When I started teaching the senior students at the local university, my boss the head of the foreign languages departments issued a fair warning. The head office, he explained, wanted there to be a translation course for seniors who had already passed their examinations in English and whose grade was not lower than 4 (B) in the national five-point system, 5 being the highest one. Several professors had tried to organize the new course and failed. I was the youngest, a newcomer, a freshly-minted Ph.D., the only staff member to have graduated from Moscow University. He suggested that I try, observe and make a report to him mid-term. This I duly made. I listed the salient items: one, there was no coherent syllabus; two, there were no textbooks; three, there were not even final exams regulations. He listened carefully, then smiled and delivered his verdict. I was to compose a coherent syllabus, write a textbook, and work out the final exams regulations by the end of the academic year. In return, he promised, he would recommend me for associate professorship. This experience has taught me several valuable lessons.
• Think hard before you make any suggestions to your supervisors.
• Sometimes it is better not to give them ideas.
• If you want to have something done, you often have to do it yourself.
It never occurred to me to refuse; I attacked the tasks with all the optimism and fearlessness of youth. I began by asking the students what they expected from the two-year course, why they wanted to have those extra four hours a week during their two final years at the university, how they imagined using the new skills in the future. Since I had groups of future physicists (young men) and humanitarians (mostly young women), my classes were as different as could be. The scientists formulated their expectations very clearly: they wanted to be able to read new materials, to write their articles in English, to make presentations at various events, and to communicate with their international colleagues. The future teachers and translators wanted to be able to teach, read and communicate freely. I was quite clear about my own goals: I wanted to teach everybody everything I knew; I hoped to get that professorship, so I had to compose the manual. It was obvious that my very diverse groups of students needed rather different things from my course, so I had to somehow incorporate all that into one textbook. Simple. Thus a syllabus for the new course began to emerge. I also wrote part one of what became a three-part textbook which is still used at the university. It was an invaluable experience which served me well many times in my work.
A number of years later I came to school with my own children and began to teach English to young beginners, aged 7-8, on to the final year of school, age 16-17. My six lessons a day would typically go from beginners to middle school to high school, from EL to translation to country and cultural studies to literature to translation to business English… You name it I taught it. Naturally teaching school children is vastly different from teaching young adults at university. And yet in a way it is always easier to gauge their level and to understand their needs. Children would express their impressions and produce their reactions without filters so to speak. “Boring!” they would chant this the moment I opened up a Grammar book. I knew that for primary school kids, “boring” was often synonymous with “difficult”. For teenagers for instance “boring” is anything they consider useless. I looked for other grammar books, and then composed my own eLessons. The same “boring” grammar topic became very attractive when conducted with the help of a bright colorful and funny PPT presentation with lots of sound and movie effects.
I had a few unique experiences with senior pupils. One of my classes was a bit slow but very diligent; they took a long time performing any task yet the results were consistently very good. I taught them translation and literature, we took part in various projects and contests, created posters and performed short sketches at school events. Then I was called to the headmaster’s office. The whole administration, the headmaster and his deputies, I was informed, found themselves in a quandary. My class got very good and excellent marks for all their final half-year tests with me. This same group of students was flunked by their EL teacher who pronounced them “dumb and non-teachable”. The only factor that prevented them being summarily expelled from our English-speaking school in their last but one year of studies was the grades they received from me. I had two weeks to figure out what to do and present my conclusions. The kids’ future was literally in my hands. I was stunned.
When my class came to my next lesson, I locked the doors from the inside and asked them about the whole situation. At first there was silence. Then after an exchange of uneasy glances and finally nods, one boy said: “Don’t you know that we are the dumbest class at school?” No, I had no idea, so much so that I blurted out, “Why didn’t you tell me in September?!” Well, we had two weeks, a short reprieve. I put aside my own syllabus, got out grammar books and audio recordings, and we did all the relevant EL half-year tests for several years, with students working non-stop and I explaining all the hard parts. In two weeks time they took the new version of the test again, with all the administration and their teacher watching. Yes, all of them got top marks. In fact they went on to their next year final examinations confidently and received their very good grades not only in English but in all the subjects. Their EL teacher approached me with a smile and said, “See how well I taught those dumb-heads!” I said nothing to her.
Yes, we all teach multiple-level classes. The operational word is TEACH. If we believe that we can do it, if we remain flexible and pay attention to the students’ needs, then we may achieve success.
Nina MK, Ph.D.