teaching professional people english
Yes, I’m heading back to the classroom as a last-minute replacement. I don’t know much about the students. They are all young, mostly male, on sandwich courses in management and engineering at a further education college. I don’t suppose that they will be terribly keen on studying english but here goes. I have done this kind of thing before. Today’s group is 13-strong, all boys, all studying at post-graduate level. The director of studies has told me that their english is to be applied at work in the context of chairing meetings and representing their companies internationally. My supervisor, who sometimes teaches in the same institution tells me that such a level of linguistic competence is unlikely. I arrive at the classroom, clean the board, and wait.
They arrive piecemeal, rowdy, and at great pains to ignore me. We haven’t started the lesson but territorial politics have commenced. This is their room… for now. When about half the group is present I begin. ‘Hello’. Eye contact. I ask someone to close the door. I pick on a fairly sympathetic-looking chap in the back row and ask his name. He tells me. ‘Where do you work?’ I ask. He pretends not to understand. Friends translate. ‘Oh, I bosse in a centrale, Madame’. Howls of amusement. ‘Bosser’ is slang for work. ‘Centrale’ is french for power station. Alternatively it is an extremely prestigious post-graduate school of science and management. I ask which, in french. The laughs are with me now. I write an answer for him in english on the board and we try the exchange again. He still tries to avoid speaking english, but his friends want their turn.
I turn to the gabby young man at the end of the front row. Happy to show off, he tells me he is a boiler maker and that this year he is training to be a maintenance supervisor. I suggest that welder is a more standard term for his trade. He agrees. I notice the strong-but-silent types on the other side of the room start to sit up. A faint glimmer of interest? I try one of them. Last year he was in full time employment. Why come back to school? ‘Money, Madame’ I press him. ‘More interesting job. ..’ his english runs out so I help. In the end I establish that three of the group have worked, one did a degree in chemistry last year, and the remainder (the ones behaving like chimps, mostly) come to us from vocational courses. Ignoring the chit-chat I also learn that most of them have ambitions beyond the diploma they are currently working towards.
It’s time to press on with the lesson. I explain that we will be doing some grammar and that after that we will be looking at useful phrases to structure presentations. Their oral exam is two sessions away and is to consist of each of them making a ten-minute presentation and answering questions about it. Slouches all round. The chit-chat continues. I write on the board;
Prince William and Kate Middleton got married last summer. There is some laddish banter at the back of the room. Apparently, Kate is quite the thing. What’s the tense? We stumble to a diagnosis. Some bright spark yells ‘ago’. Indeed. They got married 6 months ago. They are ____married. No folks, that’s not the future. Yes, we are looking for the word ‘still’. Yes, it is a pain in the arse to translate into french. They ___ ____ married ___ 6 months. Someone wakes up. They can do this. It’s the present perfect. The word is ‘for’. ____ those 6 months, Kate has become world famous. William was ______ world famous. ‘Already’ is volunteered quickly. ‘During’ takes a while. No folks, ‘was’ is not the future. …
I’ll spare you the details. We arrive at the end of my example having looked at the simple past, the past perfect, present perfect, present simple, for, since, ago, during, yet …. I remind them that these tenses are essential to any conversation they will ever have concerning projects and schedules. We talk about using ‘for’ and ‘during’ to switch from general to specific information… Yes, this stuff is useful at work. Notebooks have appeared out of bags, pens are in hand. Every word I’ve written on the whiteboard is being copied down … the quiet is unnerving. It doesn’t last.
I’m exhausted. Now it’s their turn to work. I have them split into twos and threes and instruct them to produce a better example than mine. It must include all the tenses we’ve been looking at and as many of the prepositions as possible. I add that the other groups I’ve had in this department – none of whom is reckoned to be nearly as clever as this class – have all completed this activity to a high standard. Group work means that those who are inclined to work will do so while those who have no intention of working will be ‘subsidised’ .. but some work will take place. I wander round the class looking over shoulders. I correct what I’m asked to, and gently insist on reading work in progress. I require computers to be turned off, phones put back in pockets. I had given them ten minutes. It takes twenty-five. Surprisingly, DSK (I quote; ‘before his arrest in New York he had had many adventures with different women’) and Silvio Berlusconi (according to another group of mine ‘he is still a scumbag’) are absent from the offerings of this group. Error density is high, but they are making some effort. Breaktime? Not until we’ve finished. They write their work up on the board and I finalise the corrections. Had they known their production would be shared there might have been more of it. They disappear noisily for half an hour.
When I started teaching I put myself under all kinds of pressure to design sophisticated and surprising classes. I’ve learned that this isn’t generally necessary, although it is definitely a plus if I find my own lessons interesting since I do have to be there. Big scary groups of youths are really not that demanding. The unspoken contract I pass these days is that any grammar I make them study is applicable to their work, everything they write I will read, anything they say I will treat with the respect it deserves, and they will never be humiliated in my class unless they do it to themselves. Ideally, I would like groups to correct each others’ work before I go near it but that would require a level of maturity that I’m not seeing this afternoon. Likewise, when revising tenses I like to use board games and so on for free practice but today they are staying in the bag. The only sophisticated surprise I can hope to spring on this class is to put them under enough pressure to have them surprise themselves. Especially the two at the back who are convinced that they can’t do english and never will.
They’re back. We move on to linking and sequencing phrases. For this, I have brought a photocopy with exercises. Most of them are more than capable of doing these, but they don’t know the vocabulary as well as they think they do. It’s a struggle to keep them quiet for long enough, but I manage to clear up the mis-learnings of those who are participating. We move on to the ‘please don’t say this’ category. I should explain. Many highly qualified professionals sincerely believe that as long as the words they are using are to be found in the Oxford dictionary, whatever they say is in english. This is erroneous, as anyone who has worked with professionals in France will know. Magazine articles do not ‘deal with’ the problems of society any more than a good presentation would commence with the phrase ‘in a first time’. I’m rather tickled by the total attention my pep talk receives from the front row. The people who have held down a job clearly understand where I’m coming from.
Having completed the controlled practice phase I move on to production. From the prompts supplied on the board I would like them to present contrasting arguments and their own conclusion, adequately articulated using the phrases we have just reviewed. For example, I suggest the following;
The nuclear industry claims to provide the most ecologically friendly electricity available…
Considering that they all work in the said industry, reactions are not positive. They do however have plenty to say. I suggest they write it down…. It’s time to tackle the work-shy folks at the back. I make my way around to them, and comment that they are looking glum. I do not mention their total inactivity. They explain how difficult english is for them, and how they are anxious to leave early on account of the snow on the roads. All the more reason to crack on, I suggest. I provide some custom-made prompts for them on the board and after a few minutes, return. Nothing has been written. I suggest it should be. The rest of the group has twigged that I am checking on them also, and I respond to requests for correction and assistance. After twenty minutes or so I have them read out their submissions. One young man has tackled all of the subjects. Everyone has done something, with the exception of grumpy on the second row and most of the texts are reasonably coherent. The lads at the back amaze me with a flawless contribution. Only one sentence admittedly, but even so….
The snow is falling outside and I relent, allowing them to leave a little early. Next session they are to bring source material to begin work on their presentations. They escape swiftly. Almost every one of them thanks me. I think that constitutes a successful lesson – although I shall be happy to get back to my usual grown-up students for the rest of the week!