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Sunday, 23 June 2013

"You Must Be Brazilian!" and other snapshots of summer teaching

The sudden strains of my ringtone pierced through my sleep, and my grogginess evaporated as I realized who was calling. It was my supervisor. "I'm sorry to disturb you," he said. "I know you're not supposed to be working today, but can you teach today? One of our teachers is in A&E."

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During the summer, I teach English to groups of Brazilian students who come through our schools near London, and this morning I had just one hour from leaping out of bed until I had to be in the classroom. My brain scrambled to think of what I could do with the classes. Flexibility, I've been told, is the first rule of teaching.


Four skill levels, six periods, and a student age range of about twelve to eighteen. With such variances to consider, teaching can be challenging and the days can be long, but they can also be a lot of fun. You never know exactly what you're going to get.

However, there are three questions new students invariably ask me: "Do you speak Portuguese?" "How old are you?" and "Do you have a boyfriend?" Today's classes were no different. My students were delighted and startled to discover that I could understand quite a lot of what they were saying. In fact, some of them refused to believe I wasn't Brazilian. "You must be Brazilian! You understand us! Besides, all the staff are Brazilian, so you must be too."
"No, really," I laughed, "I'm British. I don't speak Portuguese, but I can understand some."
"We'll teach you," some other students volunteered. "Repeat after us: Eu sou a mais linda professora na escola!"
As I realized what I was repeating I laughed and shook my head, a bit embarrassed. "Obrigada! But how about we speak in English now? This is English class after all." They reluctantly agreed and we proceeded with the lesson.

One of the greatest delights of teaching is the students themselves. Sometimes I find I have a lot in common with them. Sometimes they make some thought-provoking points about life. Sometimes they crack me up. Over the course of the day I learned that although this group was respectful and generally attentive, I also had some particularly lively students. They were not overburdened with self-consciousness.

One boy was suddenly inspired to read a poem about a tarantula to his classmates and begged me to allow him to perform. "She's hairy, she's scary, she's covered in bristles..." He read with enormous enthusiasm and expression, and I laughed and applauded with the rest of the class as he closed with a flourish and a bow, "But I think she's smashing!"

During the last class period, I played a game where teams had to describe words on the board for their teammate to guess. The kids threw themselves into the game, yelling out (and often acting out) diverse and sometimes hilarious clues. Their excitement was contagious. The timer was running out for one student whose teammates were trying to describe "snow" to him. "Neve! Neve!" he finally exclaimed.
"Yes!!! But in English!!" I cried, and his team echoed frantically, "In English!!"
"I forget it...I don't know..." He was racking his brains as his team gave him every other clue they could think of. Just before the buzzer declared time was up, he burst out, "Snow!!!" I think I yelled almost as loudly as did his teammates at his triumph.

"I hope we weren't being too noisy," I apologized to the teacher next door later.
"Oh no," she grinned. "My class wasn't exactly being quiet either. Besides, I like to see them coming into my classroom happy; I think they should be enjoying their lessons."
I smiled. I felt as pleased as my colleague to see students' smiles and see their confidence in using English increase over the few days they were with me. Besides, after the effort I'd put into planning, it was certainly satisfying to hear, "We like you, tia [aunt]! We like your class! You're the best!"

The last bell finally rang. Freedom! I was spent, but it had been a good day. As the students streamed out of my classroom and the classroom next door,  they looked over their shoulders to yell goodbye. "Teacher!" I looked up from my computer to see one of the boys from my previous class period. He pointed to himself, made a heart with his fingers over his chest, and pointed at me with a grin. I laughed and waved him off.

Teaching teenagers can be formidable, but I'm learning that when I manage to connect with them, when I try to be creative and give them some fun motivation, and when they respond to my efforts, their appreciation and a warm sense of pleasure and accomplishment is a true reward.

I really do like my job.

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