I’m sorry but I’m not going to apologise any more: Or, More things I learned from teaching young learners

Once upon a time, a small group of small students, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and aged 6½ (the ½ very carefully insisted on, with the help of gestures) – once upon a time these students were asked to decorate a project they’d made for the corridor wall. The teacher gave instructions, indicated felt-tip pens, stars, shapes, squiggles, smiley faces. The students were more or less baffled until one said, “Oh, she wants us to draw Happy Things”, and they all piled in: stars, shapes, squiggles, smiley faces, multicoloured felt-tip Happy Things. And then one said, “io disegno il croce di Gesù.”

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“I’m drawing the cross of Jesus”

I’m fond of Trippy Theological Teaching Moments in the Young Learner classroom. Here are some others:

1. when a class of four-year-olds were comparing names, and little Masha, very self-possessed, observed that her name was the best name because it was the name of the Mother of God.

2. when I asked the students why they were speaking Italian during the Hello Circle, and they said they were wondering why Muslims don’t eat pork, whereupon we had a fine discussion about traditions and diversity which was totally irrelevant to the linguistic aims of the lesson.

3. when they said that the last student into the classroom would have to do a forfeit, which was the same word as a penance, and I found this unreasonably irritating and stipulated that in our classroom the first would be last and the last would be first, apparently a Bible verse that they knew already, possibly from Scouts.

4. when the students suggested ‘Do you like Jesus?’ as a discussion question alongside ‘Do you like Easter?’ and ‘Do you like chocolate?’: I can report that eight out of a random sample of eight Italian pre-adolescents liked Jesus.

5. when one student said that although Easter was important to him because of Jesus, really Easter was important to him mostly because of chocolate.

But “io disegno il croce di Gesù” is definitely up there among my favourite Trippy Theological Teaching Moments. Perhaps because she said it with such determination, an eminently logical next step from stars and squiggles. Perhaps because the other children questioned and then cheerfully copied her. Is the cross of Jesus a Happy Thing? they said. Is he happy on the cross, after all? È felice perché salva i cattivi, she said: he is happy because he saves the bad people, a weird reminder to English ears that he saves both the caitiff and the captive, these being the same person etymologically speaking, and that if etymology would stop its ears for a moment one might even suggest that he saves the catty. Perhaps because from his felt-tip chest on the felt-tip cross that big heart booms in the manner of a Looney Tunes character falling in love. Perhaps because the small students were so proud, showing off the project on the wall to their perplexed parents.

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‘What are you wearing?’ was technically the topic.

È felice perché salva i cattivi. But I’ve worked so hard, I thought; I’ve tried so hard not to be cattiva but to be one of the nice people, saying the right thing at the right time, polite, never offensive, apologising constantly, so that after a while people roll their eyes and think oh, she’s apologising again, as who should say, there she goes again crying wolf.

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A wolf crying wolf, perhaps.

Excessive politeness can of course be great fun, a brightener for those banal moments between life’s more meaningful interactions, and perhaps worth introducing as a sport in the next Olympic Games. For example, I recently had a delightful telephone conversation with someone wanting to speak to Rosabella’s mum, in which I tentatively suggested that she might have the wrong number, and she apologised for disturbing me, and I cordially said not at all and I hoped she would get through eventually, which perhaps she didn’t because today someone called wanting to speak to Rosabella’s mum all over again. A little over-apologising can be a thoughtful communication strategy at times. Other times, sadly, the apologies don’t really earn their keep. Here’s another clickbaitlist, “16 apologies I imagine you’d rather not hear”. (One of them will shock you. But only one.)

1. when I apologise as a defensive move in case I’m about to be criticised or corrected.

2. when I apologise because I’m not sure what to say and it seems a convenient filler.

3. when I apologise because I’m embarrassed, but all that’s at stake is my own dignity and you didn’t noticed that anything had happened.

4. when I apologise because I’m trying too hard to be liked.

5. when I apologise because I’d prefer to be 100% perfect and am constantly appalled to discover that I’m not.

6. when I apologise because I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve said so far, and it hasn’t occurred to me instead to ask you a question about your news or thoughts, or to say something nice about your clothing decisions, professional achievements or general excellence, or in some other way to move the conversation forward.

7. when I apologise for nothing in particular because I’m just feeling generally apologetic.

8. when I apologise because I’m fishing for the reassurance of being told it’s fine.

9. when I apologise in a second language for the billionth time using the same words because I don’t know any other way of apologising in that language.

10. when I say “sorry” as a knee-jerk reaction because it’s what you just said.

11. when I apologise when it was nobody’s fault, and nobody really needs to take any blame, or perhaps things didn’t really go very awry in the first place.

12. when I apologise for apologising.

13. when I apologise so much you don’t feel you can really be up-front with me and tell me that I did something wrong because I might be too upset.

14. when I apologise about the thing that wasn’t a problem, and don’t apologise about the thing that was a problem.

15. when I apologise for doing something that you also did, thus making you feel guilty, or that you ought to apologise when really you can’t see the need.

16. when I apologise because it’s become a habit and I’m not sure how to stop, like I’m not sure how to round off this list.

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“If in doubt, stick in a picture of some penguins”, that’s what I say.

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To stick in a picture of a penguin was with me the work of a moment.

Crying wolf: after too many random apologies, one single strongly-felt and important apology could come to seem less valuable just when you really need it to. Or one might completely overlook the opportunity to apologise for real, bogged down in trivial anxieties, unable to see the wood of friendship for the trees of embarrassment. And it would be an opportunity: what is it like, one wonders, when saying sorry is the first step and all the steps after that are positive changes, stronger relationships and more expansive views? What is it like when you get up somewhere, out of the valley, out of the Slough of Over-apology located somewhere near the Slough of Despond, into the hills and the mountains? It’s nice to be told that you didn’t need to say sorry, but what does it feel like to be forgiven, to know that you did do wrong and that it really was lifted away?

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Up. Danny Macaskill on the Inaccessible Pinnacle.

He never came to save the nice people.

When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table…

Well, he did come to save the nice people of course—

A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them…

but not with any sense of deference to their orderliness and proper ways of doing things.

Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

È felice perché salva i cattivi: joyously, crazily, chaotically, in bright felt-tip childish scrawls all over the boring universe. Lavishly, like a broken jar of perfume poured out over someone’s feet. She with her jar, he with his life, neither of them were ever going to apologise for fluffing the script of the ordinary patterns of social interaction. They chose what was better. They were impatient in love, like children, who will always get the pen to the paper with immediate action, rather than stopping to question the artistic impulse. They had more important things to be getting on with.

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Bregenz, Martinskapelle. Photo: Andreas Praefcke, via Wikimedia Commons

This is not to deny that one can use the ordinary patterns of social interaction, apologising included, lavishly, lovingly and life-givingly. The question is how to develop a less hesitating, less apologetic, more forgiven, more confident approach, so that from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, even if the mouth is not normally very good at that kind of thing. I once tried giving up apologising for Lent: whether this had any even short-term effect is doubtful, as it’s a tough habit to kick. In theory, the jar of pride and self-doubt once kicked over, thoroughly kicked over and broken, would then pour out pure nard. Which is almost certainly not what another student had in mind when he rewrote Ten Green Bottles:

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8 Lucy were standing on the wall if one falls 7 Lucy will remain

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put the EFL teacher together again. But togetherness in oneself is not much worth having without togetherness with others. One’s own dignity, in the end, is not a Happy Thing. Better to be a little chaotic for the sake of compassion and affection. Better to not say sorry quite so often. Better to operate with a bit more colour, a bit more joy, a bit more freedom. After all, what Italian children apparently call a felt-tip pen is lo spirito.

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Sulla Terrazza, Christmas 2016

A language school seen from outside after dusk presents a vivid arrangement of neatly cut squares. Upstairs windows, downstairs windows, stacked above and alongside each other: Blue Room, Orange Room, Pink Room, corners of classrooms well visible through the glass balcony doors. Students, sitting round a table, ranged in an interested semi-circle, or strolling around the room presumably looking at pieces of paper stuck to the wall. Teachers, recognizable by height or hair or cardigan or characteristically light-footed loping shuffle. All at the same time, in silence, at this distance, and brilliantly lit in the darkness.

I realize it’s an unconventional, even rather creepy way of doing peer observations, watching the school after dark from a terrace on the other side of the street. It’s not something I make a regular practice of. But, chance having ordained that the flat where I live has a terrace strategically positioned for a zip-wire straight into the Kids Room, it would happen that one evening I’d go up for air, stars and to get the washing in and end up looking back at the workplace I’d just come from, thinking that there was something inexplicably beautiful and moving about, um, a bunch of lit classroom windows.

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It looked like this, but less blurry and somewhat less tilted.

I wondered about saying that this might be how God sees the world: all the rooms at the same time, you know, and everyone likes a good punchy paragraph opener. But it seems presumptuous to suggest that there’s anything God-like about me on my terrace getting the washing in, and anyway the point of the glimpses through the windows must be something to do with the fact that one is neither all-seeing nor all-knowing, cannot hear at all or see properly what is happening; good, bad or mediocre, any lesson appears from across the street as a bright, silent, magically, mystically populated quadrilateral.

Maybe one could suppose that this is how Santa Claus experiences the world: not the rather alarming Santa Claus who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake, but a lonely, wistful, doubtful sort of Santa Claus, much unattended-to, looking up at the lit windows in great perplexity about how to engage with the complex and difficult world of human beings; a Santa Claus who really does wish a merry Christmas to all and to all a good night, but with a disappointed feeling that the night will be long, dark, and soulful for many;  a Santa Claus unsure how to fix this problem, but compelled by the irresistible idea that an extensive distribution of socks, oranges, board games and glitter-covered items will surely make all humanity feel that everything’s going to be OK.

This Santa Claus heard rumours, before Christmas, that 2016 was widely considered to have been a pretty pants year. He noted on June 24th that many of his elves were displaying a marked tendency to slack their work and have coffee-machine conversations in angry whispers. On November 9th, still more of them began the day with expletives over their computer screens and refused to work at all except with Radiohead playing in the background. During the year, he fielded petitions to the effect that Michael Gove be placed on the Naughty List and Nigel Farage not even be admitted to exist, while other elves worried about the workshop’s carbon footprint, and others expressed concern about presents that might reinforce gender stereotypes, and others debated humanity’s chances of surviving the transition of The Great British Bake Off from the BBC to Channel 4.

But this Santa Claus never got round to establishing a Naughty List, perhaps considering it a cumbersome modern gimmick, and finds it all very confusing, this maelstrom of difficulties that can in no way be solved by the application of anything wrapped in shiny paper and sellotape. Wondering what can be done for all the little teachers in their little lit classrooms, and thinking, not only about the matters of public farce that his enraged elves have reported to him, but the full unknown tangle of everything each little teacher might privately be experiencing by way of grief or joy, anger, hurt and uncertainty, this imaginary Santa Claus feels very uncertain himself, reaches for a consolatory mince pie, and is glad to pop back out of existence, blown away by a breath of wind up the Strait of Messina.

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In daylight.

Maybe the bright classroom windows seem beautiful simply because they are light in the darkness. Or maybe because one knows that a classroom experienced from inside can be horribly noisy, and the eerie silence of a distance view is therefore eerily notable. Or because you forget, when you’re teaching yourself and things are going really rather badly, that on every side there are other teachers calmly plying the same trade, and that your own component part is only a small part of the larger system which is only a language school at the end of the day. Or maybe because those distant silent lessons might be going well, and it still seems possible that ‘going well’ could mean something deeper, richer and more human than that all students are now able to use the present continuous to talk about actions in progress at the present time, crucial as that skill obviously is for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But it’s not really about teaching. It’s something about a shifted perspective, a scene that you normally experience up close, and involving yourself and other human beings, with all the chaos, irritation and hilarity that naturally ensues, now seen at a distance, in silence, so that almost no details can be perceived except the humanity of the human beings. Perhaps a person’s particular idiosyncrasies can be better understood at closer quarters; the perspective from across the street is that each little human person in their little lit room is really quite miraculous by virtue of existing at all. In the whole lofty and intricate space that is the world, or what I can see of it from this corner of the southern Italian coast, there through the classroom windows are however-many ‘very wonderful wholes’, thinking about the present continuous and unaware of how small and how very remarkable they are within the entire frame. The night may be dreary, the road ahead may be uncertain and The Great British Bake Off may be lost to us for ever. Maybe the students were not able, by the end of the lesson, to use present continuous to talk about actions in progress at the present time. Maybe there are no ways forward for the secret troubles each person was carrying that Santa Claus could not guess at. Still, grandly, constantly, and persistently, however unreasonably, all the encircling space, the sky and city and mountains, the quiet night, seems to say to them, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.

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On Christmas and small green pieces of paper

“Yes – Matteo Renzi big money. No – Matteo Renzi house.”

This was a ten-year-old student’s referendum explanation, and you can imagine the finger-rubbing and palm-dusting gestures that went with it, while a stronger student did her best to give the essential facts about the room of something and the room of something else. Later that day, I asked an eight-year-old why he was rolling on the floor shouting “soldi, soldi”: apparently he was pretending to be Donald Trump dreaming. “Donald Trump sleepy, money in the mental”: Donald Trump dreams about money, pronounced moe-nay, and Christmas is approaching, and tiny Italian children take in the world around them with huge dark eyes.

Teaching is terrifying. In comes a child, bright, loud, full of ideas, totally oblivious to the proper procedure for taking his books and pencil-case out of his bag and putting them under the table, as receptive as a receptive skill, and increasingly convinced that those chosen to govern his world are those who only care really about their own bank accounts. For the next eighty minutes, he is in his English class. In theory, perhaps, in some over-confident highfalutin hand-wavy theory, he has an eighty-minute opportunity to develop such internal structures of intellect and character as will keep him from mindless consumerism, from the temptation to buy power; eighty minutes that the world need not encroach upon, from which a free human being might push back against the world. Seventy-three minutes, by the time he’s got his books and pencil-case out of his bag and put them under the table.

But his teacher has been distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. Perhaps the previous lesson went badly, and a really atrocious one seems likely to follow; maybe she’s conscious that the parents of Child A have been in to complain about the behaviour of Child B, Child C’s shoelace is undone, Child D must not be allowed to sit at the same table as Child E, Child F is overexcited already, Child G is coughing and spluttering with a head cold, and Child H apparently still thinks ‘I’ve got’ means ‘mi piace’; what’s more, she’s just realised there’s no point putting that toy vegetable in the sensory bin when she’s not sure herself if it’s a lettuce or an artichoke, and Norton the hand puppet has gone AWOL, and the IWB is an abomination that causes desolation, and she can’t remember at all what the plan is for this lesson, and she’s left her reward stickers in the teachers’ room again.

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Luckily ELT has taught me to be an action star and not scared of anything.

How fortunate that any good YL course book, available from a university press near you, will surely address this challenging situation with one ‘values’ page per unit, for example with a story about waiting your turn or a song about washing your hands before meals. The reality, I suppose, is that one does in fact push back against chaos and corruption by training kids to wait their turn, wash their hands before meals, and generally conduct themselves in a civilised and decent manner. It’s disappointing to find that you lack competence in this sort of area, either when you go into a lesson determined to love your most difficult students, only to find the atmosphere as disorderly and unproductive as it ever was, or when you totally forget what’s likely to happen if you introduce glitter glue into the mix.

And, as mentioned, Christmas is approaching, and with it, lots of reasons for glitter glue, wrapping paper, presents, sweets, games and general good cheer. Young Learner Christmas should be the height of jollity: make a reindeer, sing a song and everyone can leave feeling happy. For this, imaginative ideas, clear thinking and a sensible staged lesson are indispensable. Ceaseless vigilance is required on the part of the teacher. All activities will be fun and creative and yet remain beautifully and magically in order.

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I typed ‘under control’ at first. Then I felt that while ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ used to be such lovely words, ‘control’ was always a bit of an odd one.

I remain unsure what you do if you’re trying to achieve this, and you’re a bit rubbish at it, and you also happen to believe that the Real Meaning Of Christmas anyway is something to do with letting go of authority, something about messiness rather than tidiness, about weakness, sadness and squalor, about the wealthy and the poor, about up-ending an established order, and about the greatness of any random nameless child in the kingdom of heaven. I suppose one perseveres, mainly, back to the front line with Norton all present and correct after all, just in a different drawer to his usual one, and perhaps with assistance from a host of origami angels and a few reindeer.

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