Teaching: The First Semester

I realize that I don’t talk about teaching very often. Make that, I hardly ever talk about teaching at all. That’s about to change. Because I’m going to talk about it right now. So there.

TLG is basically meant to be an entry-level teaching assignment. The program has no requirements for experience, certification, or education. You don’t even need a college degree.

In theory, all TLG teachers work with Georgian co-teachers. It’s in our contracts. This leads one to the conclusion that TLG teachers are basically consultants who are there to provide a native speaker to improve the listening and conversational skills of the students and who are also there to maybe provide some additional English language insights to the Georgian teachers who head the classes. These roles don’t require any special teaching background – just someone who can read and write their own language with a fair amount of proficiency.

In other words, we’re not here because we’re teachers, we’re here because we’re English speakers.

Now, TLGers, in reality, come from all sorts of different backgrounds and have all sorts of different life stories. My roommate, for instance, has at least 8 years of teaching experience, several of which were teaching English as a foreign language to adult learners, which means that everything we’ve been doing at the Police Academy is old hat for him. Many other TLGers have vast amounts of education or experience teaching English. Some have had conflicts over teaching methodology or division of labor with their co-teachers, because TLGers tend to have progressive Western ideas about education while Georgian teachers tend to have internalized a more Soviet style of teaching.

So, I can’t personally speak to those issues – the situation of a person with American or European teaching experience coming to Georgia and butting up against the entrenched institutional establishment. For me, this is the first teaching I’ve ever done.

I came here knowing that there could be several outcomes. I could fall in love with teaching in Georgia and decide to do this for the rest of my life. I could hate everything about Georgia and decide to leave ASAP. I could hate teaching and decide to try yet another career change. But in any event, I have always wanted to try teaching, and Georgia gave me an opportunity to try teaching, and to gather valuable teaching experience. I knew that after a year or two teaching here, I’d be marketable in lots of places around the world, and would be able to earn a competitive salary while traveling and living abroad. In short, teaching with TLG seemed like a ticket to a life of luxury and leisure, should I discover that traveling and teaching were things that suited me.

To be clear, I’ve never taught anything. I’ve never been certified to teach English. However, I’ve always been good at explaining things to people, at breaking things down, at communicating with people and understanding what piece of information another person needed to complete their understanding of a problem, and I’ve always enjoyed imparting my knowledge and experience to others. In a way, this blog itself is a reflection of that fact. I’ve also dedicated a great deal of time to learning about and using English and language in general – I’ve studied linguistics, English literature, etc, and I’ve also written short stories, poetry, and plays (even a play that was produced at Theatre Row in New York, to excellent reviews). So anyway, I have a lot of knowledge about language, but no practical experience in imparting that knowledge.

Which made it all the more interesting when the Police Academy decided to start giving me my own classes, shortly after I started working there in mid-September.

I basically had about two weeks with co-teachers before I was given a class to myself, along with the freedom to design the curriculum and exams, all without meaningful supervision. That two weeks was a valuable crash course, and I borrowed several techniques from my coteacher, but ultimately the class ended up being a complete experiment – and a successful one, at that. I managed to not only get them to practice things like giving directions, pulling people over, etc, but also taught them and tested them on things like the difference between assault and battery – a distinction that most native speakers outside the legal and law enforcement professions can’t even make – and the sorts of slang that criminals might use for various illegal substances or activities. That first class was a high point for me, especially since I can point to their final exams as specific evidence that they learned something that they would probably not have learned otherwise.

But the early days of my employment weren’t without some bumps. Most of my students, and most Georgians as a whole, had great trouble understanding me. No matter how much I tried to slow myself down, I couldn’t – I could never in my life get the hang of talking slowly. When I was a teenager, I used to talk so fast that my sister had to translate what I was saying for my own father. I finally started being able to slow myself down after spending a big chunk of time in Florida – I started to pick up a little of the accent, which mainly consists of a few small vowel tweaks, and just slowing the hell down from a New Yorker’s pace.

My roommate had mastered ESL-speak. He would even use it on me sometimes, and was probably only semi-aware of it. The first couple of times it came off as condescending, but I quickly realized that it’s just a mode of speaking he lapses into in front of non-native speakers, or when explaining something in general if he’s been around a lot of non-native speakers. Four months ago, I thought it was a really odd behavior. Now, I find myself doing it too.

And that’s what really brought this post on, I think. We just got two new TLG volunteers at the Academy – they’ve been in Georgia for all of two weeks, now, and at the Academy for just a few days, and I’ve been showing them the ropes – and I find myself occasionally speaking to them very slowly, especially in front of our Georgian colleagues and students. They’ve been meeting and talking to my students, and I can tell when they’re talking too fast for my students to understand them, and I can see my students try to keep up, and then the moment when they disconnect. It’s crazy to see that from the other side, because I know that that’s what my roommate must have seen me doing in my first several months on the job.

Today my roommate complimented me on speaking slowly and clearly, and on successfully rephrasing something simply without confusing anyone. It took four months, but I finally got the hang of it.

So now there’s a process. I’m familiar with the Cutting Edge Elementary curriculum, having seen it taught, having taught it myself to two or three classes now. I’m starting to think about revamping the quizzes and final exams – to make them easier for students to understand, and more accurate and comprehensive at evaluating English ability. I’ve got my Upper Elementary/Pre-Intermediate materials laid out and annotated and I’m starting to formalize them into a set of lesson plans that can be read and understood by a person unfamiliar with the ins and outs of how my own personal brain works. I’ve finally reached full compliance with the Police Academy filing system. I’m comfortable in the classes where I sit in with a Georgian co-teacher.

And I would now consider myself an English teacher. I’ve probably got a lot to learn yet, but I’ve made the major strides – I’ve taught classes, I’ve learned the trick of speaking so that English Language Learners can understand me, I’ve administered standardized and customized exams, and I’ve found a teaching style that suits me. I’ve started to have opinions on all the questions that I used to just defer to my roommate or co-teacher on. I’ve watched more experienced teachers extensively and learned from their techniques.

And now I have a new challenge – I have a class of only one student. Basically, I’m going to be teaching him the curriculum that I taught my first class, back in October – but it’ll be one-on-one, as if I were giving him private lessons. I’m looking at this as an opportunity to practice private tutoring, in case tutoring becomes an option for me as a means of additional income.

So what can I say? I actually do enjoy teaching very much. I actually find that I have the patience to overcome communication problems in class, to speak slowly and give students a chance to speak, and to explain things several different ways if the need arises. I enjoy the creative act of making a quiz or exam or lesson plan, and the reward when my students actually learn the stuff I’ve tried to teach them. And I think that I actually will continue teaching, past the end of this year – whether that be in Georgia, or elsewhere (again, a question that will be primarily based on monetary concerns). I think that I’ve learned a lot about teaching and will continue to learn as the year goes on.

So overall, from a teaching perspective, I’d say my first semester was a great success all around, and I’m really looking forward to the future. I’m glad I chose TLG and that there was an affordable, entry-level option for an aspiring EFL teacher fresh out of college. I’m even glad that I unexpectedly got a field promotion for some do-or-die on-the-job training.

So, yes. Teaching FTW.

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3 Responses to Teaching: The First Semester

  1. Amanda says:

    I always knew you’d make a good teacher : ) Glad you like it!!

  2. Tymala says:

    It is a good entry-level position for those who want to pursue a career in ESL, but in the end-most countries with the exception of China and some schools in Korea will only hire those with a TEFL or preferably a CELTA certificate in addition to a university degree. It is a highly competitive field outside of Georgia-or at least in Europe where I used to teach and was a part of the hiring process. If someone had experience- it did not make a difference unless we saw a piece of paper that said TEFL or CELTA. And the labor departments in most countries had to see both documents to legally give the instructor a work permit.

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