(image by Kate Bailward)
My day-to-day teaching takes place in a private language school. The students that come to my classes come from families who presumably have a reasonable amount of cash to splash, and who have big ambitions for their children. If you ask these students what they want to be when they grow up, you are likely to get a reply along the lines of, ‘oh, I’ll be a doctor – like my parents.’ It’s immensely frustrating, as a teacher, to see some of these children messing around and doing no work, knowing that they’ll probably go on to succeed, whatever they do. Nepotism will get them wherever they want to go.
In contrast, yesterday I taught my first PON class. PON stands for Programma Operativo Nazionale, and is a part-EU-funded language programme available in six states in southern Italy. From the children’s point of view it’s an absolutely fantastic scheme. It costs nothing, and they are getting the same lessons from me as the kids whose parents are paying a fortune for them to come to private language lessons. However, as a teacher it’s a daunting prospect. My private classes range in size from a minimum of 5 to a maximum of 11 students. In my PON class I have 29. Twenty-nine. These are kids whose level of English is barely better than my Italian (i.e. limited to basic greetings and numbers). Kids whose teachers still write on blackboards. (There was an interactive whiteboard in the classroom as well, but it was covered up and clearly not to be used. Gutted! I’m absolutely dying to get the chance to play with work on one.)
The programme is run in conjunction with the state schools, and its success or failure can therefore depend heavily on whether the school’s staff are prepared to support the programme. Luckily, at the school I’ve been posted to, the staff appear to be behind it 100%. There are two teachers from my school, and we are both assigned a member of staff from the school to sit in on our lessons. This, I can see, will be a godsend in terms of discipline. My supervisor (minder?), clearly has the respect of the children, and isn’t afraid to bawl them out if necessary. In the mid-lesson break yesterday, he went absolutely ballistic on two of the boys. I missed what it was that they’d done wrong, but they received a 30-second tirade on how I merited respect and they should know better than to do whatever it was that they were doing. They were then ordered out of the room for a 10-minute time-out. Impressive, if a little terrifying. I’m very grateful that he’s there, though. I’ve been told of PON classes where the Italian teacher just hasn’t bothered to turn up. Or the teacher has attended, but has spent the whole time translating for the students, which totally defeats the object of the class. Or, unbelievably, asking the English teacher to translate their personal documents. Seriously! (They were told, ever so politely, to get stuffed.)
The lessons are programmed in for an eye-wateringly long 3-hour session every Friday afternoon. This messes up my programme of long weekends lazing around in bed, but I’ve had it pretty easy so far, so I suppose it’s about time I was tested a bit more. And this will be testing. Apart from my 5 year olds, this is the lowest-level group that I will ever have taught. There are certain similarities between the two groups; the 5 year olds are kept happily entertained by throwing pieces of paper around the classroom or climbing on the tables, and these 12 –year-olds would probably quite enjoy that, too, but unfortunately they have the small matter of an international exam to get through at the end of the course. I have 50 hours – no, it’s now down to 47 – to get them to the point of being able to have a seven-minute conversation with an examiner on a subject of their choice. Given that a good few of them looked at me with blank-eyed incomprehension yesterday when I asked them the question, ‘what’s your name?’, 47 hours suddenly seems like no time at all. Terrifying. From both sides of the teacher’s desk.