Lost in translation ~ or the perils of being a teacher of English as a foreign language.

Lost in translation ~ perils of being a teacher of English as a foreign


As regular readers may have picked up, one of my jobs is as a teacher of
English as a foreign language; the summer school is rapidly draining
the life out of me as fast as a pint of Guiness on St Patrick’s day.
But the perils of the job are not always what you might think. I
mean, it’s hardly a dangerous sport, is it? The worst that can happen
is a student throws a board rubber at you#, or you catch chicken pox
or the ‘flu.

The perils are a great deal more subtle. For example, students do come to
you and ask you tough questions, or confide in you about something
that worries them.

Last summer, my colleague Dan* got faced with a real doozie of an issue.
He tends to teach the younger students, at pre-intermediate level, so
his students quite often have less vocabulary than the ones I teach.
At the end of a lesson, one kid came up and asked him if he would
explain a word he’d heard while in England and he couldn’t find in
the dictionary. Usually at this point, my heart sinks. During one
lesson on humour, a student told a joke using the phrase “blow-job”
and didn’t know what it meant; I chickened out and asked someone else
to explain. Another student gleefully explained, with actions. Total
incapacitation of entire class followed, from the hysterical laughter
than ensued.

Well, Dan manned up and asked what the word was.

Love-juice,” said the kid.

A few seconds of stunned silence while Dan desperately thought what he
should do and in the end, opted for the “I’m in loco parentis here
so I’d better explain” stance. So he started off:

When a man loves a woman……” and went on from there.

The student’s face got more and more puzzled and finally Dan asked if he

Not really,” the kid admitted.

Dan tried again, trying to make the language simpler.

Finally, he asked where the kid had heard the word, hoping that context might

I was watching Wimbledon with my host family,” the kid said. “And I
kept hearing Love Juice being said by the umpire. What is that to do
with sex, please, I don’t understand, sir?”

Dan slunk away red-faced.


#Yes it does happen, but so far not to me!

*names have been changed to protect the innocent**

** innocent? Yeah right! 

Pearls Before Swine ~or Why You Can Lead A Horse To Water But You Can’t Make It Drink

before Swine ~ or why you can lead a horse to water but you can’t
make it drink!

In my daily job of being a teacher of English as a foreign language, I long
for the summer when we get the hordes of invading students from all
over the world and the chance to really get my metaphorical teeth
into teaching. During much of the year I have a class for a maximum
of five mornings (often only three) and almost always those classes
consist of young teens(often only 12 or 13, maybe 14 years old) who
have come as part of their school trip. Their level of English is
often so low that I find I have serious frustrations offering them
lessons that are fun but challenging because they have insufficient
language skills to understand instructions. I recycle the same five
or six lessons more of less ad nauseam ( that is for me, anyway). By
mid May I am quite sick of it all, and of my own materials and

The summer time is usually different, and I get a chance to do what I
really love doing and it isn’t teaching English. It’s about finding a
chink in a mind, inserting a suitable tool and levering till that
young mind pops open like an oyster being prised apart. One of the
tools is language.

I had a class last summer who I adored. I went in every day really looking
forward to working with them. Of the 15 in the class, I am still in
contact with 11, and some quite frequently. I’m not saying it wasn’t
hard work, because it was. By the age of 14 or so, most people have
begun shutting their minds so fast you can hear slamming doors every
time they blink at you. It’s something I find deeply disturbing; it’s
too easy to find your answers to life’s questions and then preserve
them in amber, to remain undisturbed for ever, or worse, to mummify
them. Those gruesome parodies of living things are brought out and
paraded around like a Day of the Dead procession whenever that
subject is brought up; some of the debates I have had with kids have
been astonishing. It’s scary when people have no inclination to
review their beliefs and opinions and are incapable of listening to
those of others.

But sometimes I find myself surprised and delighted when a student, or
even a whole class, come to a point where they examine something,
often an abstract concept or theory or belief, and a light comes into
their eyes. Aha Moments in the classroom when someone suddenly “gets”
it are breathtakingly wonderful. It’s even more so when it’s
something more profound than the third conditional. I don’t want them
to find an answer though, something they can tick off and put away; I
want them to begin their own lifelong Grail Quest for personal
truths, living evolving things that change and grow as they do. If I
see from someone’s eyes that they have begun to think anew about
something, I have a very special warm glow that makes even the shitty
days feel worthwhile, and believe me, days like that are very common.
Days when I get asked at 9.15am when is it break, or get told they’re
bored, or when students just stare at me with suspicious shut down
eyes: they make me go home and weep.

Because students (in fact anyone) who allow that subtle insertion and prising
open are relatively rare, and I am not yet an expert at understanding
who is ready and who is not. I look for the little chinks of light,
and I do and say stuff to engage interest. One of my lessons involves
heraldry. Yes, I know that sounds strange, but it’s all about
symbolism and self-hood. After exploring the topic each student has
the chance to create their own coat of arms. I send them off to leaf
through my books, my downloads of the language of symbols and to
think about who they are and how they might express this on a shield.
It’s a deceptively gentle lesson involving drawing and colouring and
thoughts deeper than they at first understand. I may do a similar one
with Medicine Shields( Native American) if I get a class I feel is
likely to enjoy it. I am always pleased with the results. While the
artwork is sometimes rather odd, the sense of engagement is always

But there are plenty of students who would then complain they haven’t
done enough grammar. And that makes me sad. Because that means they
have reacted to the exercises by withdrawing and redefining their
expectations. Ho hum.

It’s about being ready. My duty as a teacher(not just as a TEFL teacher,
which actually I suck at, to be frank) is to gauge when someone is
ready to open up and start exploring the mysteries of life on earth,
and sometimes I get it very wrong. Sometimes people are only ready to
go and paddle in that vast ocean and they panic(justifiably) when I
in my excitement, start assembling the deep sea diving gear and start
consulting the areas of the maps that only say Here be Dragons, and
they back away, saying, “I never signed up for this!”

Jesus had a saying that often seems contemptuous to us. Pearls before swine
is a pithy aphorism and yet, harsh but true. If you expect people to
engage in something for which they are not prepared in any sense at
all, they will often turn on you and trample what you offer and on
you. If they don’t “get” it, how on earth can you help them to
“get” it?

Patience is the answer. Like with the horse in the second proverb, you can
lead someone and let them take their own time about drinking. A horse
drinks when it is thirsty, not when you want it to, for your
convenience and comfort. It’s the same with people. People will drink
from the well of wisdom when they are ready to and not before then.
Some may perish before a drop passes their lips but that is their
journey in this life. It’s not for me to force their jaws open and
pour the waters in as they splutter and spit it out.

All I can do is learn to recognise when someone thirsts and hold out a cup
brimming with water and wait for them to take it.

Admitting ignorance

I was back teaching this morning; I get first day nerves every time I get a new class. This is partly because I like to be prepared for anything and everything and when new students come in, I usually know almost nothing of use about them.

Today’s big surprise: they are Belgian, not French as I had been led to expect. They were all between 15 and 18 and very quiet and a bit shy. Well, that suits me for first morning, because I then don’t have to worry at all about discipline.

At the end of the lesson, I gave them a short quiz about England and the English and for the last 15 minutes, I said they could return the favour and ask me a question each about my background knowledge of their nation. My score? 3/10. They roared with laughter when I got the name of their king wrong, giggled when I didn’t know exactly how many languages were spoken in Belgium and were delighted I didn’t know the name of their national anthem. In short, I knew almost nothing about where they came from. The only things I knew about them was the name of a famous Belgian beer, what foodstuffs Belgium is famous for and the city where the royal family makes its home. I did actually know the family name of their royal family but only after it was said (it’s the same family OUR prince Albert came from). All the rest I simply guessed at.

It’s actually pretty good for a teacher to admit they don’t know something; it sets you on a better footing with students. But as a human being, it’s vital to realise that what I know is tiny compared with what I don’t know. It doens’t make me any less for saying “I don’t know” to a question. I have colleagues and friends who would rather make up an answer than admit they don’t know, so they don’t appear stupid. Me, I simply don’t care.

I know a lot more about Belgium now than I did yesterday but I don’t make an assumption that I know everything. That, like many subjects, would be the work of a lifetime. I know a fair bit about a lot of things but since my Bigger Fish incident, I’ve been a lot more cautious about flaunting that knowledge.

Now where’s that Stella Artois? (yes, that’s Belgian!)

Raindrops on Roses

…and whiskers on kittens…

Relax, I am not about to burst into song and I’ve never actually seen the Sound of Music. The songs have a way of creeping into consciousness though.

This post was prompted by an exchange of comments at (John)Poettraveler’s blog (see blogroll), so blame him!

One of my favourite lessons with my students involves my bag of delights, which is a bag of unusual things, unpacked for them onto an exotic pashmina and they are invited to examine them and choose one that inspires them to write. They can write anything they want to, from a description to a poem. I’ve had songs written and stories, and even a dialogue. They usually watch me unpack with some trepidation and with ever widening eyes and the words, “Mary Poppins!” are hissed under breaths. Yet another film I have never seen.

The following is a list of the items commonly or sometimes in my bag. I do vary it for an assortment of reasons; my Tribble had to be retired because I became concerned for her health….There IS such a thing as too much love!

1) two Egyptian gauze scarves, one black, one red, edged in beads, from Cairo, 2) a black velvet cat mask , 3) a duckbilled platypus finger puppet,  4) a Sol Invictus fridge magnet from Bath,  5) a carved wooden Welsh lovespoon, 6) a wooden rattle, 7) small set of panpipes, 8) lemur soft toy, 9) small rainstick, 10) two plastic water squirting goldfish,  11) a clove orange,   12) a Tibetan singing bowl and beater, 13) a gauze bag of resin incense, smelling of frankincense, fennel and lemongrass, 14) a string of agate beggars’ beads from India,  15) brass wire and bead mandala,  16) sandalwood bead necklace carved with elephants,  17) wooden bookmark with a lion on,  18) parrot soft toy from McD’s,  19) Tibetan prayer wheel,  20) clear resin contact juggling ball- this looks like a crystal ball but isn’t,  21) beaded medicine bag, with design of a leaping hare,  22) carved wooden rhino from Kenya,  23) pewter velociraptor,  24) single horn from a highland cow,  25) jingle bells Christmas decoration,  26) polished geode from mineral shop,  27) naturally occuring geode found on beach at The Witterings in Sussex (by my daughter), 28) Rowan Williams (archbish of Canterbury) figure for the Christmas tree,  29) Tibetan tingshags,  30) two sea shell fossils, found on a beach,  31)  Norweigian easter egg(made of cardboard to be filled with chocs),  32) Egyptian glass perfume vial,  33) a box containing 3 scarabs, one a genuine antiquity, one a reproduction one I bought at the British museum when I was 17 for 10p and one bought last year at the same location,  34) Chinese health balls in a velvet covered box,  35) driftwood shaped like the head of a surprised emu,  36) Stiff Nick, two inch high bronze fertility god figure with errrmm…appendage,  37)  Celtic knotwork brooch, obtained by playing swapsies in the ladies’ loo at IKEA Gateshead  about 15 years ago, 38) Chinese holed coins on a ribbon,  39)  lump of raw amber from Southwold,  40) palm stone of Mookaite,  41) rocks from Everest,  42) lump of native copper,  43) bottle of gold,  44) lump of fool’s gold,  45) reproduction Roman penanular brooch,  46) reproduction Viking cloak brooch with a two headed dragon ship design,  47) polished piece of clear quartz,  48) small pewter angel statue,  49) quartz pyramid,  50) Chinese carving of a dragon on a turtle; it’s made of a nut of sorts but don’t remember what. 

I’ve yet to be disappointed in what a class as a whole produces, though a few individuals have struggled to find their imaginations. Some are still writing at lunchtime, and beg to be allowed to hand it in after lunch. That evening I have the delight of reading them all and marking them, and the next day, they get to read theirs out and I give out rewards. Everyone gets a sweet, for trying and there are a few bigger prizes for thise who truly excelled. I’d give more but it is out of my own pocket, and you have to draw a line. First prize is often a scarab, of which I have a small store of reproduction ones, but it depends on the class and on the gender of the winner. Sometimes it’s a pen or something like that, or more often than that, a chocolate bar.

Usually I save this lesson for when I know a class well enough to know they won’t abuse my collection, but it has worked well for every level and every age I teach and the opportunities for discussion and exploration are boundless.

So, that was a few of my favourite things and my favourite lesson! Did any inspire you?

Saying goodbye and maybe good riddance too!

I had my final morning of teaching today. I think in many ways it was a total waste of time but hey, I got paid.

I got in to the news that two students had been arrested yesterday and taken into custody in handcuffs for shoplifting from Boots the chemist’s. They were apparently not released till almost midnight. Believe me that being 12 years old was not what saved them from the full wrath of prosecution; when Boot’s say they prosecute ALL shoplifters, they mean it. I have no idea how they got off with a reprimand; it may have something to do with them being minors from another country or it may be that they were returning home the next day.

Needless to say we were all shocked and disappointed. Rumours flew round and it came to light that several others had been boasting of doing the same but had got rid of the goods. No proof, see? Yet another was hauled over the coals for stealing something from his host family. A great deal of time this morning was spent searching cases and bags and interrogating kids. The three students who had stolen stuff were not given their leaving certificates.

I’m glad to say none of my class were involved; indeed they seemed quite shocked too. By some quirk of fate or maybe latent psychism from me, the topic of the morning was CRIME. It was the only worthwhile thing we managed to get done.

But the feedback forms were gratifying; I got the highest scores possible from all my morning students and on the back of the afternoon ones too. I also had comments written about me being the best, and the best guide for trips too. To put it into perspective, the students all were adamant that THEIR teacher was the best. One of my colleagues, who I will call Dillon here, was given a gift of a London bus keyring and a fridge magnet; the fact that these were almost certainly stolen goods did rather diminish it!

I got hugs and kisses from all my students; the morning class were delighted to have my email address to keep in contact.

It’s been a very mixed 3 weeks; highly enjoyable at times but unbearably challenging in many others. They were simply so noisy and hyper it was a struggle to teach. But now they’re well on their way back to Spain, hopefully some of them have learned some important life lessons.

One kid who all of us teachers found obnoxious was in floods of tears about getting a C in his final grade. I don’t think he could understand why. The grades are about effort and attitude and not about how good a student is at English. Neither his effort nor his attitude earned him anything higher than a C. I hope he learns from this; I felt on a number of occasions I wanted to thump him. I eventually asked for him to be removed from my class.

I’ll get to the ghost walk in a separate post…..