From Ellen in Gdynia, Poland: I was concluding a dreary, slow day Wednesday. Hadn’t had enough to do, fell into brooding and soul-searching and just about decided I didn’t have one when the phone rang. It was my school, anxiously asking whether I could fill in the next day for a sick teacher.
“Sure,” I said. It would be a long day, I was warned: three one-on-ones and three groups, each an hour and a half in duration. As Marzhina, the assistant, filled me in on the details, I felt increasingly panicked. Not only were all students at considerably lower levels than those I’d dealt with – one group was actually children. Aged 7-9. What in the world was I going to do with them?
“Don’t worry, Asia and I will help you,” she said kindly. An hour later she sent me a report on just where each student was, and which materials should be used. I grew more spooked. Reported speech! Modem verbs! Clozes! All these terms with which I was embarrassingly unfamiliar. I undertook a flurry of research, downloading and printing several exercises and articles in case the students didn’t care to go by the books, or I couldn’t find them. And the kids: what for them? I frantically consulted a website I’ve found invaluable. Help…maybe. Some basic suggestions and low-level, “fun” exercises. Would this be enough?
“Be calm,” I muttered to myself throughout the long ride to Starogard Gdanski the next morning. As it turned out, I was, compared to my first student, a middle-aged man.
“My English is very bad,” he said shyly.
“Not according to your homework,” I replied, glancing over it. In painstaking handwriting, he had completed several pages of exercises which looked pretty complex to me for a beginner. He brightened and relaxed. And I stopped feeling like an imposter.
All the adults, whether one-on-one or in groups, were at first very timid.
The kids, on the contrary, weren’t in the least. This most-dreaded group was my next to the last class. I’d forgotten how very small and touching children 7-9 are. They were a delight: five girls, two boys, bright, eager and curious about the old foreigner substituting for their teacher.
“You aren’t Polish!” one little boy happily exclaimed. A battery of questions followed. I couldn’t answer until Asia came to the rescue.
It was quickly established that my prepared material was worthless. Talking, reading and writing were not options. With the help of the two young assistants, we all just played. Flash cards, matching games, word puzzles, coloring. I was awed by how rapidly these kids unscrambled words. Memorized. And how talented some were with their crayons, embellishing the little name tags I asked them to make. The hour and a half went amazingly fast. Something that pleased me was observing how carefully their obviously doting parents, arriving to take them home, wrapped them up against the cold night. Beloved little parcels.
My last group, three women and a man, had the initial unease of the other adult students at being confronted with a native speaker. They had, it turned out, been learning only six months! I told them firmly what I’d been telling the others all day: relax. Do not hesitate to ask me to repeat, however many times. If I speak too rapidly, tell me. If I say anything you don’t understand, stop me. Ask.
We tackled the material. As the lesson progressed, I was increasingly impressed. Obviously weary from their respective long days at work, they struggled doggedly to speak, listen, comprehend, write.
“I am sorry for our poor English,” one apologized at the end.
“But you’re doing beautifully,” I said frankly. “Listen to you. Your speech is excellent. You have a good grasp of grammar, you’re building a fine vocabulary.”
“Do you really think so? But we can hardly talk to you!” another said.
“What do you think you’re doing right now?”
It was reported to me that they left pleased. So did I.
(Copyright 2008 by Ellen Dlott)