Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

So tell me again - how did you become a teacher?

I'm sitting here ostensibly invigilating a writing exam but there are only five students scattered around a very large room so that it isn't exactly an onerous task. What it has done is set me thinking again - most things do nowadays - about how I fell into teaching in the first place. To really appreciate it you need to understand a little of the background, a little of what went before. To follow my life path you need to go back to my secondary school days. I was one of those academic kids who was pretty good at every subject that didn't involve getting changed into shorts, running about and taking showers. Geography? A breeze. History? No sweat. French and German? Well maybe not so good, but still OK. Science? Done and dusted. But the two subjects that I actually excelled at were English and Maths. Of the two I preferred English but teachers being teachers they decided for me that my career path would be better served by doing two maths A-levels and Physics. (There was also General Studies but that was a kind of free gift A-level that could just as easily have been given away with a box of Coco-Pops for all the effort that was involved in passing it.)
So, I did those A-levels and having passed them ended up doing a maths degree at University. This involved pure maths, applied maths and computer studies. I can with hand on heart say that not only do I remember nothing about pure or applied maths beyond the title of one module - the theory of unsolvable problems - I have never, since the day that I walked out clutching my degree certificate, had cause to use one single thing that I learned in either of them. Computers on the other hand became my profession, de facto if not exactly chosen. And I was good at it. I progressed steadily, got more and more money, did the job. I also hated it. Fast forward to the death of my mother. It's wonderful how the death of someone close to you focuses the mind on what's important about life. It focused mine on getting out and seeing some of the world and so that’s what I did for almost two years. I travelled. Approaching the end of my travels with dear old Blighty looming on the horizon along with the prospect of needing to work for a living again, I found myself in China.I had been travelling across the country, having entered it along the Karakorum Highway from Pakistan.
I'm a big fan of China. Whenever any of my students want to know my favourite country it's the first answer that I give. I had intermittently been giving some thought to what I could do when I got home and while my conclusions were not yet resolved the one thing I did know was that I didn't want to go back into IT. At the back of my mind there had been an idea of maybe going into teaching. Resisting this impulse was the memory of my sole experience of the profession to date. I had, in the middle of my travels, briefly returned home and applied for an IT job at a local college. I didn't get it but I was offered a job teaching IT, After a great deal of thought I had taken it. And after one day I had quit it. I had no idea how to teach and no idea what to teach and the kids knew more than I did anyway. It was a nightmare. The worst day of my working life.
Against that I did feel that I might be able to make a better job of teaching English. After all IT was what I did but English was what I loved. Still I hadn't made a decision. And then I arrived in Kunming. Kunming is a fairly ordinary industrial town in central China. There isn't anything especially bad about it, nor anything especially good. On my first day there I wandered around looking for an internet cafe. It didn't take me very long to find one, a comfortable place with a row of fairly old computers and a slow connection but with nice coffee, soft chairs and decent snacks. It was full of Chinese teenagers. I settled down and started to check my e-mail.
I'd been there about ten minutes when a smiling girl, aged about seventeen came in with a pile of leaflets. At first I took no notice, but she looked around and spotting me as the only non-Chinese face came straight towards me. She held out a leaflet. I glanced at it. Printed at the top it said in large friendly letters "FREE BEER". Anyone who says the Chinese don't understand western culture doesn't know what he's talking about. Those two words together would motivate almost any Englishman. I read further. It was an invitation to any native English speakers to join the "Kunming English Club" in one of the local hotels where, in exchange for conversation, beer would be provided. I took the leaflet. She looked very happy.
"Flee be-ah" she said and went off in search of more Europeans.

Later in the evening I set off to look for the hotel. It was in a part of the city that I hadn't so far explored, down by the river. Here the buildings were older and more traditional and it was rather more pleasant than the areas that I had seen before. I soon found the hotel and went in. There was a large group of Chinese gathered there in the reception, male and female, almost all in their late teens and early twenties. One was a little older and it was he who approached. He introduced himself as a local high school teacher and thanked me for coming along. As he escorted me into the bar, a younger man came rushing up with a glass of beer. It seemed that there was indeed flee be-ah.

And so I spent the next few hours drinking a couple of beers and talking to the students of the Kunming English Club about all kinds of things - the royal family, English weather, rock music, sport (about which I know even less than I know about the royal family), what I thought about China, where I had been in the world, whether it is true that all Englishmen wear bowler hats and carry umbrellas. That kind of thing.

Belatedly I looked at my watch and realised that I had been there for more than three hours and it was alrady after ten, so I had to take my leave. They kept on thanking me - I had been the only native speaker there - out of the door and all the way along the road. And when I turned to head towards the hotel they stood waving.
So far I had had nothing to eat since a small lunch and was now worried that I wouldn't find anywhere still open. I ran back up the road towards my hotel and towards the tiny restaurant where I had had that lunch. The owner was just locking up. Somehow I managed, without any common language, to persuade her to open again and cook me a meal 0f chicken and rice. This is one of the reasons I like China so much. It's full of people who are friendly and helpful.

As I ate - watched by the owner - I reflected on the experience of the night and realised that I had had a great time. I'd had a real sense of doing something useful and positive for someone and, I discovered, my decision to teach when I got home had crystallised.

What remains is trivial. I got home. I took a CELTA course with the intention of teaching abroad. CELTA is a Certificate of English Language Teaching for Adults and is a qualification for teaching EFL. Circumstances meant that I took a job in the UK and I'm still doing it. And I'm still getting the same sense of doing something positive for people, a sense that I never had in all the time that I worked in IT.

So, that's how I fell into teaching, and I can honestly say that of all the jobs that I've had, it's the only one that ever gave me this particular satisfaction.