Rock-Star Teaching

I actually wrote yesterday’s post a few days before it went live, which has resulted in my needing to do a second ‘goodbye, teaching!’ post.  People also regularly ask me about my teaching philosophy and how it all works, so I figured it was time to write about it.

The reason I’ve called this post ‘rock-star teaching’ is because that’s what my students make me feel like: a rock-star.  In jumping up in front of the groups to give out course certificates last night, the kids clapped so long and so loudly that we had to use the microphone to get them to be quiet again.  They later put on a play about me called ‘Laura’s Good Mood’, and there have been sooooooooooo many hugs.  And letters saying how much they love me.  And drawings and poems for me.  And photos with me.  Not to mention declarations of undying filial love!  One girl wouldn’t let go of me this morning, she was hugging me for a full minute.  I pointed out that she couldn’t come to Helsinki with me, that she had to go back to Russia—to which she announced “but I love you so much!!”

I definitely am a stupidly popular teacher, though that’s not what I aspire to.  An incredibly large number of students have also told me that I’m the ‘best teacher they’ve ever had’, or that I’m their ‘hero’.  (It’s like I’m just begging to be trolled here, right?  A quick note on the trolls btw—they’ve obviously made some errors thanks to English not being their first language, so please don’t harass them too much.  Besides, the post going live tomorrow will be more than enough to explode their brains.)  This leads to other teachers asking me what exactly I do that’s so awesome.

Part of my teaching style comes from the fact that I had some truly fantastic teachers growing up.  My old chemistry teacher, for example: I did physical science in year ten, so that I could take it in year eleven, so that I could take chemistry in year twelve and have him for a teacher.  I was used to teachers who were like friends, who had a sense of humour, who knew and were passionate about their subject.  These are the values that I tried to enshrine in my own teaching.

There are of course cultural differences in teaching styles.  While English and Australian students quickly adapted to my methods, it took my Russian kids (and adults) a little longer.  My style is drastically different to that of Russian teachers.  It took my groups in St P a few weeks to get acquainted with the idea before they really started thriving.  It was a difficult challenge having the summer school groups for only a couple of weeks at a time: it depended on the group dynamic whether they’d adjust or not.  In the end, just about everyone did.

So, what is it then?  Basically, I run my classrooms democratically.  Kids are expected to be there because they want to be there (and it’s my job as a teacher to make the lesson fun and interesting enough that they do in fact want to be there).  They are expected to respect each other, to take responsibility for their own actions, and to try.  I almost never say “you have to do this”.  If there’s something I want done, I ask for it: and my kids love and respect me so much that they just do it.  Furthermore, I give my students input into what they want to study.  At any time, they can ask for an activity or a subject they’d like to do in class, and I do my best to cater to it.  If it’s something controversial, then we check that everybody’s comfortable with it, and vote using a show of hands (or anonymous balloting).  The students make up their own rules and any punishment for breaking those rules: people are always more interested in doing things which were their own idea.

With regard to in-class conflicts: if it’s between students then I try to ensure that they use ‘friendly’ conflict resolution techniques (as described here).  There are to be no personal attacks, or hatred for hatred’s sake.  I try to promote understanding.  If I’m having a problem with a student (which is very rare) then I try to talk to them personally.  As a very very very last resort (it’s happened twice) I’ll give them a choice between simmering down/taking a walk or my calling their parents—it’s all still their choice, so they are being responsible for themselves.  Because it doesn’t matter whether I’m teaching kids, adults or teens (my usual age group): everybody likes to be respected, and everybody is capable of taking responsibility for themselves.

With regard to homework, I’m generally fairly flexible.  Firstly, I don’t give pages of boring or irrelevant exercises.  Partly because people do have other priorities in life, and they’ll do the homework they have time for: stressing them out or overloading them isn’t conducive to learning.  I give additional exercises in problem areas, or interesting reading/watching/listening to students as per their particular interests.  I also make sure that all homework I give is necessary or relevant.  If I need them to start thinking about something before we do related in-class activities the next session for example, or if they need further practice.  I only get annoyed about people not doing homework if they don’t do it for say a month in a row.  Then I’ll speak with them separately and check that there’s nothing going on at home etc before taking any further steps.

My overall teaching philosophy is that learning should be fun—because it is.  Learning’s fantastic, and there’s never any reason for it to be boring.  Sure you could teach continuous tenses by talking about brushing your teeth: but you can also teach them while discussing extreme sports.  Sure you can teach argumentative techniques by role-playing a conversation about your favourite food: but you can also teach them while debating genetic modification.  Every activity I do in the classroom is chosen because it will be interesting to that group, because it will get them involved and be a damn good time for everyone there.  Oh, and because they’ll learn a lot in the process.  And they do: they learn because they want to.  If people are interested and having fun, they’ll learn a lot more: and that goes for adults, too.  Adult groups like boring things as much as anyone else: which is to say not at all.  Find out what your students are into, and cater to it.

Does everyone like how I teach?  No.  Sometimes I get in trouble, and sometimes I go too far (eg my post of a few days ago!).  It’s generally my employers who don’t like it though, and honestly, they’re not my priority: the students are.

As it is, I’ve hung up my teaching hat.  I miss teaching sailing every day of course, but I was never going to be able to do that forever.  Teaching English was just a way to get into Russia for a while, and now I’m returning to my career.  I need something more intellectually fulfilling, and something which doesn’t involve writing lesson plans haha!  I hope I’ve been a good role model for the students I’ve had.  Seeing them flourish has been an incredible privilege, and I suppose I rather love all of them.

The Last Week

Well, I’m done with camps and with ‘fake Russia’.  It’s been very strange being thrust into Russian culture once more, and it’s definitely clarified my thought with regard to whether I ever want to go back.

The past couple of weeks have been much better, partly thanks to the staff, and partly thanks to my groups being much more balanced.

The staff here at the hotel are absolutely great.  They’re Russian ex-pats and just adorable.  The husband sells me chocolate every day, while the wife is lovely: she makes an effort to understand my muddled Russian, and cooks me vegetarian meals when there’s nothing for me to eat :).  They’re both fantastic.  There are two other Russian women who work here too, who always say hello with a smile.  Then there’s the kitchen-hand, a young guy who appears with coffee and milk the moment I pick up a mug.  It’s all very cute!

I should also mention my colleagues.  Michael has been supportive as usual of course.  All of the staff have been great actually.  This week’s in particular have been really friendly and high-energy.  There’s been one girl in charge of the rabble for the duration, and I don’t know how she does it—I’m dying of exhaustion, and she just keeps on rolling!  What a champ.  There’s also the manager of the camp here, and he’s a lovely guy.  I think I confuse him at times (eg in my insistence that fish is meat), but he goes out of his way to ensure that I feel welcome and respected.

As I said, my groups have also been much better.  The personalities have clashed a lot less, and so it’s been much more fun for everyone.  The kids are all still hyperactive, of course—it’s two weeks with no school and no parents, and they go a bit wild—but they look out for each other a lot more which is great to see.  There’s a lot of creativity going on, and the students, whose levels vary wildly, support each other when someone doesn’t understand something.  They do their best, and that’s all I ask.  I’ve become a little attached to them, actually!

With no more ado, here are some videos of the kids’ final presentations:

Horror film:

Murder mystery:

Robbie vs Rex:

Mirrors Parody:

Well done to all of my students—they did a great job in pulling these together.

And with that, I’m off once more: Helsinki for a few days, before heading back to the UK.  Bring it on!

Fake Russia

It has been a crazy couple of weeks here at camp.  And not the ‘fun’ type of crazy: more like the ‘fml’ kind of crazy.  It’s also been very, very busy.  My teaching hours are far in excess of what I was told, and it’s six days a week once more.  I have afternoons free, though these are usually spent in a coma, trying to recover before the next day of lessons!  I have been getting some work done of course: the internet’s really bad, so I haven’t been procrastinating anywhere near as much as usual.  As such I’ve gotten a fair bit of uni reading done, and am at around 32,000 words into my book.  Ура.

Now, the kids: I have two groups, one of mainly kids in their mid-teens, and one of kids around 12 years old.  The younger group are alright: their English is generally poor, but they try very hard and are pleasant to be around.  The older group on the other hand is chock-full of super-‘Russian’ kids.  There are a few reasonable ones in there, but oh my god the racism.  Plus sexism and homophobia of course.  I have kids talking about how they want black slaves, preferably women who are only allowed to wear underwear all day.  Or then there’s the kids saying how ‘great’ it is when ‘skinheads’ kill Jews.  What, the, fuck.  But it’s not just that: they misbehave awfully in class, are selfish and cruel to each other.  Yesterday they pissed me off so much that I said ‘enough’ and made them write essays.  I hate making people write essays, but I needed to get some kind of discipline going again.  Egads.

Cultural differences are astonishing.  I need to point out that the way these kids behave isn’t some kind of genetic thing, or predisposition, or anything like that: Russians aren’t naturally fuck-wits.  When they come across something from outside their universe—ie me, in this situation—they do try and adjust to it.  They don’t want to upset me with my Western ideals.  Thus one kid, who has some VERY strong views, asked if I was in Greenpeace before he started ripping trees out of the ground.  They do try to anticipate what my morals and values might be, and do their best to not offend me.  They just don’t know this way of life.

They do get used to my Western independence pretty quickly.  This morning we all went out on the lake, and while I can’t row because of my back, they accepted that I don’t need a hand out, I’m perfectly happy to jump into the water or climb trees or leap between rocks or go hiking through the forest.  But the contrast between myself and the Russian girls was just insane.  I definitely confuse them as much as they confuse me.

I’ve actually run out of time as I have to go teach, but I’ll post this while I have enough internet to do so.  I have a lot more to say on this sexism issue, and also on Russians jumping into bed.  Confusingly.

Yes is no, no is okay.

Congratulations, you’ve just learned some Greek!  ‘Yes’ is pronounced ‘neh’ and ‘no’ is pronounced ‘ochi’, with the ‘ch’ being like in the Scottish pronunciation of ‘loch’.  Incidentally, ‘loch’ (again the Scottish way) is roughly the equivalent of ‘douche-bag’ in Russian.  Two languages for the price of one!  So yes, Greek isn’t confusing at all.  It reminds me of when I went to Bulgaria, asked someone a question, and they said ‘yes’ but shook their head.  As it turns out, in Bulgaria, you shake your head for ‘yes’ and nod for ‘no’, and as far as I know, it’s the only country in the world that does it.

Today was a fairly random day, just chock-full of procrastination.  I got up fairly early and headed to my hostel from last year, near the Acropolis.  My intention was to go on the same walking tour as last year, because the guide is amazing and I want a refresher.  However, as it turns out, he doesn’t work on Thursdays, so I decided to go on a mission instead.

I started off by taking photos of graffiti:

I then spent quite a while trying to un-lose myself.  Again, I’m glad I can read the Greek alphabet, or I wouldn’t have had a hope with most of the street signs!  I was trying to find a jewellery store the girl from the hostel told me about.  Basically, I’ve been wearing my current snow-flake necklace for more than 4 years–and before that I had a clock necklace for 3–so I figure it’s about time to change.  I’ve decided that want I want is a silver clam-shell pendant.  It’d be cool if it had a small pearl either side, but I’m negotiable on those.  Haha and this is how I shop–decide what I want, then scour the globe looking for it!

Tragically as far as my finances are concerned, before I made it to the store I was looking for, I somehow ended up in an art store.  I re-emerged quite some time later with a beautiful little painting.  It only cost ten euro, but still: can’t afford food, buys art.  Could I be more pragmatic?

I eventually made it to the store, and it was amazing (hence the link above), but no clam-shells to be found, so the mission continued.  I went into another store, where first the lady said that “no, we don’t have things like that, only traditional Greek things”.  I pointed out to her that actually, clam shells were sacred to Aphrodite, and a recurring theme in Greek art.  She then tried to offer me a silver pendant of this calendar thing (which I saw the real version of on Crete), saying that it’s a motif of “the world’s oldest calendar.”  I asked whether the world’s oldest calendar wasn’t in fact the Mayan calendar.  She then said that in the past 30-ish years of her selling jewellery, she’d never seen a clam-shell pendant, and I pointed and said, “isn’t that one right there?”  Whyyyyyyyyyyyyy do they try the bull-shit.  Anyway, the pendant was too big and shiny, so I left it and continued on.

The next clam-shell I found was in a bead store, and it was a bit dodgy-looking and made of zinc rather than silver, but it only cost 40 cents so I bought it so that I could show jewellers what I wanted.  The lady in that shop, incidentally, thought I was a teenager–hilarious!

I then became side-tracked once more, spending a good long while in a statue and pottery shop near the art store, where I’d actually bought a couple of things last year.  This time I emerged with a beautiful little statue.  Happily, the owners bargained themselves down: perhaps they could sense that haggling is an excruciating process for me?  The statue cost me 12.50 rather than 26.  Yayyy.

I next found a clam-shell in gold, but I simply cannot stand the sight of gold.  The guys in that shop suggested I try a nearby street, where there were apparently a lot of silversmiths.  I wandered on up, and found myself suddenly installed in a chair in a huge jewellery store, with the two Greek workers in front of me.  And then it all got out of hand.  I was just being myself, which is a dangerous thing to be in shops: then they want to talk to you, instead of letting you leave!  Anyway, the jewellery designer, who was of indeterminate but past-middle age, didn’t have any clam-shells, but found this one spectacularly beautiful necklace for me.  It really was gorgeous, but even after a generous discount, too expensive; more to the point, it looked a bit too expensive for me to feel comfortable wearing it while travelling through poor countries.  The designer insisted that it would be a great Greek souvenir, and then somehow he got side-tracked into saying how sweet and lovely I was, and then talking about a cruise he went on in the Red Sea.  I’ve been there, so asked if he’d gone diving, and he said “yes”.  The next thing I know, he’s gone to the next cabinet, opened a drawer, and is coming back with his holiday photos.

The first photo he gets out to show me is literally him naked on a boat.

(I feel like that deserved a paragraph all to itself).

What’s more, as he then starts putting the rest of the photos in front of me (mainly selfies and an awkward number of crotch-shots), he puts them in one pile, with the naked photo by itself to one side.  I was pretty proud of not giggling haha.  But oh god, I then couldn’t escape until he’d shown me alllll his photos, so I was in the store for probably 45 minutes.  I felt like I’d been freed when I finally left!

While on the topic of Greek guys being …’up-front’… they really are starers in this country.  It’s weird: people in Turkey stare as well, sometimes with shock because we’re obviously not dressed as conservatively as the locals, or sometimes simply because we’re foreign and look different.  But with Greek men, either they’re appreciating you as an object of art, or as an object of lust.  It’s a lot worse.  Just now, I went out to a nearby cafe to grab some dinner, and the waiter sat me at a table in the exact middle of the dining area.  To all f&b staff everywhere:  never, and I mean never ever seat a woman eating by herself in the middle of the dining room.  Alway, always put them by a door or window.  I eat by myself a lot while travelling, and that’s totally fine: but the moment you’re put in the middle of the room, it’s like you’re on a stage.

Tonight was no exception.  To be clear, I’m not paranoid, and I don’t think I’m overwhelmingly attractive, but every single man in the restaurant was staring at me.  Continually.  Because that’s what Greeks do.  As an example, directly in front of me there was a table of two guys.  One was facing me and looking, and his friend turned sideways in his chair so that he could sit there and watch me while talking to his friend.  He didn’t even try to hide that he was looking: on the contrary, he ducked down so that he could look under the table and check out my legs.  And on that note, I fled.  Not that cool, I know, but it was really awful.  I went to the waiter and he changed my order to takeaway, and thankfully I got out of there quickly.  I still feel yucky, even thinking about it!  I wander what чё смотришь is in Greek?

Anyway, these latest blog entries are getting out of control, and I’ve got to get up at stupid o’clock to teach tomorrow morning, so I’ll be off.  Incidentally, now that I’m starting to get to know my students better, this whole Skype-teaching thing is a lot better.  For example, my student tonight was a 14-yo boy, which initially I felt a bit weird about.  Who sets it up so that their kid is being tutored via the internet, with someone they’ve never met?  But now it’s fine, and it was actually pretty hilarious this evening.  We were working on sentence stress, and in the middle of repeating “I didn’t say I saw him at the disco” with the emphasis on different words, I started laughing and asking “what on earth am I even saying?!?!”  Then again, that’s true of a terrifying amount of what actually passes my lips (and just wait til you read my book!).


My hostel, Omonia Athens: Athens International Youth Hostel

On forgetting

I have in front of me a giant poster which some of my students just gave me.  They’ve stuck photos of themselves all over it, so that I can take it with me and never forget them.  As if I would!

As a traveller, you meet a lot of people.  The more you travel, the more people you meet in different places: and that means that no matter where you are, most of the people you care about are a long way away.  We have different ways of dealing with it, though most of us repress it in some way or other.  Some of us just stop caring at all: I was seeing a guy once, who forgot me after two weeks.  He’d gone to the next destination, and shortly afterward I went to meet him.  He sent me a text message saying that he just didn’t ‘feel anything at all’.  I’m not like that: I do change with each location, and I do put up a lot of barriers, but I always care.

I remember I used to work as a teams racing coach (sailing) at a yacht club in Sydney.  (To be fair, I’d be rather alarmed if I had forgotten: it was only five years ago!)  I taught other classes as well, but the one I looked forward to most was at 7pm on Friday evenings.  That’s when my girls’ team would come for their lesson.

These girls had been completely written off by the other coaches and sailors: partly because ‘girls can’t sail’, and partly because they’d never come anything other than dead last.  But, as in all types of teaching, I took a slightly different approach: they didn’t want to come to sailing and just do drilling and never get anywhere: they wanted to spend time with their friends and have fun.  I taught them different ways to remember race strategy (hint: pretty much all of it rhymed!  For the pre-start it was “team meeting, controlling and leading”.  It makes sense if you’re a teams racer, I promise), and different ways to approach the race.  Once, one of my girls distracted the helm of the other boat by asking him out and not taking ‘no’ for an answer: I wasn’t sure if I was proud, or if I’d produced some kind of sexual-harassment monster!

I was going through a bad time for the couple of months preceding the State Championships that year.  There’s two months before the championships that I just can’t remember: I was a wreck!  But then came the day of the States, and I begged my boss to let me take a rescue boat out and go and observe my teams racing.  He didn’t like me at all, but let me in the end.

I cannot even tell you how it felt to see my girls win.  There was this one team, from a very exclusive boys’ school, who usually always won.  They couldn’t believe it when my girls literally sailed past them.  I was still jumping up and down and crying with happiness when they got to my rescue boat for an epic team hug.

Parents ask me on a scarily regular basis what they should do about their kids.  I’m completely unqualified—not only am I not, in fact, a parent, but I’m also not a psychological professional!  I’m also not interested in betraying people who put their trust in me.  My classrooms (or boats!) are like super-libertarian democracies, and my kids come because they want to.  They can be whoever they like, and perhaps as a result feel comfortable.  I guess in some weird ways I see a side of my students that their parents don’t, simply because I’m not their parents.

Anyway, off-topic.  Tonight was my final lesson with two of my classes.  For the first, we had two sets of discussions: I’d asked my students what they wanted to study this month, and members of this class wrote down (kind-of anonymously) ‘drugs’ and ‘relationships’.  So drug-related controversies it was.  Then it was goodbye to them.  I don’t go out to change people, but there are two people from that class that I have seen change over these past nine months, and I feel incredibly proud to have met them.  They’re all great kids of course.

My second class was much harder to say goodbye to.  Whereas the first group never meshed together as a whole (so part of my job was getting them to play nice!), this group are just fantastic to work with.  For the five months in the middle of this nine (!?!) in Russia which were really hard, my Russian studies and this group were all that kept me going: they were the only reason I stayed past New Year.  Other than simply not giving up, of course.  I’m so glad to have met them, and it’s going to be really, really weird not seeing them twice a week.  I really hope they stay in touch, and of course I’ll never forget them!

I do still have a lot to write about Russia—I’ve just been a bit MIA lately as I’ve been studying for my Russian exams.  I had the first three hours today, will have the final two tomorrow, and then likely a week of frantic writing before I set off (oh my god, I’m leaving)!

Finally, here’s a photo of my student Misha and I: it was near impossible to kick him and two others out the door, I was a little concerned they were never going to leave!