The Apprentice Teacher

(Reading time: 5 - 10 minutes)

So you are pink-cheeked, bright eyed,ambitious, energetic and want to be an EFL teacher; and you think that having passed Proficiency with an A, a degree with a creditable mark, and having a Greek Ministry Teaching licence under your belt (plus having coached your little cousin for some of the B2 Exam), fully qualifies you.

Think again. Sorry to deflate your egotistic balloon (we all have them), but 43 years in the business has taught me that you are only at the start of a long, hard slog. 

Although your parents (and all aunts and uncles) have assured you that you are 'the cat's whiskers,' and are going on to a brilliant and respectable career, you have only - like the would be Olympic sprint champion - learnt how to dig the little hole for your foot at the start of the track. You still need to learn to run! 

You may have dreams of regurgitating all the learning that’s been crammed into your head over the last decade, into rapt, attentive faces and minds looking up at you in wondrous silence and hanging onto every word; throwing in the occasional humorous remark, so you can’t be accused of being boring.

You may have fleeting visions of becoming your students’ idol for the day; the respected teacher that is adored and chatted about. You may even think about teachers that inspired you, in the past, and see yourself becoming one of them; imagining yourself wearing the mantra of the feted educationalist like a purple-edged senatorial toga. 

Well, come down from your perch my would be linguistic parrot. EFL teaching life is not quite like that, and while I don’t want to tell you you’ll never match your ambitions, I can tell you it will only be after a lot of classroom experience, tears of recrimination, yards of internal strife and a lot of learning about both teaching and human behaviour – particularly in its adolescent members; most of which is not to be found in books.

The most important thing to start with is to go on an EFL teaching course, and here in Athens we have a good number of them which are not only well respected in Greece, but also attract students from other countries.

Courses where you could learn from people like Lilika Couri, Suzanne Antonaros, Marisa Constantinides, Danae Kozanoglou or the intrepid Cliff Parry, to name just a few that come to mind. These would start by gently lowering you from your inner heights, and putting your feet firmly on the first rungs of the ladder, or perhaps beanstalk, that may lead to the fabled giant’s golden castle. But remember, the castle
is still above the clouds! 

The next thing is to try to cultivate a real sense of humour. And here I don’t mean Charlie Chaplin slapstick or the antics of Mr Bean. I mean real, clever humour, and preferably linked to language since that is what you intend to teach. 

Reading writers like Henry Fielding, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and watching humorous programmes like Yes, Minister, will give you some idea of how language can be used and appreciated, even if you are not at the stage of doing so, or even improvising, yet. 

I can tell you from experience that it was not until I started teaching that I realised what a wonderful tool humour was for successfully putting over something that could otherwise be quite boring. It is the laser of our profession when used in the right hands.

 However, a word of caution. Few realise that being a natural and effective humorist is not an affected role; one a would be teacher – or actor - can take on or discard at will. It is actually a pure product emanating from our very existence (consider it a form of personally perfumed sweat!).

And I think most natural users of intelligent humour would love the simple epitaph on their tombstones of having ‘communicated amusingly,’ because it probably pithily sums up a great deal of who they were. What is most misunderstood is that clever humour is not just reserved for slapstick or clowning, rather it is applied to a subject in a way a film make-up artist uses cosmetics: discretely and to enhance the focus on what is being transmitted.

Humour is a product of intuition and understanding and should be used carefully. At the risk of being accused of blowing my own trumpet, I will give you two examples where I used humour to get a point across.

Several years ago, a group of ambassadors were discussing the qualities that made up an effective political representative, and when it is better not to interfere in events; and I piped up, adding my own pennyworth.

“It really comes down to the ability of being a diplomatic camel, you know.” They looked at me enquiringly, and I continued. “The usual camel drinks for 3 days and works for 7; the diplomatic one does exactly the opposite. After all, 3 days of work is quite enough to handle most major incidents, leaving the rest to evaporate without any political intervention, at all.

” They all roared with laughter, but the point was taken that we can sometimes over react to situations; and it was remembered for a long time. The same technique can be very successfully adapted for use in the classroom. 

Only once did that tactic backfire, and that was a few months before President Clinton’s visit to Athens. Soon after the Lewinsky affair, when William was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize, I wrote that I must have heard wrongly. 

“It must have been the Noble Piece Prize,” I said, “For no one who has followed the avid American press can fail to be aware of the President’s unswerving efforts to bring piece with attached Good Will, to all those who wish to partake of it; and bring home the true meaning of ‘E Pluribus Unum to any lingering doubters’.”

That article quickly convinced the US Embassy that I was not the right person to interview the President on his Greek trip! But the humour remained longer in readers’ minds than any serious interview I could have written.

So the point I wanted to make, of what I perceived as his ineligibility to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, was simply and clearly understood by all, again showing the power of humour to transmit a morsel of learning.

In EFL teaching, I always raise a laugh before starting on Bare Infinitives, by referring to them as English Grammatical Strip-Tease; and the initial laugh is invariably followed by a moment of concentrated attention and silence, even by the most unruly students, giving me a better chance of putting over this most un-Greek concept. 

At this point let me add something. If you happen to be a born humorist, let me raise a glass to you and all those misunderstood clowns, comics and abused comedians, worldwide; who daily labour under the scathing comments of their nearests, dearests, friends and workmates.

‘Grow up, don’t be so silly, be serious sometimes, oh you’re so eccentric’ and, worst of all, ‘what will the neighbours think;’ when all we are doing is being natural and simply expressing ourselves according to some inner dictates. 

If already a humorist, you may be looked down on, rather pityingly, by those around you, but you’ll probably make a good teacher. You already have one of the most important ingredients in your make-up, so build on it, cultivate it and use it effectively in the classroom.

Two striking examples, here in the EFL world, who use humour extremely well as a learning tool, are Luke Prodromou and Cliff Parry – and both are eminently successful. Not only do they know their subject, but they also have the feel for how to put it over in a pleasant and palatable way. Copy them, if you can.

After all imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. A final point that is most important for the budding teacher, is to learn about the world, and not just learn from books. Keep your eyes open, watch the baker making dough, ask him how he does it.

Do the same for every action you see performed by others around you. Ask, internalise and criticise; above all do not wear mental blinkers. Discuss politics, the state of the country and the world around you, and try to imagine the point of view of the other.

If you are a fervent believer in Nea Democratia, try to look at life and events from a Syriza point of view – and the opposite of course. Imagine how you would react if you were in the other’s shoes. Remember that as a teacher you are going to be communicating with students who have probably inherited a wealth of different points of view to your own. Don’t fight them, look down on them, or try to impose your own beliefs.

Try to understand, and then to comment. They will respect you more for that. Note, too, that the world is very large in terms of what you don’t know; and yet – as a teacher – you are expected to prepare your students for that world. So learn as much as you can about it. Then, perhaps, some of the sweat you will shed in making yourself a good teacher, and an understanding human being, will change colour

and turn itself into the border of purple for your academic, senatorial toga! Oh, and as far as class discipline is concerned, remember the wise Chinese sage who said: “children can have 16 years of discipline and then go on to enjoy the next 60 years of their lives; or they can be allowed to be totally democratic in what they wish to do, or follow, and then spend the rest of their lives in poverty or in jail.” Decide
wisely on your class approach.


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