My “special group”

I think every EFL teacher has a special group. I don’t mean the one that I love, because I can take all of my ideas to them and get good feedback (though I have that group, too). And I don’t mean the groups where I learn a lot (I have a bunch of them). And, I don’t mean my most frustrating group (that’s a rotating honor, to be honest).

The group

I mean the group that I’ve had for literally years without making a lot of progress. The group that makes me wonder if I’m as good at this teaching thing as I like to think I am.

They’re great people: it’s an evening group that gets together as much out of the joy of seeing each other as out of any real desire to learn English. In fact, half of them are retired and will probably only ever need English on the level of “one beer, please” and the other three only might need English.

They know their English isn’t great, but I think they’re satisfied with how things are.

It goes without saying that I am not satisfied.

So, as I wind up the worksheet generating software (weird idea, but it’s basically finished, though I’ll probably never stop poking at it) I think my next big focus will be on growing as a teacher and using this group as the obstacle course on which I train.

Of course, they get the New Spork City stories every week, and they read and translate them faithfully.

The challenge

I remember someone summarizing her teaching style as “give them what they need disguised as what they want.” And it’s a good philosophy. It’s what I’m trying with these guys.

So, here’s what they want: to come in in the evening, have a good time, enjoy the connection that they have to each other, and go home. They wilt when we obviously drill anything for more than five minutes and, to be honest, they’re quick to grasp something like a structure or vocabulary “for now” but will struggle to employ it even thirty minutes later.

Here’s what they need (I think): They do okay with individual words. Voabulary isn’t the problem. The problem is forming sentences reliably. And, what they need is to practice them in a simplified way until they click and to build up from there. However, if it’s too obviously practice, energy leaves the room.

What I’m trying

I intend to write more with time, and I’ll describe some activities in detail, but I’m trying hard to find activities that feel like a game or a conversation, but which emphasize repeating the same structures over and over again.

In addition, I printed out a game board from LinguaHouse (I think, I can’t find it again…) that focused on asking questions and let them discover that that was hard for them. Then, I made up a first worksheet using the characters from New Spork City going through the fundamentals of questions step-by-step. (Eventually, I expect it to be very similar to the “passive voice for processes” series of worksheets already available here.)

My goal is to follow the same recipe that worked so well with the absurd business resources: make some great worksheets that I can reuse (and share here) and mix them up with customized materials just for the class that are fun to do because they’re about the class participants.

With time, I hope to write up some of the activities that I thought of in order to disguise the drilling I do with them (and other groups), but that’s going to have to wait for another time.

I spent years getting into this situation. It’ll take me a while to get out. But I will.

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Having the same conversation seven times

I’ve been thinking about what I can say that is of value to people who are considering becoming EFL teachers. I have a niece who wants to live in Europe and thinks teaching EFL can be her ticket. I told her two things:

  1. Learn another job in the U.S., because the most in-demand teachers are the ones who have experience in something else, and can teach specialist vocabulary. Also, because…
  2. I don’t think my job will be around in the future. Machine translation will be a much more affordable way to do the communication that I teach most. Sure, it won’t help much in vacations, but the people who pay for my work, bosses don’t care about their employees’ vacation experience. For what they want, machine translation will be great.

However, I’m collecting a couple of tips that I think might help people who are thinking of teaching EFL or are starting off. Today’s tip is this:

Get good at having the same conversation fifteen times, but making the person you are talking to feel like you’re having it for the first time.

No joke, I think this is my greatest strength as a teacher. It saves me thinking of something to speak about for every lesson, and the students think I’m the fun teacher who always has a different, wacky idea.

Even more, after you have the conversation twice, when you go into the third group you’ll know better which questions to ask, you’ll be able to provoke conversation with “you know, I’ve heard…”

A go-to conversation topic for me.

An example I have is talking about when to say “Hello” in Germany. I think this sounds absurd to Germans and people who haven’t lived in Germany, but I can do a good job of moving from one point to the next in this conversation spontaneously, as though I’m asking this question for the first time. I should point out, my style is much more conversational than this, but here are the major points in the conversation:

  1. In the U.S., when I studied German, my professors taught us the words “Guten Tag,” and then emphasized that we should never greet strangers in German. “It’s the fastest way to let them know you’re not from Germany.” Do you think that’s true?
  2. Here’s the thing, I’ve been thinking about this, because my wife — who you know is German — absolutely hates one of our neighbors because “she can’t open her mouth to say hello.” Why would she hate her for not doing something she shouldn’t do?
  3. So I should say hello to my neighbors? Even if I see them downtown, shopping?
  4. If I see you guys when you’re shopping, should I say hello?
    1. From what distance? I mean, I have no problem yelling across the street “Hey, Marcus, it’s me, the English teacher” and waving, but I don’t see other people doing it…
  5. Now that I’m thinking about it, people say “Hello” when they walk into the Doctor’s office. What’s up with that?
    1. Are there other places I should say hello?
  6. My mother-in-law greets every hiker we pass when we’re hiking. Is that normal?
    1. Should bikers greet each other? What about joggers? What if I’m walking with a stroller, should I wave to other people with strollers?
  7. Okay, thanks… I think you’ve helped me in my goal to become a little more German. I really appreciate it.

The think about this conversation is that I’ve found people love being helpful. And so, I like to give them the chance. You can see in reading this that the conversation is based on an actual question that I once had.

My strength is in letting people help me again and again. I think it’s once you should develop, too.