Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Confessions of a long suffering English Teacher

Being an English teacher is a fine occupation. I mean it involves me in something I already love, the intricacies of which I can find endlessly and quite boringly (for my students) fascinating. After all, who else do you know who could talk with almost unbecoming and outrageous enthusiasm for at least half an hour about the apostrophe?

Nevertheless, doing this can also get me into deep water, nay not only water, into the dark and dirty mire. Take, for example, my main weakness: spelling. I have to say, and this is a real confession, that I am a bit hopeless at vowels - I get them mixed up all the time. Imagine this scenario then: I'm busy giving my students a quiz on confusing words and we come up with the one about 'principal' and 'principle'. This is when I discover to my shame I need the answers. But I haven't got them with me. Then one honest student says, "but Valerie, what's the difference?" Gulp. Well, I know the difference, but at that moment, I can't remember which definition goes with which spelling...oh mortification..and I'm the English Teacher.

But there's nothing like a bit of panic to get the juices working, and without so much as a break of pace or a hint of remorse, I look brightly round the room and ask, "now who would like to explain?" nodding knowingly and encouragingly as another student gets me out of the doodoo.

There are several others like this one, all sent to catch me out, but as time goes on, I'm becoming increasingly agile at avoiding these verbal minefields...the other day it was the difference between 'stationery' and 'stationary'.."one means not moving, and the other means paper and writing material. Now you tell me which one's which?" say I, deftly ducking the obvious booby trap.

Then there's the problem with pronunciation pickles. Many of my international students come from countries where they learn English from books but never hear it. The result can be hilarious when they finally get round to having to actually speak it. The trouble is, I'm not supposed to laugh at them! That is an absolute no no. But it's really really hard sometimes. I mean what would you do if someone was giving a serious presentation on an academic subject, and came up with the sentence: "We feel that under these circumstances, we have been seriously mizzled". Everyone looks blank, including me. "Could you maybe just repeat that please?" I ask diplomatically, but the laughter lump is already forming in my throat, and is refusing to be swallowed. The hapless student repeats the sentence, and when the sea of faces remains vacant and clueless, she spells out the word: Misled.

Now I don't know why this should strike me as so funny, but it does, and try as I might, I can't staunch the flow. I've even had to leave the room on occasions just to get over a fit of incurable giggles caused by a mispronounced word. It's even worse when the whole class watches you with total incomprehension as you splutter and weep tears of laughter into your piece of crumpled loo paper, which happens to be the only thing you have to hand. Nothing so refined as a real tissue is ever there when you need it.

Then there's the third obstacle: making language mistakes yourself. This is of course the students' delight. They love it, and will happily remind you for the rest of the course (and beyond to eternity) when you make one teentsy, tiny, minute and insignificant little error, such as leaving out a 'the' or saying 'less things' instead of 'fewer things'. Well, part of it could be that I pounce on them from a dizzy height when they do the same, but even still....when you meet them later on, even a year after, they will delight in reminding you of a sin of your own making. Sometimes you can gloss over mistakes, and if I can, I do it shamelessly - just to avoid the permanence of being branded the teacher who fell into her own hole…or was it whole? Or a whole hole?

I've become quite adept at saying things like "oh yes, you're quite right, but I was going to say 'less baggage (for example)' but I changed my mind...so of course it came out wrong". Big smile.

I know that they know that I'm bluffing, but at least it's one way of crawling out of the mire..or the pit...or the minefield..or was that a pit too......?