(image by Carbon_NYC on Flickr)
In an ideal world, every teacher would write their own materials, tailored precisely to each class’ needs. This is what I was trained to do at college, and I look back fondly on some of the lessons I taught there – indeed, I’ve reused a couple of them (with a few tweaks) with different classes both at summer school and here in Italy. Making a lesson from scratch that really works is the most amazing feeling and I only wish I had the time to do it for each class. Sadly, it’s just not realistic. When I was training, I taught one 40-minute lesson every other day, and would spend all night planning. Literally all night. Bedtime was very often at about 4am or later. I now teach ten 90-minute classes, two 60-minute classes and four 60-minute individual lessons, over the course of four days. I also have a three-hour class once a week with the PON group. On Mondays and Wednesdays (my busiest days) I teach straight through from 2.45 to 9pm. That’s a lot of lessons to plan, with, proportionately, not much time to plan them. Teachers are only paid according to time spent in class (their ‘contact hours’), and even then the pay is pretty pitiful. My wages, when converted into sterling, equate to about half the monthly wage I got for my first part-time job in London, in 1997. Still, on the bright side, when I was an actor I’d often work for absolutely nothing, so it’s a definite step up from that. Besides, as I have no social life here, it’s not like I actually need any money. Don’t tell my boss that, though.
Thankfully for the sake of my sanity and sleep patterns, each of my private classes is assigned a specific coursebook to work from. Students are given two books: the student book and the workbook, plus CDs of listening exercises, and a CD ROM of extra material. I also have in my sticky mitts the teacher’s book, which gives basic lesson plans and a way of working through the student’s book in class. I usually fairly much ignore the teacher’s book, as I find it much more interesting to supplement the lessons with material from other books, as well as exercises of my own (if I’ve had time to think them up). I do, however, use it for inspiration when I’m short of time, and there are sometimes some real gems of ideas in there for extra exercises.
Sadly, coursebooks can also be desperately uninspiring, and some of the themes of the chapters so far removed from the language point as to be almost completely useless. The prospect of teaching modal verbs to a group of adults with a chapter that focused completely on whiney teenage problems (‘everyone tells us what to do – it’s so unfair!’) was particularly horrifying, and I decided it was a far better idea to write my own lessons instead. Ultimately, coursebooks are often a good guide, but can rarely be followed slavishly, as every single class is different.
One of the their big advantages, however, is that the materials are all there, ready to use. They’re particularly valuable for listening exercises, which help to train students’ ears into listening for specific information. Sites like ELLLO are brilliant, but it’s hugely time-consuming trying to source just the right clip, then download it to CD, and write questions based on that clip. I tend, therefore, to stick to the coursebook for this type of exercise.
The other day I was doing a lesson on books and reading. I’ll be honest: I was finding the subject matter a lot more interesting than the students were. Philistines. That’s by the by, however. One of the exercises in the book involved them listening to a CD of an unknown situation, supposedly described in a fictional book, and deciding what was happening. When planning the lesson I’d flicked through the written part of the exercise, but hadn’t listened to the CD. Usually this isn’t a problem in the slightest, as the materials have been designed by the Cambridge Board specifically to go with the book. Brilliant. I therefore explained the exercise to the students, searched for the relevant track and pressed play.
Oh. My. God.
The situation is a gunman on the run both from the police and from Kelly, the plucky heroine of the fictional book. There is no dialogue on the CD, just sound effects. Of a man heavy breathing. And gasping. And then heavy breathing some more. And groaning. By this time, the students are all unsuccessfully stifling giggles. I just about manage to hold it together until I hear a sound effect of a woman shrieking, at which point both the class and I become absolutely helpless with laughter. It was like listening to a particularly bad porn soundtrack, although thankfully without the bom-chicka-WAH-wah guitars in the background.
Once we’ve picked ourselves up off the floor and composed ourselves a bit, the students come up with some good suggestions for what might *actually* have been happening in the story, and we carry on with the lesson. The grammar point for the lesson is might/could have been. I attempt to elicit the TL (‘Target Language’ – yes, teachers have buzzwords too) by telling them a story about how I had phoned my parents the night before, but they hadn’t answered the phone. I then ask the question: ‘Why do you think they didn’t answer?’ in the hopes that I will get a response using the words, ‘They might have been …’ However, given the listening exercise from earlier, and the fact that I’m working with teenagers, there is only one conclusion that these kids are going to come to. Once again the class falls about with laughter. I am left standing at the front of the class half-laughing and half-repulsed, desperately trying to wipe the mental images of my parents shagging from my mind.
I think there might be a moral here somewhere.