An interesting debate over at ELT World in answer to the question, Are your students learning anything?
has got me all reflective.
Many rock songs are claimed by religious maniacs
to include subliminal messages when played backwards or by missing every sixth word or summat, but others are more easily deciphered. As TEFL anthems
go, perhaps one of the most memorably haunting has to be Dave Gilmour/Roger Waters' bitterly ironic collaboration reflecting on TEFL one-to-one classes being taught abroad
, Wish You Were Here
How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl,
Year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.
As TEFL mongers we often feel like we're in a fish bowl, year after year
, not least because the majority of our students exhibit the retention capacities of the goldfish. After painstakingly explaining that we use the preposition to
after various verbs, the next class is always a Dead Sea of blank faces as we ask the breezy question, What do you want to do tonight, João?
, secretly hoping for the answer "emigrate" or "get that lobotomy I've been saving up for", but all we receive is the deeply inevitable "what means want?" (pronounced as in w*nk).
I have often felt like I'm in suspended animation in TEFL, like on that Nirvana album cover
where the baby's bobbing about underwater in a silent yet transparent netherworld. I see life going on around me, people having careers - they may be getting promoted, being fired, whatever, but always there's some kind of movement involved, whether it be onwards and upwards or as part of a downward spiral - in TEFL, it's like we're endlessly treading water in the same place at the same time when we've just seen a Royal Navy frigate steam obliviously by - Year after year, Running over the same old ground.
The satisfaction derived from most jobs stems, I suspect, from the feeling of having achieved something
. An architect designs and builds buildings, a pilot flies and lands his plane safely at its destination, even an accountant balances his books and passes audits, however soul-grindingly tedious this process might be. But in TEFL we're just passing time, talking at people, getting them to use all their mental powers to complete a gap-fill exercise, only for their total amnesia
in subsequent classes to make us wonder if we haven't just dreamed the whole thing as part of some Kafka-esque nightmare
. I have, to this day, never felt uniquely responsible for anybody managing to speak English fluently, my status only ever having reached that of poorly-motivated childrens' entertainer
on their glacial trajectory towards blingualism.
I've had countless students stumble along through English classes for a couple of months, only to realise that they're wasting their time and money and bow out graciously, whilst never admitting that they're giving up, only that they're suddenly inexpicably busy, despite their state of unemployment. Then, when they realise they can't find a decent job because every Brazilian company ludicrously demands inglês fluente
they troop back for another awkward stint of mental torment, only to eagerly duck out again when they find a job in a bar serving cachaça
via funnels to monolingual, monosyllabic road workers.
I hereby cry: HELP!