I’m working in a school that promises students they can get the First Certificate in English in one year, even if they don’t know a word of the language when they begin. For most people this is impossible, but they want to believe it, so the promise works well. The majority of them will fail, but they’ll be back again next year, paying their hard-earned euros for lessons. In the mean time, we teachers bang our heads against the wall.
Some of the students don’t have a clue what’s going on in class. Even at the best of times. Anyone who has taught, at least here in Greece, will be familiar with the following scene.
You’re looking at the Michigan exam, which is all multiple choice, except for the composition. One of the questions reads:
I’ve had enough of this magazine. I’m going to _______ my subscription.
A student raises her hand and says, “D.”
Yes, you say. It’s “D”, and you write the word on the board. You also tell them what “subscription” means, and what the whole collocation means. For good measure, you explain the three distractors and give them collocations for those too.
And just when you think everything is clear and you’ve done a good job covering it all, someone looks around the classroom and says, “So what’s the answer?”
Sometimes they ask you the most stunning questions. You stand before them, swaying from the force of the blow, trying to think of a way to approach it and find an answer.N. was telling me last week that she was doing a passage in a Proficiency class which mentioned malaria. She made sure everyone understood what malaria was. In this passage, it was mentioned that the disease had got as far as Rome. One young student raised his hand and asked, “How did malaria get to Rome?”
N. had done her best to explain that it was a disease. You hope that your students have lived in the world long enough to have acquired some basic facts, such as how diseases get around.
“It took the train,” she told him.
Tonight, the weakest student in my class — who nevertheless seems to be trying her hardest — wanted to ask some questions about the writing part of the exam they’ll be taking this weekend. Writing skills are hard to teach in a classroom, especially when you have the students for two three-hour lessons a week. You need to give them individual attention to do a good job of it. With my private students, I correct the paper in front of them, showing them when they’ve written something redundant or convoluted. After a while, they can recognise it right away. Then they stop doing it.
But in a class, it’s generally hopeless. I knew there was nothing I could tell them this late in the day that would be of any help, but I tried. I told them, if you can’t walk very well, don’t try to dance. Keep it simple and you’ll make fewer mistakes.
She looked at me with a desperately earnest expression and asked, “What tense should we use in our compositions?”
I stood there trying to think of an insightful way to say, “That depends.”