Until translation technology is perfected and the converted English sentence “The s**t’s about to hit the fan,” doesn’t prompt foreigners to run for cover to avoid getting splattered by excrement, there will be a need for human translators.
That goes for English language teachers too. English remains the number one language in the world. The French may cry, “Non!” and the 1.4 billion Chinese may protest too but, be it as lyrical and profound as a Shakespeare sonnet or as inarticulate and bewildering as a Donald Trump speech, English rules the world. And many people pay good money to learn it.
If you were raised in an English-speaking country, you have an obvious advantage. It’s like being born a duck in a pond around which all the other creatures want to learn to swim. All you need is a teaching qualification (a Cambridge CELTA will do), and off you go into the world with the ability to support yourself by, essentially, wagging your tongue. However, you soon realise that a teacher has to wear many other hats too, that other skills come in handy around the EFL School. Here are some of them.
I sometimes introduce myself to a class by saying, “My name is Daniel Pope. That’s Pope. I have friends in high places.” Their reaction to this admittedly lame joke – from blank stares to hearty guffaws – gives me an indication of the level of comprehension I can expect from them, as well as how my deadpan humour will go down. Younger students positively demand some clowning around in the classroom. An induction book for new teachers at one of my old schools stated that “a game should be played during the last ten minutes of a class so that students may leave with a warm feeling.” A teacher already has to be an actor. When you swing open that classroom door to face a throng of willing young students, you must snap on that banana-like smile, unleash that party-popper cheerfulness – no matter how bad you might feel. You can’t reveal that you’re hungover or miserable. You can’t say, “Shut up will you all? Just open your books and read. Leave me alone.” You’ll get fired.
Many teachers work in countries like Indonesia which have spotty medical standards, where a sprained wrist might be misdiagnosed as athlete’s foot and a knock on the head might get you a chest X-ray. You need to know your lorazepam from your doxycycline. A staff-room medicine cabinet should include aspirin (or in Indonesia it’s Paramex) for hangovers and rowdy classes, beta-blockers for heart palpitations, Pepto-Bismol for indigestion gotten from eating street food, lotions for sunburn sustained waiting at unshaded bus stops, iodine for cuts, and antibiotics for assorted infections including the unmentionable ones. Some teachers might also require Valium for anxiety. The above treatments are just for when teachers are reasonably well. When they get sick, we move on to the serious stuff – morphine, horse tranquilliser, and lobotomies.
While some impatient students expect you to walk into class, wave a magic wand like Harry Potter, and with a cry of “Englishiamus!” transform them into advanced English speakers who sound as posh as Benedict Cumberbatch, some schools allow students into levels where they don’t belong. My friend, teaching a TOEFL preparation class where the official entry-level is at least intermediate general English, began his first lesson saying, “Please turn to page number one,” at which the students all looked at one another in confusion and spent the next minute urgently discussing, in Indonesian, what they were supposed to do and how they were supposed to know that they were supposed to do it. EFL is a business.
Some teachers are obliged to be complicit in crimes, such as signing contracts that breach immigration regulations and ignoring copyright violations regarding the textbooks they use. Before 1961 in the UK, suicide was a crime, so anyone who failed to kill themselves could be prosecuted (surely increasing a suicidal person’s determination to succeed). A few years ago in Phnom Penh, there was a spate of EFL teachers jumping to their deaths from the tops of tall buildings. One of these unfortunates, an American, had lived his whole life in Southeast Asia, had turned 65, had no savings or pension, and presumably felt that he had no prospects. The moral of this story is to make sure you plan for your later years when you start out on your foreign EFL career. And pick a building to jump off in advance. Just in case.
The photocopier is the most unreliable machine ever made. Not only does it get jammed with infuriating regularity, but it also does so whenever you are running late for a class and need to print out 20 copies of a ten-page test. More hair is torn out over faulty copiers than any other device, including the coffee percolator. The photocopier was invented by former patent lawyer Chester Carlson in the mid-20th century, and rather than leaving it at that, subsequent manufacturers like Canon and Minolta have continued to make it preposterously complicated. Don’t expect to just press a “COPY” button when you use it, but for your fingers to have to dance over buttons as though you’re at the helm of the Starship Enterprise preparing to initiate the warp drive – this is after you’ve taken the photocopier instruction manual home to study it over the weekend. The photocopier is why security guards are always on the lookout for fuming teachers trying to sneak a sledgehammer into the building.