146. Nightmare Teaching Experiences (Part 2)

The continuation of this two part episode about being an English language teacher, and some of the difficult experiences that involves.

Right-click here to download this episode.

A transcript/notes are available for this episode below.

3. The Whiteboard
-The smelly Victorian women’s hospital
-Great views
-Felt like the place was falling apart
-Old stained carpets, mould on the walls
-It stinks! – he was right
-It was never bright. I worked there for one year, including two sweaty summers and one long cold winter. Sometimes the lights would flicker and just die, leaving us in murky darkness. It’s never a good start when the students in the class can’t really see the teacher, each other or the board.
-Some of the students lived in the building and they hated it. Lots of things seemed to go wrong for me in that place. I remember once telling my students some ghost stories about London, and about that building in particular. I thought it was just a bit of light relief, a nice break from doing IELTS practice tests. The next day I saw one of the girls from that class in the corridor, in tears. Her friends told me that she was so freaked out by my ghost stories that she couldn’t live in the building any more. On Friday I saw her hurrying away from the place with a large suitcase. My fault.
-One day I was teaching and the whiteboard fell off the wall. I was teaching something at the board, writing, and the whole thing just dropped off the wall and the corner hit the floor very loudly and made a dent in the floor.
-It made a very loud noise and the students jumped, except for one sleepy Japanese guy who wouldn’t have jumped if I’d stuck 20,000volts through him, and sometimes I was tempted but the others kind of jumped a lot. I just propped the board on the wall, and carried on. I couldn’t really complain a lot about it, although I was understandably pretty angry and surprised. I couldn’t complain about it though because complaining about it would have been unprofessional, so I just propped it up against the wall and we kept going. The next day, we came back to class and the whiteboard was just gone, leaving an empty space on the wall, where the wall paint was all fresh and still glossy from when it had been applied all those years ago.

I’d planned some white board work, and I had my pens, so I just wrote on the wall where the board had been. I was pretty pissed off that I had no whiteboard so I just thought “what the hell” and wrote directly onto the wall. The students found it pretty funny, and it gave a kind of ridiculous edge to proceedings, which I find often helps somehow. The thing is, the wall was much better as a whiteboard than the old scratched whiteboard had been. The old one wasn’t even a whiteboard any more. It was so dirty and scratched. It was a grey board. So for about 3 days I happily wrote on the wall. The writing rubbed off nicely because it was a glossy surface. In the end the grey board appeared back again and it was business as usual.

It was a pretty cool class in the end, although I had to compensate for the crappy resources. The CD player always skipped, the lights flickered, the tables and chairs rocked. The students had to sit in these chairs which had little mini tables on the side. The tables were tiny though, and so people’s books and notes would fall on the floor ALL THE TIME. These things don’t help, and they can really screw you up if you’re not prepared for it. These are all standard problems which we should always be ready for!

What I learned:
Use mishaps in your classes to your advantage. They can become funny moments. Ultimately, your aim is to continue teaching, and not stand around complaining about facilities while the students do nothing. Stay professional at all times. That doesn’t mean formal and strict, but keeping in mind that you mustn’t waste any of the students’ precious time. The lesson must go on. Also, never assume that the facilities will be right. Be prepared for facilities not to work or not to be available. Learn to teach without relying on too many other things.

4. Teaching in a cupboard
-The school was full
-I had a smallish class
-My manager said, you’ll have to teach in ‘the computer room’
-This was not as cool as you’d expect
-It was basically a broom cupboard
-To exacerbate things, there was a kind of bar/counter going around the room with computers on it. This greatly reduced the space in the room. All our chairs were right against the bar.
-We’d all sit there with our knees banging together. It was definitely INTENSIVE general English. None of us could move.
-The whiteboard was behind me, leaning against the back of the door. I had to write with my arm all twisted up over my shoulder.
-Whenever anyone wanted to come in they’d open the door and the whiteboard would hit me on the back of the head. This happened a lot because as I said, this was the computer room so people were constantly trying to get in to check their emails (this is before smartphones) even though there was a note on the door – in my experience, in language schools people just completely ignore notes. Notes or notices are invisible in language schools. As are the “engaged” signs on toilets. In every language school I’ve worked, people have ignored the red “engaged” sign on a toilet door. Why is it that learners of English have to check that the toilet is occupied by trying to open the door? Like, if the sign is red, why would you try to open the door? You’re just going to walk into someone with their trousers down. If the sign is red, don’t try to open the door!
-Whenever students were late in that class they had to climb over the other students in order to get a seat. It was very awkward and weird.

What I learned:
To be honest, I’m not sure what I learned from this experience!

5. Teaching kids in Japan
-This was pretty early in my career. I was in Japan, teaching mainly adults but the school wanted me to teach kids too. I thought it might be another string to my bow so I agreed to take the training.
-During the training I was very sleepy and couldn’t concentrate. As a result, I learned nothing.
-I’ve already talked about the tight schedule of teaching. I often had just 10 minutes to finish teaching one class, complete notes and get down two floors to begin the kids class.
-The general scene was that there was a small room with a glass door so the parents could observe everything going on in the class. The parents, who were all housewives basically, would bring the kids and then watch the lesson through the window.
-3-6 year olds in one class
-Difficult to get them into the room
-Either crying or going mental
-They’d crawl all over me
-They covered me in crayon once
-Just my presence seemed to drive them into a frenzy
-They were different with the other teacher
-I had to conclude that I just had a mad energy that they could sense, and which drove them crazy
-They’d be tearing posters off the walls, climbing up onto the counter and throwing things everywhere
-I caught one kid just spitting on the wall
-They would open the cupboard and start chucking stuff out of the window.
-All the time at least one of them would be stuck to me
-One kid, a sweet kid called Dan, just could not hear me. He would be off, in his own world and I would call him back, like “DAN” etc. The other kids would join in and we’d all be going “DAN DAN DAN”. He learned that in English his name was DAN. So, I’d say, “what’s your name?” and he’d say “my name is DAN!”. Apparently, the family went on holiday once and a foreigner (probably an American) said to him, “hello there, what’s your name?” and he said “My name is DAN!” – The parents were over the moon!
-I learned to distract them with cards – it became all about card games, and races and repetition. Sometimes I would be quite impressed and in all the madness I’d catch them engaging in small bits of English. For example, “it’s mine” – which they would often pronounce as “itchi mai”, or just the colours or other words.
-One day we were joined by another kid called Ritomo. I genuinely think he had behavioural issues. He was incredible hyper and aggressive. I’d manage to get them sitting in a circle quite peacefully, but Ritomo was like a time bomb. I could see him building up, until he would explode and start reaching across, grabbing at the faces of other kids, kicking the other kids and eventually just running around the room like the Tasmanian devil. Once, he grabbed all the cards I was using and legged it out of the classroom into the stairwell, and just chucked all the cards down the stairwell.
-After contending with all this I would usually be boiling hot and very uncomfortable, sometimes covered in crayon or even worse – child saliva on my shirt. I’d then have to run upstairs and straight into a lesson with some salarymen, and I’d have to sit there sweating and wiping off the saliva from my shirt while teaching these serious guys.
-Ultimately, it was very touching teaching these kids. I didn’t realise how they’d become attached to me. When they understood that I was leaving Japan, there were tears. One kid, a 4 year old called Ryo came to school but he wouldn’t come into class because he was too upset about me leaving. He really wanted to say goodbye to me, but he couldn’t do it. Instead he just hid under a chair, crying. One of the other kids wouldn’t let me go, and grabbed onto my leg. They were adorable, but only when it was time for me to leave!

6. Hubris
-This is probably the class that I remember being the most difficult. There have been others but this one stuck in my mind. I wonder if anyone listening to this was even in that class. For me it was not nice, but I don’t know how it was for them in the end. Sometimes you just don’t know what your students are thinking. I’ve had classes in which I was convinced everything was awful and it turned out they were all happy, and the other way round. I’ve been rudely awakened by some comment that a student doesn’t like her classmates even though she happily interacts with them all day long. You never know sometimes. But in this class I knew pretty quickly that it was going to be difficult. As a teacher you start to learn to read certain signs about a class. Some things let you know that it’s going to be one of those classes. I mentioned things above. A lot of those things happened in this class.

-Basically, it’s a story of ‘hubris’ – which means when you have an arrogantly enlarged sense of self-confidence which causes you to believe you can’t fail, but then you do. It comes from ancient Greek mythology. I did one difficult course and did it well, and because of that I assumed I would be great in the next course, but I was wrong, and it was a total nightmare. Perhaps it was not all due to me, in fact I’m sure it wasn’t as I’m about to explain, but still, I look back on it as a difficult experience which I now wish I’d done differently, but from which I’ve learned a lot.

So, what happened? I hear you ask.
It was two weeks before Christmas in the middle of a cold, dark London winter. I’d just finished teaching a one week class of executive business people. This was a very important class, and I had been stressed before that, but stressed in a good way because I prepared myself fully for the lessons by checking the backgrounds of the students I had, looking at their needs and preferences for learning English, checking their professions carefully and then selecting a 30 hour course which covered all the things they needed. I spent lots of time preparing and photocopying material and generally psyching myself up. I dressed nicely and all that. One guy in particular on the course was a VIP who worked as a top-level director for a German car manufacturer. He was a really important client, this imposing German guy. So, I worked very hard on the course with very little preparation time, we worked in class for 6 hours a day. I listened, helped, recommended, prepared specialist vocabulary, facilitated, set up role plays, dealt with grammar, pronunciation, feedback, I went the extra mile, I bent over backwards and I delivered a very good course in the end. It helped that the participants were hard-working professionals themselves, who were able to concentrate and see the benefit of what we were doing, but I felt pretty pleased with myself, especially after the stress I’d felt at the start of the week. The group gave me very good feedback, and the VIP even told my boss that he thought I was the best teacher he’d ever had. Wow, I felt great. I’m a fantastic teacher, I thought.

At 5.30PM that Friday my boss told me about the course I’d be teaching starting Monday, after the weekend. It was a group of about 10 young professionals, here to study business English before finishing their degrees, or finding a post-graduate job. They were all in their early 20s with little business experience. I thought “no problem, I’m the best teacher in the world, I’ll just do my thing. I’ll be like some business English guru for them. After the tough week I’ve just had, this will be a walk in the park”. It was hubris. Pride before a fall.

A number of factors led to this being one of my most difficult courses. Some of it was my fault, some of it the fault of my students, and some the fault of factors out of my control. So, what were those reasons?

Let me first tell you what went wrong, and then the reasons why it happened, and then what I learned from the experience.

The class was going to be a combination of students from two already existing classes, and a new person. So, some of them came from a business class, others came from a difficult legal English course, and one girl was new in the school that Monday. The business class was the same course as this one, so for them it was a continuation of their normal class. Same room, same programme, but with a new teacher and other new people coming into their room. The law class were exhausted and fed up from doing so much work. They’d been doing loads of writing, role plays and exam practice, finishing with a very tough legal English exam. They were not in the mood to do any work. It was their last week before going home. These two groups were like buddies really, two groups of buddies, and they didn’t really mix. Also, they had no real reason to mix because they knew in two weeks it would all be over and they’d be going home. It’s kind of like everyone had given up making any effort. Then, there was the new girl who entered in the middle of this bad atmosphere. I don’t know if it was her, or the atmosphere of the situation she joined, but she behaved in a really bad way, being rude from the beginning, lots of attitude, not willing to work, challenging things, answering over me, flirting with me, making me feel uncomfortable and kind of spoiling activities in class. I expected the others to kind of take to her quite badly, as she was basically poisoning the class. However, they all seemed to like her and kind of let her get away with it, as if it justified the fact they didn’t have to do any work. At the same time though, I was sure that they would all be pissed off about the fact that we weren’t achieving anything in our classes. It turns out they saw me as the reason for that, not her or their weird behaviour. This new girl was quite a bullying influence in the room, and I suspect that others didn’t like her but were not willing to step in and stop it.

It was also a class full of women, except for one quiet Korean guy, who left after the first week. So, there was a kind of odd tension and the usual working friendship between the students that develops after a few hours had not developed. In fact, I found it very hard to get the first lesson really underway at all. After an hour or so I realised that we had managed to achieve almost nothing, I hadn’t put the students under pressure enough, we hadn’t really done any challenging grammar work or vocabulary development and they hadn’t been really activated with a task and I could definitely sense trouble. People were not getting involved, some seemed to be frustratingly impatient while others wasted time. I asked them to make short presentations about themselves, involving standing up and talking for 5 minutes each. Normally I write down all the mistakes they make and then give them all individual language feedback and ask them other questions after each presentation. This allows the class to get to know each other, put their English on display, give me a chance to work out their language needs, bond them together by putting them through a little challenge, and to immediately give them some very direct help by correcting their errors. The presentations all fell flat, with the speakers just grinding to a halt after a few minutes, while I attempted to encourage others to ask more questions. They didn’t seem interested in each other, and I was not able to write down any meaningful language feedback. All I could write on the board, was a few obvious and easily corrected errors. No impact at all. Instead I just got the sense that each person was making a terribly bad first impression on the others, with no sense of rapport developing at all. It was like my plan didn’t just fall flat, but sent the class in the opposite direction. At one point, a presentation ended up in a conversation between two of the girls about a very sensitive ethnic and political topic, involving a nation of refugees and a conflict over a land border between two countries. It was a very divisive and controversial topic, and a personal one because one of the girls was from that region of the world. I could feel other members of the class bristling over the direction it took. When I intervened to get the girls back on topic, they seemed personally offended that I stopped them talking about it. Everything seemed to be going wrong.

All the usual signs were there. These are the signs that things are not going well.
You give them a short task to do in pairs, the idea being that they communicate in English while also doing a language or skills class. They ignore their partners completely.
You ask the class to do an exercise. One of them doesn’t do the exercise and instead sits there trying to make eye contact with you because they’re not happy about something. Then when you ask if everything is okay, they don’t mention anything, but moodily start the exercise. While doing feedback on the exercise, someone sighs very loudly at an inappropriate moment, perhaps while someone else is talking.
The exercises I gave them just seemed to just die in the air. Usually, a class will feed on something and build it into something bigger. That didn’t happen. I felt like a fool as nothing I said seemed to have any value to them at all! Things I wrote on the board seemed badly written, uninsightful and unhelpful. It was like teaching underwater. The air was thick. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. The distance between me and the students seemed vast. I’d taught plenty of classes in that room before and I liked it because it had a comfy, warm and almost intimate atmosphere. This time it was like a cold hospital ward. Students would often come in late, or just not come back after lunch. I decided I had to put my foot down. When the difficult girl arrived late, I asked her “why are you late?” and she gave me a bad excuse, like “I slept through my alarm clock”, and then instead of acknowledging that she should be in class on time (because arriving late disturbs the class, she doesn’t know what’s going on, we waste time and lose concentration as everything has to be explained) she just kind of challenged me over it and it became an awkward conflict, which she felt like she had to win. I felt like some of these students had been to business school and had learned that you must negotiate everything, don’t make any concessions and analyse anyone in authority for leadership skills. If I didn’t fit their Jack Welch or Jeff Bezos model for leadership then I wasn’t worth anything.

Then I heard from another teacher (the one who had been teaching that class before me – a really charismatic older guy with lots of experience) that some of my students weren’t happy and that they missed his class. They said my class was “terrible” and they weren’t happy. Oh no. Bad news for Luke! I decided I would really put my foot down and straighten the class out. After lunch I had a go at them for being late, and for not taking part properly. I hate doing that in class. Absolutely hate it, because I’m not good at it. Well, I’m better now because I’m older but then I was younger and I was never good at being tough. It’s just not in my character. If I get angry or tough, it shows on my face and I don’t seem strong. I just seem upset and weaker. I don’t get confrontational or strict generally, and so it’s weird to do it. I guess they didn’t buy what I was saying because it didn’t make a difference. In fact, I suspect it caused them to lose confidence in me. Again, the absolute reverse of what I had hoped to achieve actually happened. I wanted to put my foot down, and I just ended up putting my foot in my mouth.

The next day, two of them were late for class and I closed the door, leaving a note which said they couldn’t come in. These were two girls from the law course. Young lawyers. I should have known better than to leave a handwritten note for a couple of lawyers, telling them they couldn’t do something. Of course they took it really badly. During the break a teacher told me that two of my students were really angry with me. Wow, this was a nightmare. This never happens to me! Usually the opposite if anything! So I went to see them and they were upset, saying that they had had to do something in town and had rushed back to be on time only to find my rude note. They considered my actions to be very inappropriate. They were not happy. I had to try and keep my head up and stay confident and consistent, so I maintained that it was important that they come in on time, although I didn’t mean to offend them with my note. I was just trying to impose some rules and structure. My explanation mildly improved things, but the damage had been done.

In the last session of that day, while waiting for other students to arrive after break, two of the girls told me they thought the course was going badly, and that the classes were no good. At first I was kind of glad that someone was on my side and I wasn’t alone. Then I realised that they held me responsible, rather than the other members of the class. It was my fault that the class was going badly! They probably thought that this was how things normally were with me. They didn’t know me so they knew no different. They didn’t realise that I was not such a bad teacher. This made me really angry. I was so pissed off at this point and couldn’t help saying “this never happens in my courses” before I had to kind of bitterly explain that yes I agreed that the class was not good enough – but I couldn’t explain how it was the fault of others. I mentioned it, saying things like “it doesn’t help that certain members of this class are incapable of attending on time or even taking part properly when they are here”. They didn’t really like my tone. Instead I had to kind of admit that I would do better – as if the class was going wrong because of a lack of effort on my part. I was explaining to my boss, my teacher or my parents that I wasn’t trying hard enough. Now, I do accept that I should have done certain things better, and that some of it was my fault as I will explain in a moment, but I knew that it wasn’t all me. The fact is it was my job to ensure that the class was as effective as possible. So, in a way, the actions of these people meant that I had to carry the whole circus of this class on my shoulders. The group shifted its collective responsibility over to me. I finished the day completely shattered, with a mind numbing headache, with a massive heavy load on my shoulders.

Two of the students complained to my boss, saying they thought the class was bad, and that they would write a letter to their agents explaining how awful they thought the school was. Seriously, this was quite unprecedented. Thankfully, my boss had faith in me, knowing that it wasn’t really my fault but was just one of those courses that goes wrong. He suggested that I do some ‘tutorials’ with my class, to talk to them all 1 to 1 and try and resolve any problems. I agreed, and did that the next day. Of course, the students didn’t see the value of it, and considered it a massive waste of their time. One of them said to my face that she thought I was leading the class badly and the tutorials were a waste of time. The difficult girl I described earlier decided to lock horns with me over everything before forcing me to admit that I had failed to be a strong leader. She completely ran over me with her forceful character. It was like dealing with a bully. I found it ridiculous. Of course, this was the height of rudeness. There would be no need for my strong leadership if she behaved like a grown up. I think it was a trust issue. I expect where she was from, male teachers should be much more dominant, alpha male types. I’m not that kind of guy. I’m not an alpha male. I don’t believe it’s necessary to impose yourself and your ego on everyone in order to be a good teacher. That’s all a bit macho and old-fashioned I think. But, I think that’s what she and maybe the others needed and expected. She probably needed me to be a more old-fashioned strict male teacher, and without that she couldn’t help misbehaving. Ultimately, she was responsible for her behaviour, not me. So I still disagree and believe that she was wrong.

The tutorials were not a complete disaster. I learned that some of the students expected certain types of exercise. They didn’t like role plays and case studies. They were bored with them because of the other courses they had attended. A couple of them admitted that they thought it was the fault of the school for putting two classes together. She didn’t understand why we couldn’t run two smaller groups, which would be more effective. We just didn’t have enough teachers for that, and ultimately the school wasn’t going to pay another teacher to come in and take one half of my class. This lifted the pressure from me and onto the school somewhat, but it didn’t really improve things much. Unfortunately, basic economics is something that regularly has an impact on classes. Schools can’t or don’t want to pay for more teachers. The most profitable way would be to have one teacher per 100 students, but obviously that’s not possible. What happens is something of a balance between quality (with fewer students per teacher) and profits (more students per teacher). One sign of a good school is smaller class sizes. The best schools, like The London School of English where I worked for 6 years, manage to keep their class sizes smaller, give more benefits to teachers, develop specialist courses and make an extra effort to create a special atmosphere inside the building.

Back to the tutorials. I learned that they wanted boring, challenging old-fashioned grammar work. What a surprise for a group of young forward thinking professionals. They just wanted boring gap fills and mind numbing grammar explanations, with work on writing and job interviews.

So, I did exactly that. I removed fun from the lessons. No pair work. No group interaction. Just very controlled language practice followed by quick feedback. It was like an old-school exam course. It was like a punishing series of language exercises, all of which had very clear right and wrong answer. It kind of straightened them out. Ironically, one of them complained that it was too difficult, and this is after she’d complained earlier that it was too easy. I found that putting them through boring and difficult work made them bond together more. During breaks they would be relieved and would chat to each other more, as they were all going through the same difficult experience. I’d come back into class after break and I’d find them hanging out and socialising, but when I’d enter the room they’d all shut up and go back to their desks, like ‘the fun is over, he’s back’. My heart sank a little every time this happened, as it always does when you feel like the students just don’t like you for some reason.

The difficult girl continued to be difficult, but I’d already accepted that she was not going to change, and realised she was just a spoiled daughter of a rich businessman and that no-one had ever said “no” to her in her life. She seemed an incredibly sheltered and naive person, who couldn’t really operate in the real world. Then I remembered that she would probably always be rich and successful, as no doubt her father would have some important contacts to help her get a great job in the future. That made me kind of angry too. She had privilege, but no respect for others. I lost respect for her, and felt like I should teach her a lesson in humility. I didn’t really know how to do this, so I generally didn’t give her any rope. I mean, I wasn’t patient with her, didn’t give her much response or attention. After that, she didn’t bother me so much any more. Once she made a rude comment, and I couldn’t help but laugh. This was a great moment because I wasn’t hurt by her comment, I just found it ridiculous. I felt that the others sensed this, and had become tired of her bullshit too. It was like her value or influence in the class had dropped. After that, she stopped attending. She didn’t attend the last day, but came in at the end to leave a note on my desk. The note said “Thank you for being my English teacher. I’m really glad I met you.”

Now that was surprising because she spent 2 weeks acting like she hated me, caused all kinds of difficulty, didn’t attend a lot of classes, and then leaves me that note. I’m still scratching my head trying to work out what was going on.

In the end, I managed to get a grip on the course, but the first week was a write off. It was horrible. Every day I stayed at school late trying to prepare for the next day. Then I would go home with a strong headache, not wanting to eat any dinner. A couple of times I had to walk home to clear my head. It was a dread filled week and I often remember it, and try to avoid similar experiences.

So what were the causes?
Certainly I was just unlucky with the students. Just a mix of bad personalities perhaps? I’m sure they didn’t think so. In fact, I expect everyone involved believed they were not to blame, but were the innocent victim of the situation.
Ultimately, I don’t think anyone really wanted to be in the room together. I ended up being the victim of that because I was the guy telling them they had to be in the class together. I just became their scapegoat.
Time of year was a factor. It was dark and cold. England must have seemed rubbish to them in those conditions. There is a feeling in the middle of winter in England, when you haven’t seen the sun for a couple of months, and you feel tired and depressed. It’s called seasonal affective disorder. Sometimes it hits the students for six, because they’ re not expecting it.
Everyone was just waiting to go home for the Christmas holidays so they weren’t motivated.
The class were all women – this can be difficult. For some reason women like to have some men in the class to give some balance. Either that or just women with a woman teacher, then they can relax as a group of women. Otherwise it becomes really weird. I can’t explain that, but as I’ve said before, if the women aren’t happy then no-one is happy.

Putting together two groups to make one doesn’t always work, and it can make the school look a bit cheap, like it’s saving money on rooms and teachers. Also, the two groups had already bonded, and didn’t really expect to be thrown into one group together.
I expected the course to be easier because of the previous course. This meant that I had a false sense of security. I probably didn’t try hard enough on day 1 or make it difficult enough for the students. I expected things to just work, but I hadn’t thought about it or planned carefully enough. I probably wasn’t as well prepared, or tightly organised as I had been on the previous course.
I didn’t dress very smartly. Looking back on it now, I wore jeans and a pair of slightly scruffy brown shoes. The girls were very chic and well presented. Compared to them, I looked like the student. I should have worn a suit on day 1.
Maybe there was some sexual tension there? I can’t tell really, but sometimes bad behaviour is a kind of flirtation and girls sometimes are very rude to a guy as a kind of come-on. That might explain the letter that was left for me. I don’t know.
Culture shock. I’ve explained before how culture shock can manifest itself in the sense that the culture you’re in is ridiculous or wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised if these students were kind of unimpressed by London in the winter time, and couldn’t help feeling some contempt for us. I was just another annoying English person. Certainly at times I had to listen to them going through the usual complaints about the UK. The food is bad, the weather is bad, it’s noisy in London, my accommodation is cold, I don’t know why you have two taps in the bathroom, why do you do everything differently here, why do you have to drive on the left, English women are ugly (this was perhaps the most offensive) and English people are stupid because they go jogging on the pavement in the city, etc etc. That kind of thing. Maybe they were expressing culture shock.

Perhaps there was some culture shock between them too. There was quite a mix of nationalities.

Them coming late prevented me from starting classes properly. Instead I must have looked unprepared and vague.

It’s funny to me how I could go from one week of being the greatest teacher in the world, to hitting rock bottom in just a matter of days, with students saying it was one of the worst courses they’d experienced. I mean, how does that happen?

Now, I’ve just shared ONE bad course I taught, but in my defence I must say that I have an otherwise very good track record in my classes, with students regularly being very happy with me, often giving me top marks in feedback. So, this course must have been a one-off. I try to think that it was just a combination of bad elements that somehow came together at the same time, causing a bad outcome in my class. I may have been responsible for certain things, like not being strict and dynamic enough at the beginning, or showing strong leadership, but some of the students too were definitely responsible for taking part in a very poor manner.

Ultimately, I was just very glad to have finished the class. It was like going through a painful series of challenges. Each day gave me a new headache. My colleagues were worried about me. I couldn’t enjoy myself all week because of worrying what to do with these students. At the end, the students did thank me. One of them in particular came up to me in the pub that Friday night, and privately said thank you very much for you effort during the week. I think ultimately they saw that it wasn’t all my fault, and that I was working very hard. I still have the note that the difficult girl gave to me. Sometimes I see it and it reminds me of the difficult week.

What did I learn?
Never get too happy or pleased with yourself. If you think you’re doing a great job, there is probably something you’re forgetting about, that you’re doing wrong.
Pride comes before a fall.
When things go badly, don’t feel too bad because it’s not all your fault.
Equally, when things go well don’t be too proud of yourself because it’s not always because of you.
Be well presented. Make a good first impression. Impose rules on younger learners early. Treat younger learners more like adults, or they will act like children.
Remember that time is money.
Make lessons challenging at all times.

It’s hard to say what else I learned from this other than the ability to be a bit tougher. It just toughened me up a little more. I just approached lessons in the future with more experience behind me, and students could just sense that I was more experience and then felt safer in my class. Now I’m less nervous before lessons. I feel like I’ve experienced enough difficult moments not to be too shocked. Also, doing stand-up comedy helps with confidence, but really it’s been teaching that has prepared me the most.

Despite these stories, I have definitely had more good experiences than bad. Some of my classes have genuinely been amazing and I’ve met so many interesting and lovely people. If you are one of those lovely people I have met then “hello”. To everyone I have ever met through this job I would like to say “hello” and thank your for contributing to my learning process as a teacher.

To all my fellow teachers out there – I know how you feel! Keep your chin up.
To all the learners of English – keep your chins up too! I know how you feel as well now because of my experiences of learning French.

I hope you have enjoyed listening to this episode.

Remember you can read a full transcript of this on teacherluke.podomatic.com or teacherluke.wordpress.com where you can also find links to iTunes, Facebook and YouTube and you can also make those very special and important donations – as little as one pound if you like, or more, it’s up to you.

Also, you may have noticed some idioms in this episode. I’ve made a list of the idioms I used, and I will be explaining them in the next episode. Also, I use loads of other nice pieces of vocabulary, common expressions, descriptive words and collocations throughout this episode. I suggest that you listen a couple of times, or listen again while reading the transcript and pick out any expressions that you like and that you could use yourselves.

Don’t forget to leave your comments on this episode  either here at wordpress.com or at teacherluke.podomatic.com.

Thanks again for listening, good luck with your English and take care. BYE BYE BYE!


  • Margit

    Hi Luke, I’m glad to meet you. Today I was listening you for the first time. No, actually for the fourth time…
    I’ m a maths teacher and an english learner. This episode about your teaching experiences reminds me my own stories.
    You are a great narrator and a great person. Where you were all my life? :-)
    Thank you for all the interesing episodes. And I wish you some own kids. I have three adult daughters and four grandchildren.
    Bye for now.

    P.S. Please let us, poor people to edit our comments… That is a standard feature online, or not?

    • Hi Margit,
      Nice to read your comment. I’m working on adding comment edits. It should be introduced soon.

  • Hi Luke,

    I know your site though a recommend of my teacher for practicing listening and I have to say you website pretty helps. Thank you for making these incredible episodes.

    You are right. students usually scare to talk with foreigners involving their teacher. In fact, I think they really want to start the conversation but they scare making mistakes and embarrassed themselves so they don’t. The way that you interact with your students is very kind and professional. They must be happy to be your students :)

    Your story makes me think of my teacher. perhaps my classmates and I should do right things to respect our teacher. And it is true that, students usually show like they do not like studying so much and when teacher gives them homework, they often complaint, but we all love our teacher much. :) even thought we do not really show it in our faces at all.

  • Pingback: Teacher Luke’s lessons | Notes()

  • It is very impressive for me to hear the story of the kids and their behaviour (or misbehaviour) with you. Yes, I understand totally how it feels like when the kids behave with you in a way and behave with other people in a totally different way. I actually have (or had) the same problem with kids. I haven’t been teaching or dealing with kids for quite a long time (8 years), so I don’t know if kids still behave this way with me. I came to the same conclusion that my energy or shyness in specific (probably me being under the control of the system or the boss) is what drive kids to misbehave with me so that they feel powerful and confident, while I feel angry but can’t express it because it would bring even more troubles. I don’t think this would happen with my own children though! Actually, I also believe that the attitudes of the kids’ parents play an important role. If the parents don’t respect the teacher deep inside, the kids would pick that up without even hearing any verbal comment from the parents. In addition, kids can pick up our attitude toward them. If you love a kid, the kid would feel it and basically he would love you. If you behave as if you love him, the kid would not love you.

  • Ok… I am now listening to this episode for the second time, and I thought it would be really fun to comment directly any thought I have during listening…