists and grammarians, able to answer nearly any question that starts with “Why does English…” You have to be an academic & Anglophonic jack-of-all-trades, able to oscillate wildly between grammar classes in language school or vocabulary of biomedical technology in an English for Specific Purposes class. This is nicely illustrated by the two classes I taught in the past seven days. Last Saturday, with Burkinabe English teachers in the sun-scorched West African nation of Burkina Faso, I facilitated training on effectively using Communicative Language Teaching techniques in a large classroom of 60+ students. In another episode from the past week, I taught my Staff English class, which veered off course from my original topic of irregular past tense verbs and somehow arrived with me miming the various stages of childbirth in order to teach vocabulary words like “placenta” and “contractions.” It wasn’t pretty. My teaching never seems to be a very photogenic performance, evidenced by a photo taken at the Burkina English Teacher Association conference that my fellow Fellows and I presented at last week.
English teaching typically requires full-facial commitment. You can’t half-ass “contractions.”
If you live in abroad from your English-speaking shelterland, most people who learn that you are an English teacher invariably follow up with one of a few remarks:
- Non-English speaker: “Can you teach me English?” (What, in the next five minutes?)
- Non-English speaker: “How can I improve my English?” (I call this the “doctor” question.)
- Native English Speaker: “Oh! Me too! I did a weekend course in Prague!” (That’s when my M.A. diploma starts to weep.)
- Person with Proper Job: “Why?” (I have no idea.)
Complaining aside, though, we have our fun. Language learners tend to provide a never-ending stream of linguistic concoctions that even T.S. Eliot on mushrooms couldn’t hallucinate into being. Like the student who replaced “organic” with “orgasmic” in a paper arguing against the use of aspartame. Don’t think for a second that I am an unfeeling, unkind Teacher Who Would Laugh Until She Sobbed in the face of that poor student, shaming s/he into never attempting to write in English again. That’s what teachers’ rooms are for. Protecting student dignity while allowing us, in secret, to decompress and fall on the floor laughing over these gems. It sounds cruel, but we all practice a form of it, right? Nurses complain about patients. Taxi drivers tell stories about drunkards falling face-first out of the car and into mud puddle. It’s a pressure release, a sort of game to help us teachers vent and prevent us from taking out our latent rage on our students.
All of that serves as an introduction to a related, but even more beloved game than “Find the ESLness in the Paper.” I call it “You REALLY Didn’t Do the Reading, Did You?” and, to be fair, it’s a game that doesn’t even require an ES/FL class. It just gets more fun this way.
For your viewing pleasure, I present some of the greatest moments in YRDDTRDY of my 2014 and 2015 sections of American Literature. My fellow English and ES/FL teachers, be warned. Ahead lie atrocities against literature. (Identities protected!)
Gatsby… man of “Scott Fig,” Egypt, South America, and Madrid.
WCW’s “Red Wheelbarrow” (glazed, sweet, cold): A poem about slaves that would walk like elephants in the rain from morning till evening.
Until next time, peace, love & YRDDTRDY from Musanze.