Saturday, September 29, 2007

Open Letter to Turkish Students of English

In my former life before LE, I was an EFL teacher. I worked for awhile in the trenches of the dershane, or private language school, where I taught mostly adults. After about 3 years of that, and long after becoming fed up with long hours, split shifts, and "The Student Is A Customer And The Customer Is Always Right" philosophy of these schools, I managed to land a decent job in the English prep school of a private university. Here, the hours and pay were better, and the administration was infinitely more supportive, but what all these schools had in common, of course, were Turkish students.

I've often though that teaching would be great if it weren't for the students. I really enjoyed planning and staging lessons, untangling difficult grammar knots to better present them, and re-working the same lessons after a class to make them better. I even grew to enjoy the fact that planning is not necessarily expected in a dershane, where someone tells you 5 minutes before a 4-hour lesson that you're needed, and you may not even know which room you're in, let alone the students' level, which book you should be using, or which chapter they're on, but you go in and wing the 4 hours, come out feeling like a champ, and the students are none the wiser. But in the end, it's always the students who wear you down, with their predictably annoying behavior.

I should also point out that the peeves addressed below are in reference to adult (18 and up) students. I've never taught kids-- my youngest student was an 11 year-old, and he was one of the best-behaved students in the class. He looked like Harry Potter and his only behavioral idiosyncrasy was that he liked to sit in my rolly-chair and slide around a bit during group-work, a concession I was happy to make given the problems I was having with his older classmates. I address this letter to Turkish students because I've only ever taught in Turkey, but perhaps it applies to students in other places as well. And though it is pretty much just a rant, I think there is probably also some good advice here that can make learning English a more pleasant experience for teachers and students together.

Dear Turkish student,

Though I'm aware your English probably isn't sufficient to read this letter, just bear with me. I want to help you now so your future teachers feel less inclined to strangle you.

1) Trust your English teacher. Trust that she knows what she's talking about, and that the activity she is doing is intended to help you learn (I'm not talking about blind trust-- some teachers are crap. You should be aware of this, and you should also be aware that you have a right to a good teacher). When you first enter your new classroom and your teacher wants to do something that doesn't immediately make sense to you, give her a chance. Learning English from a foreigner will probably be different than anything you ever did before in school, but different doesn't mean that it's bad or wrong. Just because you aren't expected to sit quietly in your seat, fill in blanks, and copy from the board doesn't mean it's not a serious learning environment or that the teacher doesn't know what she's doing. If the teacher is speaking English, it's because she wants you to learn English. If she expects you to speak English, it's to help you practice English. If she wants to do the activity all in English, try to do it in English, rather than trying to subvert the activity and be the first one finished (more on being the first one finished appears below). If you don't understand something right away, chances are your teacher is going to explain it to you. Try listening to her before you start whining about how you don't understand.

2) Don't bitch. I've never in my life heard the amount of bitching that can be produced by a classroom of Turks of any age. When you're bitching, you're not listening. When you're bitching, you're making yourself feel worse and making everything harder. You're affecting the attitudes of the other students in the room, as Turks are particularly prone to being influenced by their peers. Bitching is just annoying and immature. Remember, your teacher is a human being who probably spent a lot of time preparing the lesson (unless you're in a dershane, see above, but even most dershane teachers are relatively well-prepared most of the time), and when you start going "Oof, yaaaaa, I'm so bored, yaaaa, this is difficult yaaaaa, oof I'm hot, yaaaa, this is boring, yaaaa," in that whiny, nasal voice, your teacher is probably really insulted that she and her efforts are being disregarded in this manner, and it will make her quite unsympathetic to any problems you may be having.

3) If you must bitch because something is difficult (and I recognize the propensity to bitch may just be cultural), give it a chance first before launching your bitching. I don't know how many times I've given a class a handout, or barely begun explaining an activity before being immediately interrupted by a chorus of, "What is this? I don't understand, yaaaa, this is difficult, yaaa, etc.," so not only am I unable to continue explaining because of all the bitching, students who might actually be listening to me also can't hear.

4) Learning English is not a race. When you finish an activity, don't slam your pen onto the desk and shout "Finished!" then start chattering to the other students who are still trying to work. In particular, conversation activities are not races-- they are meant to be conversation practice so you can use English and try out what you've been learning. When your teacher begins the activity with, "Talk to you partner...," this does not mean have a cursory 15-second exchange in which you take turns saying phrases of English you learned on the first day of class, then shouting "Finished!" It means you speak until your teacher tells you to stop.

5) You social life can wait for you for a 50 minute lesson. So can your mother. For Christ's sake, turn off your damn cell phone and don't use it during class. Don't answer it during a class and make the whole lesson stop so you can tell your friend or your mother you're in a lesson and it's boring. Don't open or answer messages-- they, too, can wait. I know your cell phone is an amazing piece of expensive technology, but don't use any of its other functions in class either. Don't listen to music. Don't take or look at photographs. Resist the urge to Google your favorite pop star. Don't rely on the crap Turkish-English dictionary your phone came with. And when you play with your phone in your lap under your desk, your teacher can indeed see what you're doing, so don't do it, and more importantly, don't lie about it when you get caught.

6) We know you need your dictionary, but try not to use your dictionary as a security blanket. If you're an elementary student and your teacher gives you a writing assignment, she expects you to use the English you know, not produce a major tome with all the neat, big words from your dictionary that you don't understand and make absolutely no sense. When your teacher asks you a question or tells you to talk to a classmate, again, you're expected to try out the English you've been practicing, not say something like "I am....." then go leafing feverishly through your dictionary while everyone waits for you to find a neat big word that neither you nor your classmates understand.

7) You might be really clever. You might know all the answers. You might have deliberately bombed the placement exam so you could be in an easier class. Don't worry-- your teacher gathered this on the first day of class and was very, very impressed. That's it. You don't get any extra points or money or candy. So please, when your teacher addresses a question to the class, don't just shout out the answer, every time, before everyone else has had a chance to think. Remember, you're not the only student there, and teachers find this incredibly annoying, you little suck-up. Also, don't be the self-appointed Translator and automatically translate everything the teacher says for your partner or for the rest of the class. You're not helping anyone, and in fact, you're actually preventing them from learning anything, since the students will quickly begin looking to you for a translation of even the simplest sentences.

8) When I was in elementary school, I learned some basic rules of classroom behavior. Presumably they teach you something like this here, too. Let me offer some examples, and I hope they don't come across as crazy, shocking foreigner ideas. Don't carry on conversations while the teacher is talking. Bring your book, writing implements, paper, and homework to class, and don't blame your mother if you don't have them-- it's not her responsibility. Don't write your homework on tiny pieces of paper torn from a daily planner. If you must be late, come in quietly and sit down, meaning don't come oofing and huffing into the room, ignoring the teacher while you say hello to your friends, drag a desk across the floor, and explain in detail in Turkish what happened to make you late. Don't throw things or try to light your classmate's clothes on fire. Don't cheat. Don't lie. Don't put your head down and the desk and sleep. Really, I see that you treat your Turkish teachers respectfully, and there's no reason you should treat your foreign teachers any differently.

9) Sometimes you will get a new teacher. Don't cry when this happens. Don't freak out and get upset. It's not the end of the world. The new teacher may do things differently from your old teacher, but I reiterate, different doesn't mean bad. Try to understand that your old teacher probably wasn't particularly attached to you, so there's no reason you should harbor any unnatural attachment towards her.

10) Try to understand that there's a difference between good teachers and friendly, popular teachers. Of course, friendly and popular teachers may also be good, but they can also be crap if you stop being blinded by their friendliness and adorable Turkish. Your teacher doesn't have to love you for her to be a good teacher. A strict, unfriendly teacher might be very good. Try to look past the surface.

11) Try not to explode with glee when your teacher says something in Turkish-- it's not that big a deal. How do you think she navigates the world outside, after all? Also, try to not laugh when your teacher makes a mistake in Turkish. It would be easier for you not to laugh if you knew what your English sounds like to your teacher. At least she saves her laughter for the bar, after work, she doesn't laugh in your face even when you deserve it.

12) Your teacher may do an activity differently than the way it is written in the textbook. This is okay. Relax. Additionally, your teacher may skip something in the textbook, or even skip an entire unit altogether. This is also okay. The textbook is a tool, it is not the Kuran. If you skip an activity, your English will not be deficient as a result. If you skip a unit, nothing bad will happen. That final unit on past tense passive reported speech is not the key to English that will unlock the doors and make you fluent.

13) The reason you signed up for English classes with foreign teachers was so you could learn English, right? Then why do you complain when the lessons are in English? What did you expect? Your teacher knows your Turkish is really, really good. She's not interested in improving your Turkish, that's why she asks you to practice English when you're in class. Using English for one or two hours a day while you're in your lessons is really not asking too much. There's very little point to doing conversations or other activities in Turkish, and even less of a point when you consider that you're paying to do this. Try to think of your lesson time in English as a game you play with yourself, where you try to speak as much English as you can. If you speak Turkish, you lose.

14) There is no magic way to learn English. It takes time, effort, concentration, and a lot of hard work inside and outside of class. You can expect a minimum of two years to be able to carry on a decent conversation or to be able to understand most things, and even then, you won't be even close to perfect or fluent. Remember, 'intermediate' means 'middle,' so when you finish an Upper-Intermediate level, it means you finished the last middle-level textbook. It doesn't mean you've finished English. If your boss has given you 6 months to learn English, he's an idiot who's obviously never studied English. If the secretary in the front office who signed you up for lessons told you it would take 3 months for you to learn English, she was lying in order to sell you lessons. If you are not fluent in English after a month, it's not your teacher's fault. Please refrain from complaining to your teacher, your classmates, or the school's administration if you find yourself unable to reach an unrealistic goal.

Offhand, dear student, these are some things you can keep in mind when you undertake English study. I hope this has been helpful for you, and I wish you a happy learning experience.


Yaramaz said...

Bless you, my dear, bless you! Can I print this out in 36 point type ande post it on every classroom door? Please?

PS How's not teaching? Should I get knocked up too? It sounds quite excellent.

Stranger said...

Mothering can be frustrating too. His latest is blowing raspberries at me with his mouth full of food. But, like students, I tell him to cut it out and he thinks it's funny and does it more...

montchan (MJ Bliss) said...

Oy vey! That all sounded familiar. Now, with teaching kids, you deal with all that, PLUS their parents. And I'd rather shoot myself than teach kids ever again.

Says she, who spent some time in a gulag (a.k.a. teaching junior high in rural Poland)

India said...

Can I use these rules too??

Your blog is a great find, keep up the wonderful entries!

(guchiguchi from FWC)


Stranger said...

Montchan, India-- I tried to respond to your comments via gmail, but it got returned.

I'm so glad people are actually reading this! Thanks so much for the feedback...


montchan (MJ Bliss) said...

Wha? Got returned? Is gmail on the censorship bandwagon, too? ;)

No clue why it happened! Gmail is stupid!

Stranger said...

Actually, I think I was the one being stupid, and tried to reply to a 'No Reply' email. Except it didn't say 'No Reply' anywhere...

siobhan said...

Worse and infinitely more annoying than the students who slam down their pens and shout 'finished' are those who slam down their pens and shout 'finish'