Sep 17, 2012

Summer teaching (had me a blast)

Photo by Cleo Phas

August till about mid-October is the time of the year when I enjoy a bit of a lull at work and all my usual students (I teach small groups) are on holiday. It’s also the time of the year when I get approached by some really peculiar one-on-one students. For example, this year’s summer assortment includes the following characters:

    1. an adult beginner who wants to speak perfect English by December and yet doesn’t want to do any out-of-class work;
    2. a high-powered business woman who needs help with her presentations in English
    3. an IELTS candidate who wants to practise speaking

You will say: what’s so unusual about it – isn’t it the kind of students we normally teach? Yet there is a difference. My usual, longer-term students are both familiar with my expectations of them and realistic about the process of language learning and therefore willing to work hard. In contrast, my August students are less process-oriented and, for most part, are looking for quick fixes. As a result, little of what happens in class can be considered as Language Teaching. It’s also ironic that I normally charge these short-term summer students higher fees – this way I can work fewer hours and spend more time on the Tel Aviv beach :)

Take, for example, student A who takes lessons twice a week but is unwilling to do anything outside class. I've tried a combination of paper-based and computer based homework to no avail. He also refuses to take any notes in class relying on his memory. I got him to install Evernote so that he can take notes on his iPad in class and review on his computer at home or his iPhone on the go (see this post by Rob Lewis about using Evernote) but his enthusiasm didn’t last longer than a week by the end of which he'd forgotten his password. My recent attempt at mLearning was to ask him to take photos with his iPhone of anything he can find in English on the way to work – there's lots of signs in English in Tel Aviv such us "Room for rent", "Business lunch", "Dry cleaning" and many others. I thought it would both inspire him to learn English outside the class and maximise his exposure. But this was futile too.

Students B and C while seemingly more motivated aren't any better. Student B wants to "upgrade her English" but by the time we go over her presentations very little time is left for any language input. Besides she refuses to try out any new language I try to feed into her presentations relying on what she knows. She is a very busy woman but she reads a lot in English (mainly work-related stuff) so I suggested using Diigo to highlight useful chunks (I told her "steal useful expressions") in the articles she reads and trying to incorporate them into her presentations but she didn't see much point in it.

Finally, Student C is similar in that he wants us to practice speaking with me correcting his mistakes (which he makes again 10 minutes later) but he doesn't actually want to do anything else in English (listening, reading) believing that his speaking will somehow miraculously improve as a result of speaking. Thus we're stuck rehearsing ad nauseam IELTS speaking part 2 and 3 - he even brings his own topics!

One of my favourite quotes about teaching goes something like that:
One of the greatest roles of a teacher is making oneself unemployed
I am all for making myself unemployed (so that I can enjoy the beach) that’s why I see the development of learner autonomy as essential especially when dealing with short-term students. Apart from teaching a lot of lexis which I see as a key to language learning, I always try to encourage students to become independent learners, maximize their out-of-class exposure to and improve their uptake of English. Giving the learner necessary tools, developing their ability to "notice", raising awareness of patterns of language is more important than correcting a few random mistakes and teaching them a handful of useful phrases.

Photo by Tzvi Meller
Unfortunately my summer students seem to seek easy-way-out solutions at a higher than normal price which I shamelessly charge while being fully aware that I am not fulfilling my role. Consider me unethical but I indulge their unrealistic expectations because the customer is always right.
And the beach beckons…

Where's my beach towel?


  1. HI!
    I love the title, love the quote (it's indeed one of my favourite quotes too...although I think the version I heard goes something like 'Teaching is the only job in the world where one seeks to make oneself redundant!'), and love the sentiments you express.

    Learner autonomy is of course extremely important and every teacher should spend time doing learner training, but at the end of the day, as you said, the customer is king.

    You can bring a horse to water, but...

    At least we tried...

    No beach for now...

    : (


    1. Hi Chia!
      I am glad to have you here.
      I am sure your version is correct as I was quoting off the top of my head - couldn't find it anywhere on the internet.
      Thanks for your comment.

    2. Hi Leo,
      No No sorry, I wasn't correcting your quote there. I am in no way any kind of authority on this. It's just the version I have heard, and I'm also quoting off the top of my head... It's one of those things that one often repeats in the ELT world, but nobody really knows who actually said it first, you know? Hahaha....


  2. Hilarious! That's what I think about my private students throughout the year! They are not willing to learn anything beyond class hours and also their parents think a private lesson once a week will make their children geniuses!
    Personally I didn't spend so many hours at the beach this summer (I was busy upgraing my English website ( for the upcoming year and my new blog :)) but I think it's OK to charge for our hard work, as sometimes one hour can feel like an eternity especially when you are bored and count the minutes to end the miserable lesson!

    1. Hi Roneet
      Thank you for stopping by.
      I am glad you share my sentiments. Your blog looks great too - will have a closer look when I have time. Are you on Twitter too?

  3. HA! Maybe what's best to do is recognise these types of students for who they are and give them what they want: wasted opportunities at a high price. It seems to me for those who want to cut corners and put in no real effort we should accept it and not break our backs trying to be Mother Theresa.

    1. Hi Tyson
      Thank you for your comment.
      That's what I try to do: accept it and not break my back. But every so often I get this aching feeling gnawing at me heart that I am doing them a misfavour...
      Ah well!

  4. Hahahaha. Welcome to 121 adult teaching Leo.

    I dipped my toe in corporate teaching in 2000 and this is what I had so I returned to group classes. Nowadays, I do a bit of everything.

    My best advice is...the client knows best. You are their employee and they are paying you to do what they want and how they want it. If you want to enforce your TEFL will on them then wait for the complaints.

    It's very hard to accept this but when you do life becomes easier and you can then create personalised courses. Ask them how much they want to learn, if they can do homework and how fast they'd like to take things. One of my LT clients only wants 5 or 6 new words a week. I can do more but he'll never remember them. He never does any homework or reads my feedback. Fine. He's an important man and I'm privileged to teach him twice a week.

    I agree with Tyson that you are doing to much. Very noble but sometimes less is more.

    I do think there's a big difference though between a good teacher who teaches less but in a pedagogical way and a backpacker who just chats for 2 hours. AND it's an important difference too but not one that every client may appreciate if they are just having classes for practice and have no real goals that can be assessed.

    1. Hi Phil
      I like your idea of discussing with their students how much effort realistically they are willing to put in. Sort of a needs analysis supplemented by an expectations analysis. But as I said I only get these students in summer. Throughout the year I have my pairs/small groups and I (am lucky to be able to) refuse to take on students mentioned above or Adir describes in his comment below.
      Thank you for reading my rant and taking the time to comment - always nice to have you here.

  5. I taught one on one all my life. I get the same calls every single week, "I need to learn Englilsh because I'm traveling abroad next month, I have a proficiency test, I have a job interview, etc". I tell them, up front, that what they want is not possible in such a short period of time and they all agree. I, too, charge higher prices and oftentimes I remind them they're supposed to be working a lot more outside the class than in class. This "immediatism" concept is killing language learning, IMHO, it is all an ongoing process of building up your bases and bla bla bla. Well, I don't have a beach near me so the lakeshorte beckons!

    1. Hi Adir
      Thank you for posting your comment.
      I like your definition of this phenomenon as "immediatism". Maybe it's because we are living in the age of instant gratification?

  6. Your summer students sound like victims of Consumerism - a belief that money can buy anything, even fluency in English. Sadly this is not the case, language acquisition requires aptitude + application, no matter how much the lesson costs, or how many lessons one takes.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...