Worlds Taken Apart and
Put Together Again
Inspired by Bohumil Hrabal’s
“The Little Town Where Time Stood Still,”
by Radu Jude’s short movie, “Alexandra,”
by the recent event in Polish history (10.04.2010)
In December last year I was handing out an end-of-term assignment to my students based on the short movie “Alexandra,” directed by Radu Jude (2007), and on a fragment (Chapter 3) from “The Little Town Where Time Stood Still” by Bohumil Hrabal. The assignment was an essay writing task, prompted by such questions:
- How would you describe the members of this family?
- How many broken things can you identify in the short movie?
- Does the metaphor of the broken bicycle tell you something about the Romanian society? What about the society we live in, in general?
- What is the “oil” that keeps the mechanism of our society running?
- Can you think of any situation in which the mechanism of society got broken or came to a halt? Were the damages irreparable?
“The Little Town Where Time Stood Still” (1973)
- Have you ever looked for mistakes or flaws in some systems you were using?
- Are such mistakes predictable?
- How well prepared can we be for unexpected breaches in the systems we count on?
- If there are breaches, what keeps it all together?
- Are there any things beyond our ability to fix?
- Can we be ready to deal with things that we are unable to fix?
- What is the fuel that keeps our society moving on and progressing, despite breaches and tragedies?
No one could have predicted the tragic event that occurred only yesterday and left a country without its presidential couple and without an irreplaceable part of the Polish political and social infrastucture. The thoughts that crossed my mind in this context brought back many memories. Among them, the questions above, that I had formulated for the essay writing task thinking about events that break and reunite a society. I believe that the outcome of the tragic event in Smolensk, that we are experiencing in Poland and abroad at this time, is going to be overcome by precisely the kind of fuel that always brings people together in time of need: human solidarity, love, support and wisdom-driven actions.
Looking back on apparently minor things like this assignment, I am grateful for the inspiring moments that make us think further than we think we can. As usual, when I set a task for others, I set it for myself too. You can read my thoughts on Radu Jude’s short movie and Bohumil Hrabal’s novel below.
For the next seven days I will post on the English Learners Blog selected papers written by my students, on the same topic: events that breach systems and solutions that make them work again.
For a selection of my students’ papers click on the links below; for an overview in my own words, read on!
In a world affected by distrust and divide, even a child’s question can shatter long-held beliefs.
Alexandra is a child who lives with her mother, her grandmother, and her mother’s boyfriend in Bucharest. Just like any child her age, she is asking a lot of questions.
Why is water called “water” and why is her father’s name “Tavi” when daddy (in Romanian “tati”) seemed to have sufficed?
Her innocent childish questions become real threats to her father. They turn into proof of lying, deceit and manipulation in his eyes. His seven-year-old child must have been taught by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend not to call him father (“daddy”/ “tata”) any more. He feels he is gradually losing ground, especially since the divorce. Doubts give rise to suspicion and quarrels are easy to spark. When the “guilty” try to disculpate themselves, their efforts are vain. Tavi is not easy to give up on suspicion, since he is not in control of his daughter’s time any more. The only part of time he can “control” is her Sundays, and he is not going to give up on this scrap of her time without a fight.
It is difficult to make any righteous comments after watching the ten-minute cross-section of this family’s tragedy. Divorce, separation and distrust may affect the world as irreparably as wars or human loss.
How people deal with such tears and scars is a process that transcends nationality, gender and race. Just as these tears and scars, belief, love, hope and faith in the future are also universal. It is only natural for salvation to rest in them too.
We are all children of the Earth, contemplating with marvel the mysteries of its mechanisms.
Dad, as long as we still had the Orion, that dreadful motorbike, which had to go in for general repairs after every ride, used to spend every Saturday stripping it down, but never alone…
(1993, p. 164)
Bohemia is the little spool of a town on which Bohumil Hrabal’s story is wound. Apart from spool-like towns like Bohemia there are, of course, other smaller and bigger spools in the greater universe of lives and stories. However, Bohemians like the father in this story, who sets apart his motorbike without it being broken only to understand its mechanism and prevent future mishaps, who does this always in someone’s company (to ensure a legacy being instituted) and always with the aim of putting it together again a little better each time, always strikes my imagination into motion.
In this stirring of the imagination Bogumil Hrabal had won me over as a reader ever since I read on of his books for the first time – one of my all time favourites, “Too Loud A Solitude.” The force in his writing is remarkable, considering that he wrote several of his books as he was recovering from the grips of illness.
I wrote this Little Town in the early spring of 1973, when illness was in the offing, and I fondly imagined that I alone held the keys to these stories […] So again this text, like The King of England, is written by the spontaneous method of peril in lingering […]
Why, some may ask?
I am putting the bar so high that it vanishes in the glittering azure, because for what I shall be attempting, to join consciousness and unconsciousness, vitality and existentiality, to abolish the object as the outer and inner model, for that leap is required, and only my illness, that university of mine, which I lived through in the hospital on Charles Square, only that may perhaps be able to prepare for me a jumping-off point, from which I shall jump head first into the gravitational field of emotionality. Up then towards that which as yet is not.
Selected quotations from the author’s Afterword (1993, pp. 300-302)
The temptation of deconstructing, disassembling, and reorganizing the mechanism of a utility such as a motorbike, springs out of a noble desire of improvement known to us all. The frequency with which it occurs in this particular case is what pushes noblesse into the realm of the hilarious. Yes, our character falls prey to the same impetuous desire of disassembling and reassembling the inner mechanism of his bike every single weekend. He also likes to lure into his endeavours at least a witness or follower.
To anyone not in the know Dad, on a Saturday afternoon, would pop the question, “What are we doing then this afternoon?” And anyone unawares would reply honestly that they were doing nothing special[.] And anyone not in the know came along, little suspecting that Dad was dismantling the big end, and the neighbour would hand him the spanners and dad would delve further and further down towards the rattle in the engine, which was a congenital feature of that engine, a kind of permanent ailment it was, like someone with a hobble on one foot or with a stammer. [Y]oung men and old men alike took the bike apart with Dad, and time marched on towards midnight, and dawn began to rise, and dad decided that now was the time to put the engine together again, what joy awaits us when at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning, when the bells begin to ring, let’s have a bet on it, Dad proffers his hand, I kick the starter just the once to try it out and the engine peals into life like the Sunday bells.
(1993, pp. 166 – 167)
Sometimes, however, bets don’t work, the unexpected happens, and plans that seem concrete vanish. Good intentions have to come to a halt, which in this case is as abrupt as time stopping.
…And Dad ran about with the hammer, and being unable to kill [what caused the problem and thwarted his plans], he took out his watch, put it on the little anvil and with one blow shattered it to smithereens, the only way to save himself from smashing in [the invisible head of the problem] instead of the watch…
(1993, pp. 165-166)
This is when the time stands still in the watch that was smashed and in the world of the one who smashed it into stillness. Tragedies make us feel like that, like the Time has stopped or, in any case, has to stop. However, Time itself never stops. It marches on, irrespective of tragedies. It is us who need to take some time, pick up the broken pieces and eventually move on.
Where do we take our strength from?
The hope in other people’s eyes, from helping hands, Chopin, candle flames, and memories.
For everyone the time to recover Time is a personal mystery.
What we can do is join in each other tragedy in support, love, and understanding, and
let our watches tick minutes of Life, Joy, Friendliness and Gratitude
Celebration hour with Alina Alens
on Easter Sunday, April 4th, from 9 pm (GMT+1)!
Explore the world of education with an exclusive
John Marshall interview!
Tune in for novelties, new music and
a Romanian-English touch!
April 4th 2010
- Richard Bona: ESOKA (Trust your Heart) – Reverence (2001)
- ALENS: MAINE – upcoming CD Back To Myself (2010)
- A Perfect Circle: VANISHING – Thirteenth Step (2003)
- Richard Bona: MUTO (Bye Bye) – Munia: The Tale (2003)
- Gathering: SATURNINE – Sleepy Buildings – A Semi Acoustic Evening (2004)
- ALENS: SEND YOUR ANGELS – upcoming CD Back To Myself (2010)
Are you a teacher? Here are some questions for you that I used in my interview with John Marshall, a British born published author currently living, writing & teaching English in Krakow. Send in your own answers to firstname.lastname@example.org and your contribution will be notified, put to good use & highly appreciated!
1. I would like you to offer the listeners a few words about your background in teaching English. How did you first get into teaching and why are you a teacher?
2. Do you find your experience of being a student having an influence on the way you teach today?
3. What is your attitude toward teaching? Has it changed over time since you started teaching?
4. Does your job as a teacher blend in with your life and other interests?
5. Did you have moments of doubt about your career as an English teacher? What triggered these doubts?
6. What is your students’ attitude towards you and, generally, towards the learning process?
Has it always been the same?
7. What is your opinion about the role of improvisation in teaching? During a class that I visited last year a student answered “I don’t have a written answer to this question, but I can improvise.” How would you react to this response?8. Are there any ideal students? Have you had any?
9. How is your satisfaction level with the classes you are teaching this year?
Has it always been the same?
10. Do elements like the environment, the culture of the country you live in, or your professional relationships influence you as a teaching professional in any way?
11. How can you tell if your students are satisfied with what they experience during your English class?
12. How would you describe your own learning curve as a teaching professional? Does it have an end?
13. Do you have a favourite teaching topic, subject or activity?
14. If you were given the opportunity of introducing and/or co-organising additional events to teaching at your work place, what would they be?
15. Where or who do you turn to when you experience difficulties in teaching or are uncertain about something related to teaching?
16. Is teaching an easy job?
17. Have other teachers told you that teaching seems easy?
18. What are the particular ingredients that make a class great? From your experience.
19. Give us an example of the best feedback, comment or opinion that you have received as a teacher._____________________________________________
AA: I would like you to offer the listeners a few words about your background in teaching English. How did you first get into teaching and why are you a teacher?
JM: Before I came to Poland I was teaching English to foreigners, in fact, people coming to England who needed to improve their skills there. That was part of the British government’s basic skills drive, to improve everybody’s skills in Maths, English and English as a foreign language. So I was teaching English there for a couple of years.
I got to that, in fact, because previously I was in computer training. So I’d go around and install training systems for private companies, teach everybody corporately how to use computers and then when I’d left the job I’m driving back down the motorway and I’m thinking, “Yeah, I feel very satisfied, I had a good time teaching these people.” And then I thought, teaching, that’s the word! It’s not that they know how to use computers better or they can do fancy things with spreadsheets, I don’t care about computers. It was teaching. So, I thought, “Drop the computers, get yourself a teaching degree, and change your life!” So that’s what I did: I moved from computer training to teaching English. And then a couple of foreign people started coming to my classes in England, I changed from teaching locals to teaching foreigners, and then I thought, “Hey, why not teach these lovely foreign people in their own country? It’s a big world, let’s go and see some of it!” 🙂
AA: And that is how you came to Krakow…
JM: That is it, yes, via, you know, a couple of friends, now, one of them is a girl – 🙂 oh, yeah, it’s the usual story, we don’t need to get into. I have been here, in Krakow, for four and a half years now. I love teaching people. I love the independence of it, for example. I love seeing people learn. It’s a simple answer.
AA: Great! Do you find your experience of being a student having an influence on the way you teach today?
JM: Yes, definitely. I advise any language teacher in any country in the world to be a student, which means, obviously, try to learn the local language – it’s always good, but for the teaching profession it’s very good, because what happens is that, being a student, you are on the other side, of course. You’re looking at, for example, a Polish teacher trying to talk to you Polish, and then you see how it is. And then you think, “Oh, dear, that didn’t work very well! Oh, I do the same thing, don’t I?” or “Oh, that was good! I do that!, That was interesting! I could learn a thing or two out of that,” or “Alright, OK, I must be careful, I must be careful not to do that because I’m not learning very much.”:)
It’s good to be on the other side. It makes you realise again, and remember how the process of learning actually happens, how a teacher should give you new information, what exercises they should use, because you know, when you go home, did you learn that Polish or did you not learn it?
AA: So this is a good testing ground.
JM: Definitely! I’ve got a friend of mine. He’s a new teacher and after a while he says, “Oh, John, it didn’t work very well. What do I do the next time?” And I said, “Well, just simply imagine you sat there instead of standing up talking to them, how would you feel? Were you too overbearing, were you too forceful, or were you too loose? Try to imagine it the other way around.” And he said, “Yeah, great, I’ll do that!”
AA: What is your attitude toward teaching? Has it changed over time since you started your job?
JM: I love teaching! I’m very lucky; I’m one of those people that really loves their job, whether it’s teaching or anything else, so I don’t really feel that it’s work. I approach it professionally. I’m very lucky and I think I’ve always felt that, since the beginning, when I was teaching English people English language skills, before that, when I was training people in computing. I love teaching, I think it is a very worthwhile career, of course. Of course, it is much undervalued, please, if you’re listening, ministers, government, send me more money :), and all teachers, particularly the Polish school teachers.
AA: I subscribe to that!
JM: Yes, definitely undervalued across the world, as we know. The education of young people particularly like, say, in state schools, is of paramount importance. I’ve always felt that, and, in fact, when I first decided to become a teacher and got my degree I tried working at British state schools – primary schools, junior schools – working just for a few weeks with children with special needs, and I’m afraid I couldn’t hack it. I couldn’t do it, there were too many skills involved. I’m not a father, maybe I’m lacking some skills there, but I have got great respect for teachers across the board, whether they are private, public, children, adults. It’s a great profession, and I’m really pleased to be involved in it.
AA: Does your job as a teacher blend in with your life and other interests?
JM: It does for me. I think, like a lot of other EFL teachers, let’s say, working abroad, a lot of us have got part time contracts or maybe no contracts at all, we just work by the hour. Our days are different, our weeks are different, each of us has a different schedule, we’re running around, crossing each other on trams :), and meeting at photocopiers, and that’s how it is. It works for me because I do some writing, as well, I’m writing fiction, newspaper articles, theatre, whatever, and I build that around. We all do bits of proofreading, bits of translation work. Maybe a lot of us teachers are the kind of independent people that don’t fit in certain boxes, we don’t like to be in the offices 9 to 5, bosses, all that regime, so it’s good that you can build your own life, really, around your teaching hours.
AA: Extremely interesting opinion! Did you have moments of doubt about your career as an English teacher and what triggered these doubts?
JM: I’m quite self-critical, a little bit lacking in self-confidence, I suppose. 🙂 I shouldn’t be, because I’ve been doing this job long enough now, well, most students come back, so it can’t be too bad… 🙂 So I think the only times of self-doubt, really, just like little ones, maybe, where something’s not quite going well in the classroom, or …
AA: Everybody’s got a bad day, so they say.
JM: Exactly. Or, sometimes, you know, you’ll get a certain dynamic in a certain class. To be honest, somehow, these things are gonna happen. You have great classes, everybody clicks, and they all want to come to class, they have a laugh, and they all go for drinks together. You know the classes are going well, and it’s a joy to teach them. Other times, it might be the fact they don’t want to do the last class on Monday night or the first class on Monday morning, but some of them just don’t want to talk together, it’s hard to teach them, and you think, “Am I doing something wrong here?” And you talk to your co-teacher, to the Polish teacher who teaches them on Wednesday, and he says, “No, they’re the same with me. How do you get them to talk? They’re shy, they’re nervous. One of them has got a nasty look on his face;” whatever it is, there is a dynamic sometimes, and when that happens, I can be self-critical in thinking that I’m doing something wrong. You just have to keep pushing on, knowing that you’re doing a good job. People are people, students are different.
AA: What is your students’ general attitude towards you and, generally, towards learning, here in Poland?
JM: No false modesty, I think I’m pretty good. I’ve been here a few years, haven’t been deported yet :D, things are looking pretty good!
I think my students like me – I’m sure they do, I know they do. I’m good at what I do. I can say that because I know that I’ve got better. You have to get better, of course you do! You can still learn things. The class is very communicative, and that’s always a good sign, apart from that Monday class or whatever it is :). Generally the classes are communicative, they are happy with the teacher, they feel relaxed, they feel they are learning, and they keep coming. When I first started in teaching I said to an old hand, “How do you know your students are not happy?” And he said, “Well, they don’t come back!” – talking about adult students. They just don’t come back on a Monday night at the community centre. Why should they? So, this is a quite simple test: they’re there, they turn up. Especially in these times. We don’t have a big crisis in Poland, but there are many crises and people are losing jobs and corporate training budgets are being cut back. But if in your classes into that second semester, where we are now, you still got the same number of students you had in the first one, then you and your school are doing something well. So I have, generally, a very good relationship with my students, they like me and we both learn, let’s just say, not just them but I continue to learn from them, as well.
AA: And your school’s name is…
JM: Advertising? OK 🙂 If you’re listening, Jaciek, you’re gonna pay me for this! Inter Lang, in Krakow.
AA: What is your opinion about the role of improvisation in teaching? During a class that I visited last year a student answered “I don’t have a written answer to this question, but I can improvise.” How would you react to this response?
JM: If the students decided to improvise I’d think that was great! It shows first, that you’ve got interesting, laid-back students, which I always like, and they’re prepared to have a laugh with you. It shows, second, that they are willing to learn, and try learning in different ways. Improvising… They haven’t improvised very much, I must say, though they work hard. I don’t really find the Poles are the kind of people that are gonna stand up and start jumping on tables, not unless there are a few vodkas involved – but bosses don’t like that very much :). Of course, you can improvise as a teacher. You have to do that. Things are not going very well, so you’ve got to change the plan, go down another direction.
AA: Are there any ideal students? Have you had any?
JM: Quite a few! 🙂 Seriously speaking, an ideal language student is intelligent, inquisitive, hard-working, curious, communicative. That’s good for them for learning, it makes it easier and more interesting for you as an educator, it’s better for the group, they’re learning more.
AA: How is your satisfaction level with the classes you are teaching this year? Has it always been the same?JM: The satisfaction level is very high at the moment. Like I said, good student numbers. I’m at a very good school. I’ve only been there for a couple of years. I continue, as you have to, I continue to learn as a teacher what works, what doesn’t. I’m getting better at assessing my abilities because I’ve been doing it for longer, quite simply, and you gotta know, just take another minute or two, maybe, at the end of the lesson and say, “Well, what worked, what didn’t work?”, “How am I gonna do that better next time?” I’m very pleased with things at the moment.
AA: How do you keep track of that? Do you keep learning notes or you just keep it in your mind?JM: I keep it in my mind, to be honest. It does not happen so often now, but maybe in the first year or two, you think, “Oh, no, I was teaching these relative clauses or these cleft sentences and I looked a bit silly at one point.” If that happens, of course, then you’ve got to set things straight right away, look at the books, look at the notes, make sure that you know what you are doing and that it’s not gonna happen again. But, generally, just in terms of, “OK, these students like these kinds of exercises,” “That wasn’t so good,” or “I need to be a little bit less or a little bit more…,” that’s just a kind of unofficial note to self, I think, for next time.
AA: Thank you for your honesty, actually! I think some people might choose to keep such thoughts exclusively to themselves! An opinion that I have encountered among teachers in Poland and Romania is that showing any of your weaknesses as a professional, even to other teachers’ benefit, might harm your reputation in your colleagues’ eyes or might make you come across as unprepared, which is even worse. I disagree, because we all learn from our mistakes. No one is flaw free.JM: Definitely! If you are in some kind of less than friendly environment where your boss is over your shoulder, I understand you’re gonna be like that, you’re gonna keep that to yourself. Generally, for everybody to be learning and feel comfortable, of course, a nice environment encourages you to do that, to self-reflect; similarly, a little interview now and then with the boss is quite nice.I don’t know if there’s a difference between English nationals teaching the language and Polish people. It seems to me that maybe Poles teaching English here are a little bit more guarded, perhaps, because of the culture, perhaps, because of the way things have been, generally, in the work place.
AA: Do elements like the environment, the culture of the country you live in influence you as a teaching professional in any way?JM: I’ve only taught in two countries: England, and, now, Poland, so I won’t talk too much about the cultural differences. I think everyone listening has their own knowledge about cultural differences, generally. But let’s say the environment of the classroom, the environment of the school. These things do make big differences. Small, oblong-shaped rooms with chairs squashed against the wall in a U-shape, with a narrow little catwalk for the teacher don’t necessarily encourage students to relax and move around. Different students need different spaces, different dynamics, to open up, to relax. In my school the rooms are big, bright, they are well equipped, which, all in all, allows you to stand up, sit down, walk around, get close to the students and for the students to move around in different groups, twos, threes, whatever they need for a mingling exercise, for example. The classroom environment is very important. If you are serious about your teaching, improving and job satisfaction, get out of that school you don’t like, and check out other possibilities.
AA: How can you tell if your students are satisfied with what they experience during your English class?
JM: They keep coming back! Quite simply! These are adult people who are paying what is quite a considerable sum of money to some people here.AA: So they are quite motivated.JM: They’ve got to be motivated, yes. If they are happy they come back. If not, they will vote with their feet and you don’t see them in the next semester. In fact, the school where I work is very confident of what it does, of what it teaches, because it is one of the only schools I’ve heard of that still allows people to drop out. If they want to give up on a Monday night, “I’m not going back to that class or teacher,” the boss says, “Fine, you can have the rest of your money back for the semester.” This is a kind of “money-back” guarantee, which is very good. From class to class, of course, you have to keep your eyes open. Again, I said to an old hand at the beginning, “What do you do when you’re actually not speaking or teaching?” – strange, naive questions. 🙂 He said, “You’re observing all the time, seeing if learning takes place, seeing if people are happy, motivated. Are they awake? Are they playing with their mobile phone? If they are doing that sort of thing, then they are not interested, so you change what you do, you take a different approach.”
AA: How would you describe your own learning curve as a teaching professional? Does it have an end?
JM: I hope it never has an end, cause, you know, then I will start getting bored, and I will start looking at my mobile phone during class. My learning curve as a graph in these last seven years was very sharp, I suppose, in the first two or three years, particularly as I was teaching those basic skills. Of course, in Poland, as in many other countries, we have these language books, student books, the unit-to-unit courses. If you’re not slavish about it, then generally it is a good thing. People like to get their money’s worth. They bought a book and want to go through it, generally, but when I was teaching in England for the first two years I had to make my own lessons up. I was doing this all the time, preparing for hours and hours. Not because I didn’t know this stuff, but this was the nature of the basic skills government drive. I might be teaching someone in a probation centre, who was trying to keep out of prison by signing on to some English courses. Or it might be some little old ladies at a community centre, and then in the morning I was teaching little old ladies from the Chinese restaurant, all kinds of people. Then a private one to one with a dyslexic 70-year-old who suddenly has to learn to read and write, because his wife died, and he doesn’t know that that’s an electricity bill and he’s gonna get cut off next week. So, putting all these different things together, it was a very sharp learning curve for the couple or three years. Now it’s much more gradual. I can rest like many people who’ve been doing the same thing for a few years. Or, I can say, “Alright, I know that, so now I have time to make it even more interesting. Let’s bring in a bit of audio-video material,” or “Can I find something interesting on Youtube?” So you’re adding your bells and whistles now, at this stage, I think.AA: So the truth is it never ends. It is an ongoing process.
AA: Do you have a favourite teaching topic, subject or activity?
JM: I suppose we’re all interested in certain things in life. I like to talk about green issues and other topics relevant to me, current affairs, a little bit of politics, what happens in the world. I like challenging people. If I’ve got students who can really bang out a discussion, then I’m very interested. Private lessons, I really like to have people who reallyget involved and passionate about something, and then they learn a lot of language because they’re striving to express themselves in the right way.AA: They say you really learn a language when you can argue or make a point in a language.
JM: That is it! To those students who can take it, and have the language I like to provoke them, be a kind of a devil’s advocate, you know, asking, for example, someone in Poland, “What about the in vitro fertilisation? That’s a good idea, isn’t it?” or “Catholic church? Do you think that’s gonna catch you on?” – with a wink in your eye to some students. 🙂
AA: If you were given the opportunity of introducing additional events to teaching at your work place, what would they be?
JM: At my workplace right now they have a lot of facilities, technologies, interactive white boards, lots of AV stuff, which we have the opportunity of including in our classes.There is one thing that might seem strange for some. Seriously, I think a teacher should take his students out for a drink! Sometimes teachers do that at the end of a semester or at the end of the year, when everybody knows each other a bit more. But, I thought to myself, “Well that was very good! People who didn’t really talk to each other very much and always sat at the other end of the classroom were chatting – maybe in Polish – and getting along very nicely, finding out that they have a lot of things in common!”AA: This makes it a good ice-breaker.JM: Yes! We should do that at the beginning of the semester. I am not only saying that because I want to have an hour in a coffee shop. No, I’ve got enough of that, anyway. Seriously, it would be great to do that, because then the students would relax with each other very quickly,AA: and take the language out of the classroom, and introduce it to lifeJM: which means that they talk more in English during the classes. Yes, we should do that. Ask your boss: “Can I do this after the first couple of weeks?”
AA: Where or who do you turn to when you experience difficulties in teaching or are uncertain about something related to teaching? Do you have your own resources or doyou ask a colleague for an opinion?JM: I might ask a colleague, “Do You teach that student, also? How is he with you? I’m not sure he’s responding very much.” I might get a bit of advice like that. Or I would say to a Polish co-teacher, “I always have a problem teaching this piece of grammar. Why is that? Is it a problem in Polish?”AA: And then it clicks, “So, that’s why Polish students say, for example, ‘you have right’ instead of ‘you are right’ – because of the Polish ‘miec racje.'”JM: Yes, those kinds of grammatical issues from all kind of levels up and down the language. But, generally, in terms of doing my job, I think I have a pretty good handle on that, to be honest.
AA: Is teaching an easy job for you?JM: The answer, of course, has got to be yes, because, first of all, I like it. I’ve been doing it for so many years, and like anything, you get pretty good at it, so it is easy. Then again, as a problem on this learning curve, comes complacency. You don’t want to be too complacent, because you just go in there, week after week, you’ve taught that book so many times, you’ve taught that level so many times, and then that’s not fair to the students in the next semester. You can get a little bit lazy. You know you’ve got your tried and tested methods. You know that, “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna stick in a work sheet here on relative clauses” and “Oh, I have an interesting article I always give them at this point of the year.” That’s fine, but you should never let it rest. You should be adding, and chopping, and changing. It’s possible to get complacent, I think.When we say, “Is teaching an easy job?” the answer is “Yes it is, and it is easy to get complacent, which it makes it a little bit boring for you and your students.”
AA: Have other teachers told you that teaching seems easy?JM: Seems strange, but I don’t really have these kinds of conversations with other teachers, just because we’re so busy running in and out of staff rooms with different schedules and things like that. We need to do more of socialising to find out what our colleagues really feel. I think, to be honest, for the Poles, of course, because for them English is a second language, when they teach English they have to do a bit more preparation, just to be sure about what it is, for the exceptions to the grammar rules, etc. That’s natural, of course it is, it’s a second language, and I think there might be a cultural difference between Polish people coming from their Polish culture and foreigners, say, English or Americans teaching English here. I think we, as foreigners might be a little bit more informal, a little bit more relaxed, because that’s the kind of culture that we have, and the Polish teachers, coming from their backgrounds, sometimes might to feel that they need to tick all the boxes, might feel, somehow, that there is a boss looking over their shoulder all the time, even if there isn’t in this industry, maybe they feel a little bit more nervous, I just see them being a little bit uptight sometimes, even if I know they are experienced professionals. Except for them maybe it’s not quite so easy, for that reason.
AA: What are the particular ingredients that make a class great? From your experience.JM: A great class is definitely a communicative one. If you’re standing outside a classroom thinking, “Oh, that’s a good one!” it’s because you hear a lot of talking – obviously at the right time, not if they’re doing a listening exercise 🙂 – maybe a little bit of laughter from time to time – although we don’t want teachers to be jokers, you know there’s plenty of people that come over to a country for 6 months a year just to get some back pack money and they tell all their great stories, “Ha, ha ha,” but we know that doesn’t always mean that people are learning. A great class is a communicative class with a variety of exercises, people interacting in different ways, or working on their own, twos, threes, depending on how large the group is, sometimes teacher-focused, sometimes student-focused. You must always be aware of, for example, how much you have to pre-teach, how much do you need to spoon feed some students, but then with others you don’t need to do that, just get them do the exercise without giving them the language and you’re often surprised at what they actually already know. They’ll appreciate that. You can go a little bit fast, rather than slow, aim high, rather than lower.
AA: Give us an example of the best feedback, comment or opinion that you received as a teacher.JM: I suppose it’s quite recently, actually. A student wrote to me because she wanted me to get her a reference on email and I said, “Oh yeah, here’s the reference and you owe me a beer,” only joking. She said, “Don’t worry, Iwill buy you a beer because you’re a very good, inspiring, and motivating teacher. Seeing what you asked, that’s what she said.
AA: Thank you very much, John Marshall!JM: Thank you!