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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On learning from Nineveh

One midsummer evening, many moons ago when I was still living in Bath, I left a wedding party and discovered that the extremely ugly shoes I was wearing were incompatible with the steep gradient of the streets below me. Descending and returning home evidently meant taking off those shoes. I never wear heels, so it was a once-off experience, an exciting journey of discovery across smooth Georgian pavements, gritty modern tarmac, the wooden boards under the old train station roof, a sense of intimacy with the place itself, feeling the very ground of my city beneath the soles of my feet.

Which of course is completely preposterous. Bath is not MY city. In Bath you can see all the layers of history and you have to know your place. Georgian Bath, with its elegant crescents and long-gone Assembly Rooms shenanigans, shows no interest in modern Bath with its shoe shops. Victorian Bath seems pretty oblivious to both, and underneath all of them are the green waters, worn stones and scratched prayers and curses of Roman Bath, which, one feels, might reasonably prefer to relocate to Rome proper if only it could. And beyond them all, dimly, is King Bladud with his pigs.

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He was King Lear’s father, apparently.

Of course people of the present community in Bath should feel that Bath is Their City. People walking those streets every day should feel that they belong in their city. People who know that ground well from sleeping on it every night should feel that they belong in their city. Children playing and teenagers getting pissed on the Royal Crescent should feel that they belong in their city. But if anyone in Bath were to say, “I just want my city back”, history responds, “which city exactly? in what sense yours?”

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This is the Bell Inn on Walcot Street in Bath, where Nigel Farage and a film crew were once told that they were welcome to come in for a pint but not to hold hustings.

As with cities, so with countries. In Italy, looking across the Strait of Messina to the lovely skyline of Sicily, I feel an odd disconnectedness. I hope this is just a lack of relationship: I haven’t got to know these mountains yet, and their presence still takes me by surprise. I hope it is not because of a lack of ownership. I hope my affection for English countryside is a matter of relating rather than possessing. But I wonder how you can be sure you’ve rooted out an ancestral instinct to swan around sticking flags in places, and whether that instinct might not also arise in relation to the place you first came from.

How did that song go?

We want to see Jesus lifted high
A banner that flies across this land
That all men might see the truth and know
He is the way to heaven

Step by step we’re moving forward
Little by little we’re taking ground
Every prayer a powerful weapon
Strongholds come tumbling down and down and down

I did not really need to ask myself how the song went. I know exactly how it went, and the actions too. I can’t think or remember now how much of the Christian discourse I’ve heard and spoken all my life has had this Onward Christian Soldiers bent, this impulse towards taking and claiming, winning the nation or the nations for Jesus. Not long ago, someone in a Prophetic Encouragement session looked at my Doc Martens and told me that God would give me every place where I set my feet. I have prayed this idea myself on behalf of friends who happened to be facing insuperable odds at the time. Of course we’re not talking about anything actually colonial, are we? We don’t mean real weapons or real armies, and calling the church youth group ‘Joshua Generation’ just means that you see them as strong, very courageous and younger than the Moses and Caleb generations. It’s meant spiritually, isn’t it? Ephesians 6 and so on?

Well, I’ve had enough of it. An overwhelming majority of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Mind-boggling numbers of my Brothers And Sisters In Christ were willing to put their support behind the idea that a rich man can have whatever he asks for, whatever his history of racism and misogyny, whatever the outcomes for vulnerable people and a vulnerable planet. It is not possible to think of all those who call themselves Christians as one united army standing together in love and unity for God and what is good. And I feel like anyway I should have stopped before now to question all this triumphantly marching forward seizing territory stuff. The children of colonists ought to question themselves at the very least before developing any metaphors about taking ground.

Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts – no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.

Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.

I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.

Take nothing for the journey – no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.

Then Joshua fell face down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?’ The commander of the Lord’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’

If we want to honour Jesus, we cannot stand in triumph over anything. We cannot look at any piece of territory and say, I’m claiming that. We cannot look at any nation, including our quote own close quote, and say, this is mine. Weakness, repentance, grace, is the one place we get to call our home. We cannot take ground, but we can take off our shoes.

What does repentance mean? What on earth does repentance look like when people like me go and fight a crusade, build an empire, turn away the stranger, trash the environment or vote in Donald Trump? This ought to be basic stuff, the groundwork the church goes over all the time, over and over as with unfailing determination we prolong our remarkable history of making a pig’s ear of everything. Instead, we seek out obscure connections between the EU and the Book of Revelation, notice that the quality of post-service coffee has substantially improved in recent weeks, or wrestle with anxiety about whether this or that person might have been offended by this or that thing we said. Knowing about repentance is meant to be our gift and our pilgrimage; instead we vaguely expect ourselves to be more moral than other people, and collapse entirely on finding that this is not the case – or never find out, which is worse. We need to know what we are commanded to bring to Jesus that we never knew we were collectively guilty of. Then we may be able to walk in weakness alongside the weak, stand with them, and be there with them when the strong are shamed and the mighty are cast down from their thrones.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Have mercy on the fact that I have written about what I don’t practise but only had some thoughts about while sitting on the lungomare watching the waves crash in the wind.

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22 TEFL-y things

I am delighted to report that a hand of friendship has been extended to this blog from the TEFL blogging community. Elly has nominated me for an ’11 Things Blogging Challenge’, so we are going to have a short break from church-related pondering and awkward moments while I don my teacherly hat. If you are not at all interested in English language teaching, you’d better stop reading now.

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You can decide who has the most teacherly hat here.

Step 1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.

Elly is an inspiring teacher, an example of commitment, enthusiasm and imagination and generally all-round fantastic. Any teacher who finds they have the privilege of, for example, having a Saturday coffee with her at Le Pain Quotidien will certainly find themselves more motivated, energised and stocked up with ideas for the next week. She is also a skilled artist.

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Step 2. Write 11 random facts about yourself.

  1. My favourite animals are penguins. I never thought about this before teaching, but one needs a favourite everything.
  2. My favourite film is The Lion King. See above.
  3. My favourite colour is green. See above.
  4. My least favourite phrase is ‘it depends on the situation’. My teenagers had to be banned from saying that it depended on the situation.
  5. I have been genially mocked by students for saying ‘OK’ too often, saying ‘indeed’ too often, and always tapping the same rhythm on the whiteboard with the marker.
  6. I’m still proud of the class of competitive 7-year-olds who learnt to shake hands at the end of every board rush and say “good game, good game”.
  7. My left hand quite often looks like this  DSCF3696
  8. and my right hand quite often looks like this  DSCF3697
  9. but I did manage to teach for three weeks with only my left (non-writing) hand available due to a right olecranon fracture. My students were very nice about this and would often look up while I was scrawling on the board and say “Maybe I will do it for you?”
  10. My seminars for teachers always include some allusion to Monty Python.
  11. The number of seminars for teachers I have so far given is two.

Step 3. Answer 11 questions.

Why did you decide to become an EFL teacher?

Amongst other reasons, I had just spent a year being a Creative Writing student, that is trying to become a poet, with other poet-hopefuls, and some professional poets, and some people who had signed up to be novelists and looked rather twitchy at poetry seminars as if the “pure poets” might suddenly call them second-class citizens and chuck them out. “Poet” seemed an uncomfortable label involving too much self-consciousness. “EFL teacher”: much more manageable.

(Of course, I later discovered that “EFL teacher” comes with its own stereotypes, for example that an EFL teacher can be easily identified by his/her rucksack, or that it’s unsurprising if thirty-odd EFL teachers attending a vocabulary workshop could all guess the word ‘inebriated’ in a gap-fill but only one or two could guess the word ‘abstemious’.)

Who inspires you (personally or professionally)?

If you’re reading this blog and I know you, you inspire me. If I don’t know you, I’m sure you would inspire me if I did.

What blogs do you read? Would you recommend them to others?

I don’t read blogs much. If you have one, by all means put a link in the comments and I will read it ASAP.

What’s the most challenging thing you’ve ever done?

You can read about my most challenging teaching situation ever if you click here.

Have you always been a teacher? If not, what did you do before?

Immediately before becoming a teacher, I was the annoying person in the train station café who hadn’t done the all-important Cappucino Training Course yet. First Great Westerner cappucino enthusiasts have reason to rejoice at my career move.

What’s something new you’ve tried this year? Would you recommend it?

I did a lesson on Religion and Beliefs with a Pre-Intermediate class. It was a cover lesson and the coursebook wanted them to discuss psychic powers. I didn’t want to discuss psychic powers, and I wanted to know how the students felt before I introduced the topic. So we spent the whole lesson on “useful language for explaining what you believe and why”. It was challenging for the students, utterly terrifying for the teacher, and no, not recommended. But I do think, as it was a small group with a good friendly atmosphere, that they enjoyed the opportunity to talk about deeper topics than our coursebooks typically permit.

Where’s your favourite place you’ve visited?

In connection with teaching, this half-tumbled-down church which popped up out of nowhere two or three hours walk from the site of our summer camp.

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What do you do to relax?

Banter, laugh at the students’ jokes, laugh at my own jokes, sing a song, do a dance or alternatively make the students do everything so I can just sit on a chair. Or did you mean outside lessons?

What did you find most scary/difficult as a new teacher?

Teaching.

What advice would you give your younger self?

When the kids come into the room for the first lesson looking so sweet and innocent and nervous…. don’t be fooled. Clear expectations. Discipline. Routine routine routine.

What, for you, is the best thing about teaching?

Students. (But I like my colleagues as well.)

Step 4ff. Sadly I will be unable to provide 11 more bloggers with 11 more questions, because (as mentioned) I don’t read many blogs. If you have stumbled upon this post and you are a TEFL blogger yourself, please leave a link in the comments so I can broaden my horizons. If there are 11 of you, so much the better.

 

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