Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Confessions of a long suffering English Teacher

Being an English teacher is a fine occupation. I mean it involves me in something I already love, the intricacies of which I can find endlessly and quite boringly (for my students) fascinating. After all, who else do you know who could talk with almost unbecoming and outrageous enthusiasm for at least half an hour about the apostrophe?

Nevertheless, doing this can also get me into deep water, nay not only water, into the dark and dirty mire. Take, for example, my main weakness: spelling. I have to say, and this is a real confession, that I am a bit hopeless at vowels - I get them mixed up all the time. Imagine this scenario then: I'm busy giving my students a quiz on confusing words and we come up with the one about 'principal' and 'principle'. This is when I discover to my shame I need the answers. But I haven't got them with me. Then one honest student says, "but Valerie, what's the difference?" Gulp. Well, I know the difference, but at that moment, I can't remember which definition goes with which spelling...oh mortification..and I'm the English Teacher.

But there's nothing like a bit of panic to get the juices working, and without so much as a break of pace or a hint of remorse, I look brightly round the room and ask, "now who would like to explain?" nodding knowingly and encouragingly as another student gets me out of the doodoo.

There are several others like this one, all sent to catch me out, but as time goes on, I'm becoming increasingly agile at avoiding these verbal minefields...the other day it was the difference between 'stationery' and 'stationary'.."one means not moving, and the other means paper and writing material. Now you tell me which one's which?" say I, deftly ducking the obvious booby trap.

Then there's the problem with pronunciation pickles. Many of my international students come from countries where they learn English from books but never hear it. The result can be hilarious when they finally get round to having to actually speak it. The trouble is, I'm not supposed to laugh at them! That is an absolute no no. But it's really really hard sometimes. I mean what would you do if someone was giving a serious presentation on an academic subject, and came up with the sentence: "We feel that under these circumstances, we have been seriously mizzled". Everyone looks blank, including me. "Could you maybe just repeat that please?" I ask diplomatically, but the laughter lump is already forming in my throat, and is refusing to be swallowed. The hapless student repeats the sentence, and when the sea of faces remains vacant and clueless, she spells out the word: Misled.

Now I don't know why this should strike me as so funny, but it does, and try as I might, I can't staunch the flow. I've even had to leave the room on occasions just to get over a fit of incurable giggles caused by a mispronounced word. It's even worse when the whole class watches you with total incomprehension as you splutter and weep tears of laughter into your piece of crumpled loo paper, which happens to be the only thing you have to hand. Nothing so refined as a real tissue is ever there when you need it.

Then there's the third obstacle: making language mistakes yourself. This is of course the students' delight. They love it, and will happily remind you for the rest of the course (and beyond to eternity) when you make one teentsy, tiny, minute and insignificant little error, such as leaving out a 'the' or saying 'less things' instead of 'fewer things'. Well, part of it could be that I pounce on them from a dizzy height when they do the same, but even still....when you meet them later on, even a year after, they will delight in reminding you of a sin of your own making. Sometimes you can gloss over mistakes, and if I can, I do it shamelessly - just to avoid the permanence of being branded the teacher who fell into her own hole…or was it whole? Or a whole hole?

I've become quite adept at saying things like "oh yes, you're quite right, but I was going to say 'less baggage (for example)' but I changed my mind...so of course it came out wrong". Big smile.

I know that they know that I'm bluffing, but at least it's one way of crawling out of the mire..or the pit...or the minefield..or was that a pit too......?


  1. Sorry for ignoring the essence of your post, but when you say 'tissue' I can't help remembering what happened to me in Poland.

    I arrived at Kendzierzyn-Kozle station and paid the lady to use the loo. Pondering on the small amount of money it cost me, which is quite an amount to Poles, I heard her say a few routinous words. I thought 'ja ja' and gave it no further thought until after some time I started looking for the toilet paper - none there.

    Later, washing my hands in shame, especially the left one, I looked up and saw a toilet roll hanging outside the place where I'd just been...
    So then I understood what the toilet lady must have said: "Sir, the necessary toilet paper can be taken from the roll up there."!

  2. LOL Koos! Been there.

    Luckily enough, there were many leaves scattered about the forest floor...

  3. Now, back on subject.

    I remember the word "rhododendron".
    Having only read it, and never heard it pronounced, I called those flowers "rododenroddens"...

    And my mum was misled into being mizzled, as well.

    The English language certainly has its twists and turns!

  4. The latter reminds me of a Scottish constable, called Unstable, who was a bit unstable (I think I need to say thanks to Ian Rankin here - and then again thanks to Dale who tells me how humane I am.

  5. hukt on foniks werked for mee.

  6. I have to restrain myself in French classes for the same reason. It's a fine practised art to stifle the giggles.

    Bonne chance!


  7. The perils of an English Teacher. I love it. Oh , the kids will wait and stalk you until you make the slightest mistake, they long for it!! Remember when we were in school!!!

    You sound like a terrific teacher Val.


  8. Koosje, I'm not all too sure I really wanted to hear that Polish story...my imagination being what it is! The Ian Rankin anecdote is a case in point though.

    Dale, funny to hear that your mum was also mizzled, and yes, rhododendron is areal tongue twister, isn't it?

    Stevie, huh? If you're talking foniks, I guess that's what we call phonetics here...I must say I've never used them as I find them far too complicated. Ordinary spellling is as much as I can cope with. A whole new system for learning how to say things is just too much for me.

    Anne Marie, I thought you would be able to relate! ;-)

    Grace, bless you, I like teaching a lot but you always have to be one step ahead of the kids these days. Some of them are so bright!

  9. LOL HAa haaaaa haaa haa tears tears haaa haaaa I have done the same thing, poor students in their chemistry oral exams, they make such hillarious mistakes, luckily the only giggle I didn't manage to stifle (spel?) was with a really bright self confident student so they laughed too. And we both ended up with tears of laughter in our eyes.
    Good one maaaaaaa
    Love you!!!!

  10. This morning I was woken up by my cats at four, because they felt it was the righ time of day to start chasing after eachother, opening and shutting doors (don't ask), while screaming the place down. I'm pretty sure my neighbours think I am torturing them. Needless to say, I couldn't get back to sleep, as I had to get up at 6 in order to teach at 8! Yes, really...and at a bank too, of all places.

    I don't remember how I got to work, I don't even remember if I had breakfast or not, I was already knackered before I had a shower.

    In class we were talking about a rather complex financial article, which for some reason contained the word 'wary'. My students didn't know it, and as still I don't know any Finnish, I explained. I told them how you feel when you are feeling wary. I thought. Halfway through my explanation, I realised that I was completely wrong, but I thought it better to keep a straight face and bluff my way through it. So I ended this mis-interpretation with: Do you understand?
    And then Jukka said (Jukka has lived in England for years and has a British accent to boot, I have no idea what he is doing in my class. Showing off, probably);
    Yes, I do, but isn't that spelled w e a r y?? It was.
    After that, I started doubting everything I said or did, and it became one of the worst lessons of my life. I am still weary...

  11. If I have to teach at an unknown place, as we do as free-lance teachers, give me a map and I'll find it. But I really need an image. Give me directions, and I get lost. Last year I had to teach in Scheveningen, got a list of directions, and got completely lost. I arrived about 20 minutes late for my first lesson, and was utterly frustrated.

    I intruduced myself in the following brilliant way: 'Good morning, my name is Suzanne and I work for.... (silence.)' I was frantically looking for a business card, or a pen, anything that had the name of the company on it. I really couldn't remember the name of Feedback Talen!
    In the end I more or less remembered it, so I said I worked for Feedback Languages. Bewildered looks from my students... then I mumbled something about recently mergered companies, and a rather confusing name.

    I felt like an idiot! These days, I just leave that part out, it just complicates things. Teaching in Finland is complicated enough..

  12. Ah, sue, I laughed and sympathised so much with your two anecdotes there. I've made so many similar boobs, but these two are really special. The weary one is a classic. I feel so sorry for you, dear, but so empathic too. Jeez, do I know how that feels!

    Glad you are getting some decent work there now, though. Are you enjoing Helsinki? We have a blogger friend who is Finnish. She lives in Oulu in the north, but comes to Helsinki to visit family now and then. Maybe you could make contact. Her blog is http://el-wisty.blogspot.com

  13. Weary....yes....and mizzled, too. Never been to Kendzierzyn-Kozle tho. I won't even TRY to pronounce that! lol

    Val, you tell absolutely the best stories. I am truly in awe - and so should your students be darnnit! What are they thinking, picking on you anyway? Perfect beings that they are.....:P

    In my Spanish class, many of us are becoming aware of the language just enough to be completely dangerous!

    We'll be composing sentences for an exercise in class and one will be read that means something entirely different than what it was meant to mean. Laughter always ensues and everyone learns. It's really quite fun.

    As for the difference between stationery and stationary, I say thank goodness for the thesaurus!

    Keep up the good work - and the brilliant saves!!


  14. Hi Vally - I'm back for a little while today and just had to pop in. Loved this post - language IS funny. Did you ever see a Smith and Jones sketch (I think), where Griff Rhys Jones was a lawyer who had taught himself law from textbooks? He kept sying things like "Alleeby" for Alibi, and couldn't understand why people were puzzled. He was beautifully straight-faced too - it was hilarious.

    I like teachers who can admit to their students that even they make mistakes. 'Fessing up to the occasional slip yourself just illustrates what a beast of a language English is! I'm sure you're a brilliant teacher.

    Ha! You mentioned one of my pet irritations: "less" used when it should be "fewer." Another one is mixing up "infer" and "imply". There's a bit of the pedant in me I'm afraid.

    I'm usually OK with spelling and grammar, but numbers! I would have trouble teaching second grade maths. I'm utterly useless, although I can remember oooh, about five of my times tables. Not whole ones mind you - just single equations.

    I love your "thinking on your feet" tactics. Blanking during any sort of presentation is a horrible feeling. Your adrenaline obviously serves you well!

  15. Hi Val,

    just dropping by to say 'hello'


  16. Oh Val you had me laughing out loud at your saving face tactics!
    I am most likely going to teach English here when I am feeling up to it.
    I am going to try to teach kindergarten, but if that falls through, I'll opt for English.
    I hope I am half as enthusiastic (or clever) as you are!
    I am going to save this post for inspiration!

  17. Oh I can just picture you trying to supress your giggles..
    The english language is confusing for us english let alone foreign students and a english/south african/dutch teacher!..well!..
    good job your not a geordie aswell as we have a language all of our own, mind you Neil is adapting well to it, even though I have to interpretate it sometimes when other speak to him..lol..

  18. Hi Val,

    I ordered the Afrian ways today from the bookshop, but they need 10 days to get it. Can't wait to held the book in my hands.


  19. Pardon my utter obliviousness but I never realised you were an English Teacher too, I thought you were just a brilliant writer!!

    All is going ok thank you val and thankyou for the kind comments on my last post, it is indeed a great effort at times but theres not freedom like the freedom of being aloft on 9ft of chrome :) xxx

  20. Val,
    Anne-Marie is my BFF as you may know. I think that I have enough energy now to blog properly. Btw, I spent over 15 years as a private tutor and can relate to some of your observations.I felt like a psychologist much of the time. But, I did gain a great deal of patience-something I am NOT blessed with ,as AM can tell you. I tutored ESL in college, too.

  21. Aha! I see your blog has fallen temporary victim to the other priorities of life too Val. I really shouldn't be here now either, but hellooooo anyway!

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  23. I don't correct my M when she jumbles things or malaprops for I have a fear that they will be lost forever.

    Some great ambiguities of English in this video link, I miss these guys. Very British though, init?

    Have a great weekend,

  24. *LOL* Val! When you make a mistake, another good save is to tell them you did it on purpose to see if they were paying enugh attention to pick up on it...there is always a way out for a teacher with that kind of thing. With the laughing, I can't help you there....I'd probably be trying to hold laugher in myself, something I'm not very good at! *L*

  25. hee hee Val! Yes, it was a play on phonics being a poor way to teach language as it invites such mistakes!
    I love your stories. THey always give me a much needed giggle!


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