I'm going to Athens for a week in January to do some input sessions on a DELTA course for teachers of English as a foreign language and to observe some teaching practices, or TPs, as they are imaginatively known. I observed hundreds of TPs in Athens in the nineties and early noughties. It is getting on for eight years since my last one, though, and I am out of the loop a bit. I have been thinking of TPs past, and wondering if the standard will be higher or lower now that diploma candidates are fewer than they used to be. I have long since misplaced my file marked ‘TP reports’, embellished with doodled cartoons of exploding wigwams (think about it) so I only have memories to go on.
The teachers on our courses all taught in the private institutions known in Greece as ‘frontistiria’. The dull, grinding, prescriptive, deeply conservative Greek state education system is held in comprehensive contempt, and most kids attend frontistiria after school to benefit from the greater amount of individual attention their smaller classes provide. Few teachers have any specific EFL qualifications, however, and the teaching quality ranges from brilliant to abysmal, often in the same institution. Most frontistiria that teach languages offer French and German as well as English, but eavesdropping outside the classrooms, you will often be hard put to know which language is being taught, as you hear nothing but Greek from within.
So, as a TP tutor about to observe a teacher doing her first practical, you arrive at the frontistirio in some far-flung corner of Athens or Piraeus, and make yourself known to the owner or the secretary, who as often as not will make you coffee and treat you with almost embarrassing deference. You find your cheek muscles go into spasms from smiling humbly and being self-deprecating. You probably come across as a smarmy git. There are occasions when the school owner will quite pointedly not make you coffee, or even speak to you. Then you know that the teacher is doing her TPs at this school only under sufferance, and the owner is suspicious of foreign interference and new-fangledness.
The teacher emerges from her previous lesson, looking flustered, and hands you her lesson plan, which you peruse without allowing your fixed smile to slip for a moment. Even when part of the procedure says ‘teacher writes girl, prince and prick’ on the board, understand that this is to get the kids to think of the Sleeping Beauty story, and don’t snicker. The teacher may have devised some True/False questions for a reading text. One such question that I have never forgotten was ‘Boys don’t like to study, they prefer kicking their balls’. This is not the moment to draw attention to such gaffes.
In the classroom your presence will naturally disrupt the normal routines of the group. Some kids are scared to death, hypothesising some unannounced test is toward, but most are fascinated by the foreigner in their midst. Once when I had inserted my carcase painfully into one of the narrow desk and bench arrangements at the back of the room, a boy turned to me and whispered ‘eísaste pragmatikós ánglos?’ ‘are you a real Englishman?’. On another occasion five little Albanian boys subjected me to a barrage of questions before the lesson began. They wanted to know, inter alia, how far I could count, which basketball team I supported and what my zodiac sign was. They were flabbergasted and horrified to learn that my mum and dad lived in another country. One group of tiny kids, no more than five or six, spent most of the lesson surreptitiously whispering questions at me, mostly ‘how do you say X in English?’
‘How do you say fengari in English?’ one asked.
‘Moon’, I said.
‘Moon’ is so close in sound to the Greek word for ‘cunt’ that the answer produced shocked silence and no further questions.
All my colleagues had stories of crackpot rules imposed on teachers by frontistirio owners. More than one had CCTV in the classrooms to allow her to spy on the lessons and intervene if the proceedings were not to her liking. Several forbade the use of any kind of visual aid as a means of teaching vocabulary, and one even discouraged the use of the whiteboard. One colleague was shown into a classroom full of study chairs that all faced different directions, as if they had been deposited by a tidal wave. The students entered and picked their way through the maze, seating themselves without moving the chairs, and the lesson proceeded with students facing all points of the compass. Afterwards the teacher explained that the owner did not want the chairs in rows, or better, a semi-circle, because the students might copy one another’s work. Why these batty rules? Search me. I think in most cases the owners inflicted them simply because they could.
As you observe the lesson, you make notes for feedback and complete a form on which you award grades for a variety of language-teacherly skills. Among these is the ability to use mime, gesture and facial expression. Many an EFL teacher of my acquaintance is an ex-performer of some description. I sometimes think the profession is a repository for frustrated or clapped-out hams; being big and theatrical in front of an audience comes naturally to many of us. But just as many Greek teachers had a mistrust of visual aids, so many were reluctant in the extreme to employ mime, gesture and facial expression to convey meaning, which to me is rather like blind-folding your students. One poor woman, who was not naturally theatrical in manner, suffered in observed lessons. Pirouetting and waving her arms about, with no obvious significance to her extravagant mudras, Smaro gave you the impression that you were watching a video with the image out of synch with the sound. I should have told her just to forget the gesture bit, but I didn’t, because Smaro’s pained corybantics became something to look forward to. As the year went on, she developed a style so rococo that the kids were made dizzy and my notes unintelligible.
Before you leave, you have a brief confab with the teacher, whom you should leave feeling fairly happy, even if things were so desperate you have to resort to praising her handwriting or choice of eye-shadow to do so. The good news is that it is often good news, though. Zoe on her final TP said ‘come on, cut the crap, tell me the grade!’ and I said it was a Distinction.
‘Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!! Can I kiss you?!?!’ she said, and smacked one on me.
The feedback was ditched, because she immediately went into the office to phone her mum. So I am hoping for at least one such success story in January, and I’m glad I have something to look forward to through the English winter gloom.
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