First posted on my blog

There was a brief period in the eighties when certain teachers of EFL began to get ideas somewhat above their station. Trainee teachers on diploma courses would be asked to (yawn) list-the-roles-of-a-teacher, and come up with 'friend, counsellor, knower, nurturer, facilitator, guru'. No, they didn’t put ‘guru’, I made that bit up, but you get the drift. We were to have ‘impact on our students’ lives’, not merely teaching them English, but freeing them from inhibition and leading them to self-actualisation. Or something. The young, thrillingly alert female vivacities at the Bell Schools began to get instruction in the Alexander Technique, that they might have the poise of ballerinas, and some of us got it into our heads that we must enter the classroom with bliss-bestowing hands, as if guiding students towards satori rather than Cambridge First Certificate in English. Such ghastly egotism was soon punctured. Students by and large just want teachers, and respond more to straightforward professionalism, friendliness and the immediate relevance of what is being taught, rather than to ‘people skills’ and attempts to liberate the inner wotsit. I mean, let’s all of us come off it.

Very occasionally, though, I have wished I had some hard knowledge about dealing with difficult or disturbed students, rather than vague ‘humanistic’ crap aimed at infantilising the ‘normal’ ones. In 1988 in Cambridge there was Sery, a young man from South Korea who sat in lessons head down, covering his book with heavy black hachuring. If he wrote anything, it was never more than self-castigation, even if it was supposed to be a letter asking for information. The inconvenience of his shut-off, gloomy presence in class was nothing compared to what his landlady was enduring. Sery had covered his bedroom windows with black bin-liners and thrown a blanket over the reading lamp, almost causing a fire. Any attempt to communicate with him failed, as he would not maintain eye-contact or respond with more than murmured monosyllables. Eventually he decided he wanted to go to Canada. Naturally, we thought this was a very, very good idea and encouraged him in it, and soon he was out of our lives and somebody else’s problem. Did we handle him well? I don’t suppose we did, but we were right not to try. I still have no idea what, if anything, I or any of us could have done to help this lad.

Ten years on, in Athens, we have Irene, which you must pronounce not to rhyme with ‘styrene’ but as ‘Irini’, each vowel as the ‘ee’ in ‘weep’, so that it sounds beautiful rather than frumpy. Irene was about nineteen and a trainee on my course for neophyte teachers. The other course participants, all ladies, were a lively, talkative and opinionated lot, but Irene sat in silence doodling skulls on her notebook. At breaks, she stood aloof from the others with their coffees and cigs and banter, glowering at the floor. I asked the secretary to call Irene’s mother, to see if she might explain a few things.

‘What did she say?’

‘That she’s got a problem.’

Yeah, well, thanks a bundle, mum, we’d got that far. Irene failed the course, but there’s a happy ending this time. The centre director and I sat with her and dragged out of her that she had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – a condition I had not then heard of – which meant that the input sessions for her must have degenerated into the enervating, meaningless echoing of an indoor swimming bath. The time and persistence required to extract this information showed how shaming her family believed her condition to be and what a burden they were making of it. Irene did the course again, with the understanding that she would leave the room whenever she felt overwhelmed with information. One day, in teaching practise, she made a brilliant job of the warm-up stage of a lesson, and was visibly chuffed to bits, which was a wonderful sight after her earlier angry and defeated demeanour. The Hollywood version of this would have simpering violins, soft focus, trembling lips and moistly sparkling eyes, but you know, sometimes it really is worthwhile.

Finally there was Matthew, an Englishman resident in Greece for many years and a participant on the first RSA Diploma I taught there. He had a girlfriend who ditched him and married another man. Matthew went into a profound depression. One Sunday he came to my flat to sort out a few problems with the wayward electricity, which stopped and started, lights switching themselves on and off as though the place were haunted. It was obvious that absolutely everything radiated misery at him. ‘God, this wall…’ he muttered as he hooked up my answering machine. When he had finished he leaned against the way too thin glass of the French windows and put his hand straight through it. He gave a short bark of a laugh as though this accident confirmed his view of the worthlessness of life. A month later he was dead. His ex-girlfriend was in hospital the day after giving birth to her first child. Matthew went to her house and rang the doorbell. The husband answered, whereupon Matthew produced a hand grenade, pulled the pin and blew himself and his rival to Kingdom Come. If you are wondering how he managed to get hold of a hand grenade, well, nothing is impossible in Greece for anyone who has the money. Some time before Matthew had sold off most of his possessions because, he said, he was leaving Greece for good. I know now that the few thousand drachmas I paid for his desk-lamp, spot-lights and dumbbells had contributed to the fee for the hand grenade.

Of course, cases in which one’s trainee teachers combine suicide with murder to spite their ex-girlfriends are relatively rare, and I don’t expect to come across many more. Back in the Neolithic I wrote a comment on the feed-back form of a young trainee teacher who treated his students with the high-handedness of a French traffic cop. ‘Never underestimate the pain students bring to a classroom’. I think the twenty-eight year old me probably felt quite smug with himself for handing down that bit of advice, and if it makes me wince a bit now, it’s at the po-faced manner in which it was vouchsafed rather than its content. Maybe I ought to have said ‘you and your students, just like everybody else, are mammals with holes at either end and a personal history of being treated well and badly and of doing the same to others. So stop being such a bossy sod.’