It’s more or less an annual occurrence for us, the packing, the purging of that which will not fit in our bags, which no longer fits in our lives, and we lock the apartment door one last time, leaving the place devoid of the joy that is our presence, give the keys to someone who’ll probably walk into the cleanest deserted dwelling they’ve ever seen: Emma insists on a radiant scrub so that people won’t know how disgusting we’ve been throughout the year. Behind us, our last home, something we’d worked to make feel comfortable, warm, and full of spirit, is no more.
Usually, this ceremonial departure is done in a fit of emotions, the goodbyes to students and friends, the excitement of the new destination, a list of last times, visits to the favorite haunts of the bygone year. Usually, in that last month or two, all the warts of the city grow and permeate into declarations of what we won’t miss, such that every last thing that has piqued us over the previous however many months comes to a pointy needling head, the bad side just poking and poking at our open wound objections. Usually, we can’t wait to get the hell out of there.
Moscow has been the opposite. We got the worst side first, hated it almost immediately, and found ourselves struggling to stay, flying off the fold-out sofa in rants of rage almost daily. If it wasn’t work (it was 95% work), it was our landlords, it was a rude shopkeeper, it was the outrageous price of everything, how people didn’t hold doors open, how people stood stationary on the escalator (especially on the trafficked side), the stench of our building’s entrance, the way the internet would disconnect and reconnect about every fifteen minutes or so, making it impossible to watch YouTube without going crazy. Then, we got the winter.
For our first eight months, this place was a challenge, one in which we labored to find pockets of joy, in which our one day off a week, more often than not, consisted of shopping for groceries, trying not to think about the fact that we had to go back to work the next day, nattering at each other for being too pessimistic as we dragged ourselves out to make the most of the city. We visited Red Square and Gorky Park and Arbat St. again and again in those first months. We bought a sled and begged for snow, drank cans of beer as we took turns racing down the hills next to our apartment, the night concealing any fun we might have been having.
We are leaving soon, really soon, and it seems I’ve been waiting for this day since the week we arrived, all my hopes of Russia instantly gone a bit frazzled and out of whack, bashed on the rock hard truths of housing shortages and six-day work weeks. At times, it’s been a challenge just to give this place a chance. At times, I’ve felt guilty about wanting to go, as if I were just some average tourist who makes a snap judgment of somewhere that doesn’t have some unnecessary comfort of home. I mean we were living in Moscow, damn it, making pretty good money, so what the hell was my problem? My problem was finding space to enjoy it.
Finally, we got close enough to begin the calendar countdown, x-ing of the days as they passed, Emma periodically giving me the exact number of days left here, the number of days left to work, how many more grocery shops we had to do, trips on the Metro, anything countable. That’s when this city, disappearing by the calendar day, began to reveal itself as something more desirable, to open up for us, take us in a bit, give us a niche and home we loved. We got some vacation days at the beginning of May and reminded ourselves of what life was like when you didn’t just scratch six days a week to survive: We relaxed, became Muscovites.
This past weekend, I found myself looking at pictures of us in Moscow, re-visualizing the laundry list of great memories we’ve made, thankful that we’d braved the cold to go out and see and do, that we’d embraced the triple Christmas celebration, that we’d hung in there to have this experience, whatever spilt milk we’d stepped in throughout the process. In those photos, I found smiles and memories that were hard to recognize in the midst of our overall discontentedness, laughs that seemed to get trampled by the next minor tragedy waiting around the corner. I won’t say I never realized we were having fun, but maybe not that we’d actually had so much fun.
Unlike those other experiences, those other places we’ve lived and left, I’ve only grown fonder of this city as our departure gets nearer. The list of pleasantries…Emma says I like to make lists when I write…the list of pleasantries has finally expanded into that thing that you can’t capture without being in a place, that indefinable that keeps us packing and moving each year. One of the many great parts of always moving on to something new is that looking back generally seems to reveal the best of times, the surprises and challenges overcome, and you remember a place as once being, once feeling like home. Goodbye, Moscow:
St. Basil’s and all the onion dome wonders of the Muscovite skyline, the Kremlin, the parks—Gorky and Izmailovo and Victory and VDNKh (never did learn what those initials were about) and Tsaritsyno and Kolomonskoye and the Chistye Prudy loop, all of our great students (troublesome and true), FAQ Café (where we planned to return but never made it back), Arbat Streets (new and old), the rumbling beast known as the Moscow Metro, Red Square (for the umpteenth time), the shop ladies (from our previous and current shops), the market, the pickled cabbage and peppers and “gherkins”, the statues (hidden everywhere and a highlight for Emma every time), the drunk on our stoop (quick to smile and tip a hat as we go to and fro), the deep fried rye bread with mayonnaise-like sauce (probably better off without you), cheap beer, the first few snowfalls that struggled to get the city white again, the doors leading in and out of the Metro (may you continue to swinging freely and violently), a really good assortment of cheeses, my coffee jar (after my cafeteria broke, we just percolated from a jar, straining the grounds as we poured), my birthday beer mug (served me often and well), Emma’s yoga mat, the funky fold-out sofa bed which has defied us with its springiness, Izmailovo market and Prazhskaya market, the vegetable lady, the pickle lady, the dancing grannies, Tuesday night bowling and Dasha (our constant source of refuge in otherwise drearily dull months), our landlords (strange from day one, odd enough to sell our apartment only to give us theirs for our remaining three months in Moscow), the neighbor who can speak English, the pretty old lady who insists on saying hello each afternoon as we leave, IWB (interactive white boards—a technological advancement that has grown on me immensely), our hodge-podge hookah pipe and the ten boxes of tobacco we’d been carrying around since Palestine (we finally got together for a party!), button up shirts and slacks every day (good riddance), the hats (from ushanka—furry with earflaps—to veniks—felt for the banya), Port-O-Lou, fur clothing (may I never been faced with such ethical dilemmas again), short skirts and heaving busts, the guy who swept snow from the roof across the street…enough. You’ve given us enough. I’ve given you enough. No one needs to feel guilty anymore. All things must come to an end.
One thing I never considered as a student was how much finals suck for teachers. The whole process, from preparation to administering to the grades, is ten-fold worse now that I’m on the test-giving side of things. As a student, I never considered that the final I was taking also showed how well the teacher had done his or her job. I might’ve studied more. Now, it’s not even me that gets to decide my own fate: If I were taking the test, I’d get myself ready, drill all that information into second-nature responses, but these days I’m left to rely on students to prove my success for the year.
Teachers have to do way more work than any one student has to do to prepare for exams, but still we’re at their nonchalant, happy-go-lucky childhood mercy. We stress, and the horrible part is we mostly stress about the students who care the least, the ones who will likely not study, not try, probably not even bother to write their names on the exams that represent their last nine months of mediocre-to-poor effort. We stress because those students’ marks will represent the last nine months of effort we’ve given, and frankly, we rather it not be that way. It’s unfair. It’s more unfair than them having to take the exams.
In the last month or so, my workload has mutated. I have had books to finish by such-and-such date. I’ve had to drag my students through a review of every vocabulary word, grammar point, and rule exception they’ve learned since day one, meaning I had to review every vocabulary word, grammar point, and rule exception I’d taught them since day one. I have had to make report cards, create personal write-ups for each of my 60+ students, and fill in charts of marks, the pressure of deciding all of their fates. I’ve had to print about five hundred pages worth of tests, collate them, staple them, and separate them by class. Then, we grade them all.
Marking exams is not only time consuming and eye-crossingly tedious, but, as the teacher, it is also one of the hardest things to watch, like a car sliding towards a gas-truck in slow motion, each “X” bringing the score a little closer to implosion. Sure, it’s rewarding when those goody-two-shoes students, whom you knew would do well, do well. Unfortunately, everyone has to take the final, including those lazy, loafer students, whom you’ve spent the last lessons trying to implant with the knowledge they need, knowing that it would be the one and only time any form of studying would occur. It’s those students whose marks you must live with.
Long after the students have gone home, the teachers are left to deal with the mess, just as it has been all year. It never occurred to me, way back when, in those last couple of weeks of school, just how much more the teacher was ready for a break: One more final to go.
I’ve always pictured Moscow as a perpetually cold place, snowy and frostbitten all the live long year. Of course, I knew better, having read how the summer months actually make the city thermally unbearable, but something just seemed off picturing the Russian capital this way. In my head, you aren’t imagining the right place if you envision green, sunshine, and summertime carousing, even if that is, as it seems, the more accurate depiction of Moscow in May.
Since the winter cracked, Emma and I have made the most of the outdoors, the park near our house, the collective public spaces around Moscow. We’ve walked. We’ve chatted. We’ve stopped at many a stall for a noonday beer. About two weeks ago, I finally relented and bought myself some hip Top Gun shades. Skirts, shorts, and t-shirts have taken over our off-work attire choices, and flip-flops have made a triumphant come back. Out on the streets, we’ve come to feel more at home.
As an unforeseen benefit, days have grown impossible long as the earth tilts in our favor. The sun rises long before we’re up, somewhere in the pre-five o’clock hours, and the last remnants of daylight hold out until after eleven. It’s incredible, and something I’ve never been privy to. For months, this place felt like a black hole, the sun rising in the late morning and disappearing by four. Now it seems like I’m not awake for the rise or the set, or at least not voluntarily.
At school, we are wrapping things up, working ahead of schedule to finish our report cards and poise ourselves for a smooth transition out of here. Classes have reached the final pages of their books and let out tiny rounds of applause as they close the covers one last time, preparing themselves for a week of review games and the final lessons of a long year. At home, we dream of dispersing, saying goodbye for the last time, and, ironically, leaving all this sunshine behind.
This past Sunday, getting home from work in the mid-afternoon, the weather was too perfect to ignore: The sun, still high in the sky, doused our park with light and warmth, filled the walkways with pedestrians, roller-bladers, joggers, and bikers, made the cold draft piva something irresistible. We fell off the wagon for a couple afternoon pints at a makeshift bbq joint set up about a ten-minute stroll from our house. The place was packed with like-minded revelers.
Then, strolling back, we bore witness to perhaps the oddest sight in our time here, enchanting in its uncustomary liveliness, bewitching in its absolute unexpectedness, and inspiring in its defiance of both age and culture: The babushkas had gone wild. A group of maybe fifty or so had set up a sound system at a flat spot in the park, turned up what-can-only-be-called techno music, and was freaking fox-trotting all over the sidewalk. Legs akimbo, hips a wiggle.
The Russian grandma, normally carrying some assortment of shopping bag, ambling stoutly and steadily along the sidewalks, through the metro stations, rather grumpy and unyielding, it turns out can put a little jazz in her step as well. We stood watching in giddy disbelief as the dance-floor pulsed with life, drawing a crowd every bit as bewildered as we were. If I didn’t know before, I definitely did in those moments: Something dramatic has shifted in the world.
Either I’m getting older, softer as the years go by, more appreciative of an effort not to slip into the adult world of bland, fiber-rich breakfasts and carefully adhered to mealtimes, or perhaps the winter here has dulled some portion of my edginess, the bit that has never willingly recognized old people dancing to be as revolutionary as repulsive, a sort of if-the-weather-permits-it reckoning. I must say I was amply impressed with the babushkas gone wild, my heart duly warmed over, feeling as though I’ve seen some of the best Russia has to offer.
As a writer, I love the multitude of words at my disposal, the ability to say the same thing in any number, quantity, or exponent of different complicated, sometimes poetic, sometimes ridiculous ways. I like the precision of being able to hop, skip, bound, leap, lunge, lurch, hurdle, vault, or just plain jump into whatever it is I’m doing, the fact that each of this Jordan-esque actions provides a slightly different perspective on what’s going on. A good breadth of synonyms, I believe, is what makes a language rich and beautiful, enticing to experience.
As a teacher, I feel sorry for my students, content with learning “jump” and getting on to the next idea, content that they can now express this action, especially with a regular verb (made past tense by adding –ed: jumped) rather than having to memorize a new set of illogical endings (as in fly-flew-flown). However, we press on, knowing we must persevere in this endeavor because variations make language explosive, subtle, and playful, not just a bland form of communication, and as a result, much of what we read, say, and hear is the more precise versions of expression.
As a fellow language learner, I feel their pain when Spanish throws in some new variation of “happy”: contento-content, feliz-happy, alegre-pleased, tranquillo-at ease, contentillo-tipsy… I would be more than feliz to convey this emotion in one all-encompassing way and that all Spanish-speakers were felizes to do the same. After all, I’ve learned to pluralize adjectives. Isn’t that enough? Why on earth should I need subtlety? How often do I say content, pleased, or tipsy ? But, something about saying tranquillo, also used as an equivalent to “chill”, is just cool, so maybe they're worth learning.
As a fan of wordplay, I’m probably less sympathetic than I should be with my students. I get caught up in the versatility that terms can have, how “green” can denote a color, a lack of experience, appearing seasick, and, in a stretch, being horny (the same is true in Spanish--Estoy verde.). Truthfully, who doesn’t enjoy a good double entendre, a craftily delivered pun, every now and again ["This bush is in need of a trim, I can hardly see your prize clematis, Mrs Windthrop" ]. For that matter, consider the frequency and vast variety in which we use curse words.
As a crappy translator and general jackass, I love the ability to misuse things, especially to the tune of taking my own language and imposing it on another. I spent the better part of my time in Guatemala introducing the Spanish-speaking world to the phrase “word up”, which admittedly has lost some steam in English but seems rather fresh remade as palabra arriba, amigo. On the other hand, unable to get the lyrics correct, I also took pleasure in wondering around sing “One Ton Tomato. I eat a one ton tomato.” rather than the Cuban classic, “Guantanamera”.
As a blogger, I’m a little at a loss for words on how to finalize, draw to a close, finish, complete, conclude, pinpoint the purpose of, or summarize my thoughts on this: Suffice to say, the thesaurus on Microsoft Word has come through yet again, and together, we have journeyed once more, though briefly and rather indirectly, into the maddening world of an EFL teacher. I bid you adieu.
Living abroad is glorious for throwing you curveballs, little nuggets of irregular life which entire populations know about, locals accept without qualm, but which utterly perplex foreigners. These are not the expected cultural differences, the “they eat that” moments or funky styles of dress, and I don’t mean religion-based discretions or how “everyone stops what they are doing at twelve o’clock to walk in the town square.” I mean things engrained in everyday life that you’d never notice, never have, as a complete outsider.
So, now, we are in Russia, where the government apparently is so powerful that it can stop time, or at least rearrange it when the spirit moves them. At the beginning of May, the nation celebrated both May Day, on the first, and Victory Day, on the ninth. It's the equivalent to spring break in the States. In order to “give” people more time off, an uninterrupted three free days in row, the government did a sort of Twilight Zone restructuring of the days of the week, not once but thrice, in which some days disappeared and others were cloned:
The last Saturday of April became a "Monday", that Sunday a "Saturday", with Sunday never happening that week, and the country had a national holiday on the somewhat normally-positioned Monday and Tuesday. (Can you have Monday and Tuesday if Sunday doesn’t happen?) The first weekend in May saw Saturday as "Monday" again, Sunday as "Saturday", the world’s Sunday disappearing again, and the following actual Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday as a national holiday. This past weekend Saturday was "Tuesday", of course, and Sunday just Sunday, so that now all order is formally restored.
The past sixteen days have gone like this (Starting with “Monday”, i.e. Saturday, April 28):
"Monday", "Saturday", Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,
"Monday", "Saturday", Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,
What’s more, no one has seemed particularly disturbed by this phenomenon. For them, this happens every year. People have actually explained it as a rational maneuver by the government, a way to make the holiday nice for folks, so that they don’t have to be off for two days, work a day in between, then have the third day off. No one has presented the idea of just having that day in between as a holiday, too. No one has explained why Saturday wasn’t just Saturday and "Monday" Sunday, if we must go around changing time.
Furthermore, I have no idea why is Sunday so crapped upon? Until yesterday, I hadn’t had a Sunday afternoon for ages. I was able to survive the little hiccup in the time continuum, but I'm fairly certain Christian God and the NFL would not be pleased with such alterations. And speaking of the almighty, for the love of god, of all the seven days of the week, why did we have to have two extra Mondays! Nobody wants that.
...and other fun facts from around the world:
It started in Korea: Unbeknownst to me, the entire country, many East Asian countries, have a completely different method of monitoring age. In Korea, when you are born, you are one, and then, when the year changes, you add another year, such that if you were born on December 31st, the next day you’d be two. So, everyone born in 1978 is currently thirty-four, even if you aren’t yet. Culturally, age (the year you were born) is very relevant because any person older than you gets due respect: You are not allowed to call them by name but must say “big brother/sister”.
When we moved to Guatemala City, it was the birthday celebrations again. Prior to going, we’d heard horror stories about how dangerous the place was, so on our first morning, when, outside our window, the gunfire—rapid, automatic rat-a-tat-tats—kicked off at about five a.m., Emma and I dived to the floor on our respective sides of the bed. Relieved to make it to work that day, we learned that Guatemalans set off fireworks on the morning of someone’s birthday. In a fairly populated city, it seemed we were celebrating someone’s big day just about every dawn.
Accustomed to early day noise, when the first call to prayer echoed throughout Istanbul, we weren’t shocked; however, I was unaware of just how prominent the game of backgammon was in the Turkish community and, even more so, of how prominent it would be in my life. Every bar and café you go into Turkey, not only has its own backgammon boards for customers, but after a while, it almost feels off if someone isn’t playing. Before I arrived, I was baffled by the rules, identified the game only as the other side of the checker board. By the time I left, I was like freaking Rain Man, counting out my tavla moves before the dice had even stopped rolling.
Then, in Palestine, where calls to prayer and backgammon still featured as the day-to-day, hospitality, genuinely kind and sincere sentiments of welcoming, become the very bane of my existence. Culturally, just as people should be hospitable, the recipients of this generosity are equally obliged to accept it all, no matter your schedule or plans. Generosity was so rampant in our city that people, even locals, would take longer routes to avoid a friend who’d undoubtedly offer them tea and make them late. Over an hour late for a meeting with my school’s director, all I had to say was I’d seen one of my students on my way to the appointment. He already knew. There’s actually an Arabic word to describe the act of surplus generosity.
Sometimes, as an EFL teacher, you miss being a student, having the freedom to voice opinions unabashedly, to let decorum fly out the window in the name of truth, justice, and what you think. A private professionalism comes along with the work. You choose a country that interests you, one that piques curiosity enough to travel there to live for a year or so, but often the very things that brought you there are taboo subjects for you to voice opinions.
You can, will, and must talk about the weather, public holidays, people’s daily routine, hobbies, traditional foods, and family so many times. In more advanced classes, you can hypothesize on what you’d buy if you had a million dollars, which places you’d choose if you go anywhere you wanted, or who you’d hang out with if history, location, and language weren’t an issue. These topics suffice for a while, long enough to get you acclimated to each other, but, from day one…
Students want to know about why you, a foreigner, have chosen their country as your temporary home. At first, as you would for any stranger, you list the guidebook highlights: the local cuisine, the historical sites, the particular cultural icon, the author/artist. After a few classes, they want to know what you think of their country now, and the answers, respectfully, come out: how friendly and interesting the people are, beautiful those sites are, and delicious the food is.
Then, as weeks pass, your students know that you know the truth, that life wherever isn’t one big walking dreamscape of lush berries and smog-free air. Like all places, there are prejudices, past injustices, economic problems, religious/political tensions, corruption, crime, and people who hate foreigners. Of course, we all knew this all along, but for the sake of learning English amicably, we’ve avoided these topics in class. Schools tend to prefer it that way.
But, it’s difficult. You don’t volunteer in Palestine because you aren’t interested in the political/religious scene, but you sidestep these issues in class discussions. You claim to be of monotheistic supernatural leanings because it’s better to be Christian than heathen, better to lie than opine. You don’t go to Russia because communism, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War are topics you’d rather not discuss. Eventually, the taboo themes tiptoe into class time.
If you are lucky, students have fervor behind them, a lively discussion ensues, and some real dirt gets ground into the chalkboard. If you’re lucky, a lot of questions about people’s real opinions come out, create calm discord amongst classmates, who explain to each other, and you, the finer points of their side of local debates. In reality, if you are lucky, no one gauges a classmate’s eye out, and no one is dumb enough to want to know what you think.
It’s not fun to have a discussion over the use of burcas with a true believer of the system. It’s not fun because, generally, opinions are unwaveringly strong on both sides of the issue and, as a teacher, as a guest, you must backpedal to stay on even ground. It’s not fun to hear people’s honest beliefs about Josef Stalin committing “necessary atrocities” for making a powerful nation, when by some, he, even in today’s Russia, is remembered as a hero rather than a villain.
You want to say it isn’t right, but you remember the discussion isn’t for you. It’s for students to practice English. All the truth you’ve discovered outside the classroom has usually verified why you’ve wisely used the complimentary twists of reality to keep the peace: No one wants an honestly though displeasing answer or an unflattering opinion. Somehow, the schools had it right. To stay friends, language mentor and student, some things are better left unsaid.
We were heading out the door: Literally, my hand was on the knob, turning, as Emma rounded the corner of our hallway, reached the edge of the welcome mat, and thrust forward in dismay. Her flip-flop had failed her, the toe thong (that part that threads between the big and pointer toes) and the thong plug (not an official name, but for our purposes, what we’ll use to call the little end bit that keeps the toe thong laced through the bottom of a flop)—anyway, the thong plug had dislodged itself from the toe thong. What Jimmy Buffet eloquently calls: Blowing out a flip-flop.
That’s not exactly where this blog started, but it’s what has spurred these thoughts that follow. You see, this isn’t the first time something like this, some shoe-and-Emma related mishap, has happened. As I watched her standing at our stove, attempting to bring the toe thong to a melt so that she could refuse it to the plug, we recounted the incident in Turkey when she stood up at our favorite bar and both of her flip-flops had managed to deteriorate into un-wearable as we were playing backgammon, essentially leaving her barefoot in Istanbul for our walk home. Even a local shopkeeper fussed at her for the obvious safety offense.
Shoes have always been an issue for Emma. Not in the way they are for others, not in that stereotypical girl-who-loves-to-shop manner, but rather she—to put it mildly—is a lady of a rather frugal nature, willing to wear things until they literally can’t be taped, sewn, or glued, possibly molecularly fused, together anymore. The bottom of her current closet holds a pair of boots with soles that have partially unattached from the tops, but not so much as to prevent her from wearing them in the snow, and canvas sneakers with multiple holes in each shoe…
And now these flip-flops. When the fusing didn’t work (I suspected it might not), I disappeared to jot a note that tomorrow I’d be blogging about this. While I scribbled, a contented yell came from the kitchen. She had wrapped the toe thong in bright blue electrical tape, reattached the thong plug, and as I peeked around the doorjamb into the kitchen, she was demonstrating how strong the repair was. So, rather than putting on one of her other should-be decommissioned pairs of junkyard footwear, she’d be going out to wander the streets of Moscow in the busted flip-flops. I told her to bring the tape in case it happened again.
The second shoe issue with Emma is that, while she isn’t a particularly difficult person to please, she also has rather staunch, unwavering beliefs: She wants plain flip-flops. Sometimes, plain black—no labels, no small blue flower or orange stripe, no hint of glitter or bows, not produced by any known sweatshop brand—sometimes, plain black isn’t so easy to find. However, she accepts no substitutes, quick to bust out a Sharpie for cosmetic touch-ups or tape her old pair back together again and again until we can locate those plain black apparitions she craves. She likes to remind me that she’s not asking for much.
So, yesterday, her plain black flip-flop, a streak of electrical blue crawling up the left toe thong, lasted until about a quarter-past five in the evening when, on our walk home, the tape gave way, leaving the flip flopped again. Emma hopped to a nearby tree stump, pulled out her repair kit, and put them back together again. As we continued down the path, I told her, Baby, I think you can go ahead and get a new pair, to which she responded: Why? These are fine. All I have to do is tape them. So, it seems as though once a day now, we’ll be in need of a tree stump and a roll of electrical tape, and with that, the journey can continue.
Perhaps the highlight of my EFL teaching career was my second year in Korea, when and where my prowess as a returning teacher, an industry titan, meant I didn’t have to turn in a weekly lesson plan on Friday evenings. As the newbs beside me flicked through texts, recording page numbers and key grammar points, I dominated the world of Scrabulous, what we dinosaurs played before the days of Words with Friends. That year, in both worlds, I was a god.
I still made lesson plans of some fashion, usually scribbled on a scrap paper, often cooked up ten minutes before class and much the same as the previous lesson. I wasn’t sure it was the insight I was supposed to have taken from my first year, but what I had learned was to a. stick with what works and forget about inventing new activities for every lesson because b. students like to have expectations met, regularity rather than fumbling around with constant change. I had my routine.
Ironically, despite all those courses on classroom time management, what works best for me is to do the same thing: Find what subdues a class, gets them focused on winning points, then rinse and repeat until...it’s over. At the time, I didn’t know how teacher-coddling and responsible my school in Korea was: Most places won’t hesitate to throw you to the toddlers, give you far too much to do in a day (We need this book finished by next week) or provide far too little to fill a class (We like to cover one page a week). They expect lesson plans to be second nature.
By that second year, I’d played multiple games multiple times for every grammar point the school had to offer, more or less, that basic EFL addresses. I could have stepped into any class without a plan because I had found, as teacher’s do, my five-step program. Being an innovative lesson planner doesn’t mean being innovative every class. What keeps the EFL teacher—I’d guess any teacher—sane is having a few good activities and the ability to use them for any topic. The plan is just multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank:
1. Start the same way every day, the same game, just altered to review yesterday’s material, whatever this week’s focus is. These days, I use Go Fish for my younger classes and taboo for my teens. You can find the Go Fish cards on Boogle’s World, and they cover loads of useful vocabulary. For taboo, I simply write all the words for we’ve learned or need learn.
2. Review the homework assignment. After two or three classes, they know it is coming. Most students, then, are more likely to do the task beforehand, and classes tend to get through the drudgery a little easier because they know checking homework comes after the starter and, more pertinent, another game is after this.
3. Introduce the new material as quickly as possible and play one of three or four games you cycle through to practice it: tic-tac-toe, back to the board, taboo, memory, matching, or, if you have the resources, log on to Barry Fun English for computer game versions of your topic or iSL Collective for printable board games.
4. Cover the text. It’s the ebb and flow: Fun, work, fun, work. By practicing the day’s grammar/vocab/phonetics point in game form for a while, students can rip through the material. Even better, doing book exercises still smacks of winning points. Sometimes, I continue keeping score during the bookwork so that students stay motivated.
5. I try to end on a “fun”, one more thing to keep the students on task, a gentle reminder that, when however many pages are complete, we get to do this. I prefer slow games, something to quiet the mind: some form of hangman, word/sentence scramble, tell me five…being a veteran of the IWB now, we also have a weekly cartoon short, usually with some attempt to reinforce a current learning point in class in one of my classes.
6. Assign the homework, usually from the same source, a workbook or certain pages/exercises in their text, something they’ve become familiar with and adept at, understand without me explaining. Then, we go home.
I’ve stretched this same basic lesson plan to cover three-hour classes, and I've squeezed it into hour-long sessions. Time constraints, or lack thereof, simply dictate what percentage of the lesson will be given as a game. That’s the plan.
Russia has been one of the more challenging countries for me. Some of it has been bad luck: A mix-up causing our eviction on the first day here; an eviction six months later because our apartment had been sold. Some of it has been the grind of the EFL factory: Arriving having agreed to work five-day, 36-hour weeks and being informed we’d be on a six-day schedule with an expectation of loving overtime. Some of it has been incompatible cultural mindsets. Still, Moscow, like life, like all great places, has its moments.
This city has been exhilarating where it should be: Red Square, Arbat St., Gorky Park, the statues, the ex-Soviet government buildings, theatres, onion domes, cobblestones, beer, funky wintertime hats, Russian markets—these things are expected and overcome any qualms about jobs or apartments. And, it has delivered surprises as well: a fantastic culture of taking walks and a fleet of amazing parks in which to do it, a beautiful river bedazzled with eclectic and stunning architecture, great pickles, diverse and inspiring Metro stations, a regular Tuesday night bowling engagement.
Unfortunately, my appreciation of them has been sparser than I’d have liked, whereas my tough daily commute, long hours with restless students, and hurried lifestyle has been ominously present. On my one day off, there is shopping to do, clothes to wash, all the minutiae of preparing for the next six days, which was the reason for finding a five-day-a-week job rather than what this turned out to be. While these things are more industry-related, the apartment evictions likely freak incidents, the sourness of them has no doubt colored the country in an unflattering light for me.
Things go wrong so often that “Welcome to Russia” is used to explain crap situations. It’s expensive. The snow melts and makes the city a pigsty. Shop assistants are as likely to frown at you as greet you. Then, it snows and melts again. There is no common exchange of pleasantries between pedestrians, neighbors, or many colleagues. Fur is still in high fashion. Though students mock foreigners for thinking Russians have pet bears and shoot vodka all the time (opinions I had no concept of), I’ve never seen as many people, at any hour, stumbling the streets as here, and a stranger has shown me footage of him poking a hibernating bear with a stick. It has seemed a culture both unwaveringly proud and resilient in its faults.
However, this week has delivered a long-awaited holiday and, with the free time to go out into the city, a renewed vision of what Moscow could have been. The weather is fine and warm, sunny with a tickling breeze, and the world is turning green again. People are out enjoying the parks, having picnics. Impromptu food stalls and beer gardens are sprouting up like springtime foliage. Unfortunately, my wounds are deep, the life of me as a Muscovite too tainted, but my dormant aspirations for this place feel a little more justified. If only I’d been able to give it a chance before the milk had gone bad, the story of Russia may have been different for me.
One of the most difficult obstacles of being an EFL teacher is accepting, dealing with, and adjusting to the fact that EFL is more about business as education. Most positions are for private academies, trying to make money first, with the success of students more or less a secondary necessity of quality control, creating a shiny product more relevant than an effective one. As a result, teachers are often knowingly put into bad positions to accommodate filling rosters and selling more English.
It has taken me a long time to accept this fact: The optimal classroom—students of similar age, level, and culpability—is not only unrealistic but also in direct opposition to the optimal sales environment. Whereas classrooms are a delicate balance in which one out-of-place student (too advanced, too behind, too naughty) can change the entire dynamic, a salesperson will always be more concerned with the empty space in the maximum number of students allowed in the class. Whether or not the student “fits” has no effect on their commission or the company’s profits.
Essentially, as teachers, we must learn to expect our classes will be out of whack, unlike the easy-flowing oases of harmonious learning in which we once believed. Sometimes you must teach a nine-year-old with a four-year-old on your lap, help a group of adults who never do homework pass an exam, or teach two pages of material for three hours (or ten pages of material in one hour). Mismatched as they may be, keeping the clients docile and happy is priority number one. Truth be known, the more slowly they learn, the longer they can be milked, or the sooner they finish a book, the quicker they buy a new one from their local English experts.
This methodology, to varying degrees of unscrupulousness, has been the one constant of my teaching career, and though I’ve spent the last ten years bitching about it, though I don’t believe it’s a “necessary evil”, I’ve stopped hoping for anything different. Ethically, it’s a tough spot, one that often causes me to despise the company I’m contracted to represent and the curriculum that I follow. It’s a place all teachers find themselves. Even the US school system is suckling on the teat of standardized tests and following a government policy (surely by now we can say it) proven unsuccessful.
While quitting often seems the best option, and once a year I do, at least for a couple of months (someone wisely made that teacher MO years back), there’s still something about being in the classroom. Every teacher dreams of being that difference maker, the lady from Dangerous Minds or guy from Dead Poets Society, the fired-by-the-end-of-the-show rebel educator found in every teen TV series ever made. (They were always English teachers—ha, ha!) As a student, I never really gave two spliffs about what educational policy my institution was adhering to. Basically, I wanted my teacher fighting the system and keeping class cool.
Fact of the matter is I was once what is now my blight: A smart-mouthed punk who passed every class despite never doing homework, misbehaving constantly, and dragging the level of classroom decorum into the boys’ urinal trough. Then, as I’d bet most teachers did, I chose this career path because I liked the idea of summers off, not out of some philanthropic drive to brighten up the world. Then, I became an EFL teacher because it meant I could get paid to travel. Along the way, I figured to be one of those cool teachers students didn’t hate. Entrenched in my battle against the man, I sometimes lose sight of what once was obvious: None of us have ever liked school. Just get on with it.