Everything is nothing…

Ask any ESL teacher what their least favourite student age group is and I’m fairly certain you’ll get the same reply – early teens, first half of high school. junior high, something along those lines. This is not without good reason.

Before that age they’re still brimming with enthusiasm, little Duracell bunnies racing around your classroom with massive smiles plastered all over their faces, arms flailing and laying waste to everything in their path. Okay, that may sound like hell to some people (including myself not even five years ago) but in the right frame of mind you’re suddenly transplanted straight back to childhood with them. It energises you, the language you’re teaching is easy enough that the lessons can be focused on activities and games so they don’t even realise they’re learning, and you can generally just goof around. When the fancy takes me I teach my younger classes in a variety of voices from The Stotts to Ian McKellen and they can’t get enough of it (even though they shout ‘Mickey Mouse teacher!’ for The Stotts). This is where the ‘rewarding’ part of teaching kicks in.

Late teens and adults are the flipside of the good teaching coin. Old enough to have lost those endless reserves of energy, the classes are more subdued and focused on the language itself. More advanced learners means more advanced English, something the teachers can get their teeth into as well, and I find myself constantly learning new titbits about my own native tongue through these sessions. More importantly though, they tend to be in your class because they want to be there, not because their parents are either keen for them to improve their grades or just fancy some expensive babysitting. They know why they’re there, they may well be paying for it themselves and as such you’re guaranteed their undivided attention.

Teenagers? Erm… not so much 🙂 They’ve discovered moods, they’re too cool for school, their sleep patterns are all over the place, they know every teacher trick in the book, they hate work, they hate school and they hate you. They are, for want of a better word, twats. Moody, lethargic, apathetic twats to be precise.

However, if you enter such a class with suitably lowered expectations then small surprises can make your day. Take a simple review exercise on indefinite pronouns (somewhere, anything, everyone, etc) delivered this afternoon – I provide one such pronoun and two students must race to write a sentence containing it on the whiteboard. As they had covered the material the previous week and this was just a refresher I expected them to sleepwalk through it with their typically dull and uninspired creations: “Everything is nice”, “America is somewhere” and such like.

Imagine then my surprise when one of the first pair, Ken slouched up the front of the room, waved the marker in the most lackadaisical fashion imaginable and left the board with the simple and subtle, “No-one understands me.” Wow. This is from a kid who’s learning a new language – did you ever come out with something so profound in French class? And speaking of profound, there was more to come. In the next pair was Maggie, star pupil of the class, whose contribution to the exercise was the staggeringly existential, “Everything is nothing.” Sartre has nothing on this class. Last star of the day was Heidi, normally shy and retiring but today possibly showing her appreciation of Irish rock/metal legends Therapy? with “I’m going nowhere”.

I had to give them a round of applause after that display. A mere three months at the head of that class had me tired, jaded and as bored as my charges but I’ll be returning next week with renewed enthusiasm, searching for some way to unleash their emo-drenched teen angst again. Obviously the entries I declined to mention were the usual insipid, effortless pap but those three simple phrases and their revitalising effect on me, those are among the reasons I know I’m meant to be a teacher.

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