Wednesday, December 7

The Worst Decision I've Ever Made

Let me tell you about my TESOL course – otherwise known as the worst decision I've ever made.

About five months ago, in July '11, I took a course in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. It was the first major decision I'd made by myself – I spent my own money (okay, maybe I borrowed a bit) and happily lay down ten grand to go through this one-month intensive course.

I thought it was going to give my life direction and purpose, set the tone for the next five to ten years of exploring the world and blessing everyone around me with the gift of English.

Yeah, that didn’t exactly work out.

When I interviewed for the course, I was told I was the perfect candidate. On paper, I was. I had a university degree and a year of tutoring experience. I wanted to go to Asia to teach tiny well-behaved Asian children and eat noodles. I love English – I say 'whom' and know what a semi-colon is for.

Ha. Guys, I'm also a very very VERY bad teacher.

Not bad in a good way.

First of all, it was an intensive course. One month, full-time, with homework and practicals. Shit, I'm getting stressed just thinking about it. I thought I worked well under pressure, but I was deeply, horribly mistaken. We had a pre-course assignment to hand in on the first day, and obviously I'd left it to the last minute and stayed up all night finishing the damn thing. I was all pressured out before I even showed up to class.

At first I thought I was doing alright – we learned fun stuff like what a Concept Check Question was. Apparently, saying 'Do you understand?' is some sort of blasphemy, because nobody's going to cut into your lesson and admit they don't know what's going on. A CCQ asks for content in response to your question, so instead of saying “You have five minutes. Do you understand?” You say, “How much time do you have?” and the bright sparks are all “FIVE MINUTES TEACHER!” In theory, anyway.

Next was the practicals. Keep in mind I was not only teaching arbitrary language rules for the first time in a real classroom, but my fellow trainer-teachers and a MODERATOR were at the back of the class FUCKING STARING AT ME AND TAKING NOTES.

It was a nightmare. I can only look back and laugh now because I was SO bad, the only reason they passed me was because technically I was doing some stuff right. I wrote up my lesson plans and printed out my flashcards, but as soon I stood up in front of the class, I was awful. My voice shook, I went too fast and then backtracked, I taught to the floor because I was terrified of my students, whose names I'd either forget or mess up.

They were an adult class of refugees from different parts of Africa, and our class had the least English of anyone in the program. They were a very intimidating bunch and the fact that my voice went up a few octaves every time I talked to them didn't exactly command respect.

Pro tip: when you're in charge of a room of people who mistrust you as an agent of oppression in their lives already so scarred with political and economic crises that they had to flee their homes, making them eternally bitter, DO NOT try to make them play broken telephone.

It will not cheer them up.

I used to think I could teach. I was a tutor in university and enjoyed it. I like saying clever things and hardly ever tire of my own voice. I had a particularly bright class as my very first tutoring experience, and I think they inflated this delusion that teaching was a skill of mine. I thought I did okay – their work improved over the course, and I even made them laugh a few times.

So when I applied for the TESOL course, I thought I was just going to nail it like Jesus to the cross. Oh, how very wrong I was. Every practical was like walking the plank and jumping into burning oil.  Two weeks in I actually broke down and wept in the middle of the after-class assessment. Yup, I was that girl, and it was not cute.

I learned that tutoring isn't teaching, really. A tutor's job is to build and expand on whatever's taught in lectures and maybe incorporate some general knowledge or useful anecdotes or theories. Teaching is a thousand times harder:
  • Imagine explaining the past perfect tense to someone who has  no concept of it in their first language.
  • Explain it using simple terms because they're hardly going to know what “x is relative to z” means.
  • Imagine them giving you the stinkeye while you're trying to explain it.
  • Don't forget to stress about sticking to the eighteen minute lesson plan - you just spent sixteen minutes on the bit you allocated three minutes to.
  • What's that sound in the deafening silence after you ask a question?
  • It's the moderator's pencil scribbling “YOU SUCK” across your little assessment paper.
Some of my good friends are studying to become teachers, and mad props to them. I just can't do it. I don't have the mojo.

It didn't help that I caught the 'flu halfway through the course, and you couldn't miss more than two days because the fascist pigs international moderators wouldn't stand for it. I powered through and by the end of the month, the 'flu had turned into bronchitis. The coughing fits from the bronchitis turned into a sprained chest wall muscle that made it painful to breath, laugh and sleep (my three favourite things) for two months after the infection cleared up.

Yeah, fuck TESOL.

I mean, don't get me wrong, the course I did was pretty high-quality and I learned a lot. The teachers were great and the moderators weren't even as evil as I make them sound. It's more their very presence that terrified me. Other people actually enjoyed the course. For me though, it was a perfect storm of totally-not-worth-it.

But you know what the best part about this whole shitty situation is? That it's over, and I'm alive. Yup. I spent all my money, killed a little bit of my soul, humiliated myself several times over, and got a qualification I'll probably never use.

And everything's fine now. I took my antibiotics, watched a lot of TV, and got over it.

I made a big decision and it turned out to be the wrong one, but that's okay. I didn't die of embarrassment and nobody arrested me for being broke as a joke. It's actually made me a little less afraid of taking risks, you know? And that's a good thing.

To more bad decisions!

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