Four Things I Learned on a Four Week Course to Become a Better English Teacher…

Remember when Antarctic explorer Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates said “I am just going outside and may be some time” and didn’t come back? Well, I said similar things around a month-and-a-half ago but, hey! I came back!

(Note: I’ve got doubts about Titus Oates’ death. They never found his body. Personally, I like to believe that Oates encountered Shoggoths outside and that they took him to the resting vaults of the Elder Things. There he discovered incredible extraterrestrial technology which he used to increase his longevity and radically alter his physical form. Neo-Oates is now 135-years-young and reigns over a subterranean krill kingdom beneath the South Pole. He will eventually come back – supported by his devout crustacean subjects – and you will know him by the whistling of his gills. Yes. Absolutely.)

Way back just a shade over a month-and-a-half ago I shut everything down and stepped outside because I had a mission. That mission: go through an intensive course to gain a CELTA qualification. Progress through and successfully pass a CELTA course and you acquire special skills and fresh status as an especially qualified, quite-excellent Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. I can break that down into an appealing, easy-to-understand 16-bit format: CELTA is like the power-up Super Leaf that transforms you from regular Mario to Tanooki-Suit Super Mario. Then you have a funky weaponised tail and the power to fly and with that ability you can reach the secret bonus areas hidden in the clouds and the roofs of the haunted castles of the Mushroom Kingdom.

In total, it was an intense month of giddily bouncing about on a quest to become a better teacher and sometimes it felt like Super Mario Bros. 3. (It was nothing like Super Mario Bros. 3. but I wanted to drag out the crap analogy for cohesion. Yeah, that wasn’t great. One thing I’m better at thanks to the course is necessary self-evaluation and I acknowledge that crap analogies are a weakness and I will strive to improve in this area.) I learned a lot about teaching English and mastered double-sided photocopying but I’m not going to regurgitate it all here. Instead, I’m putting down four particularly significant things I (re)learned over the four weeks for posterity. 1-2-3-4! Let’s go…

I really like full classes and I love teaching in a classroom possessed by the spirit of Professor Brian Cox... *awestruck smile...*

I really like full classes and I love teaching in a classroom possessed by the spirit of Professor Brian Cox… *awestruck smile…*

#1. Teaching is brilliant

I love teaching. Getting back to teaching action and returning to the classroom re-affirmed this and reminded me that I’m pretty good at it and have a lot of fun doing it. Give me a chance to craft lesson plans, create extra materials and assault a whiteboard and I will go all out and be a happy guy. What’s more, the other people in the room will have an engaging, stimulating experience and may even learn something. (I’ve failed if they don’t.)

To be involved in learning, to share knowledge and to actively play a role in other human beings’ developments is a beautiful thing and a privilege. Teaching is hard work, but it’s enjoyable and rewarding. Teaching a language is even more rewarding because you’re helping people to communicate, enhance a whole set of practical skills and potentially bridging cultural gaps (among many other things). I had a good time with the international ensemble of students during my teaching practice sessions and I’m psyched to get back teaching real students again as soon as possible. (Self-promo-moment: “I can help you with your English, whatever your needs are! For personalised assistance and tuition from a qualified and experienced mother tongue speaker, call now!” *thumbs up, cheesy smile*.)

I'm all about pizza and grammar lessons...

I’m all about pizza and grammar lessons…

#2. The English language is brilliant

The English language is rich, beautiful and endlessly fascinating. It is vast, dynamic and it can be played with and creatively handled to infinite ends. I knew that, but over the past few months I’ve been getting down to the nitty gritty and focusing on the fundamental mechanics of the language – not the fancy stuff I can do with all these words, words, words. I’m talking grammar, guys, and grammar is groovy. (*struts and clicks fingers at the beat of the drop of that full stop*)

I’ve been expanding my language awareness and will continue to study this stuff because it’s important and actually really interesting. It may be that I’m a bit affected after a lot of hardcore study. I mean, it’s been an intense period and there were moments where – deep in the cut-and-thrust of lesson planning – I started getting very (too) excited about pure modals, collocations and the Second Conditional. I realised that things were getting serious during a ‘conversation’ with a relative in which my contribution to the dialogue was nothing more than “Y’know, it’s interesting that you’re using the First and Second Conditional a lot.” And then there was another time – once upon a daydream – where I was musing on word classes and became aware that the word ‘adjective’ is in fact a noun. That must be a terrible identity crisis, poor thing. Imagine if your entire existence was built around the purpose of defining something that you are not and could never be. Only verbal nouns can be happy and free in this Universe, ordered as it is.

Yeah. Absolutely. But seriously, English is brilliant. I get high off studying it and have high times fighting with online dictionaries when they don’t agree with my Northern pronunciation.

It's the Zippy from Rainbow dressed as Electro-Santa Christmas market lightshow...

It’s the Zippy from Rainbow dressed as Electro-Santa Christmas market lightshow…

#3. Manchester is brilliant

By ‘eck, I love Manchester, I do. This one I didn’t really, truly know, and it sort of blindsided me. Being in Manchester city centre every day and being in a open and reflective state of mind I had a ‘seeing what was under my nose all along’ epiphany. Manchester is the best city in Britain (yes it is) and I’m happy that it’s my hood.

It’s also easier to appreciate how excellent your hometown is when you’re meeting outsiders from all corners of the globe telling you just how happy they are to be here. (Especially true of asylum seekers freshly arrived from Sudan after a month in transit.) All the foreign students I engaged with liked Manchester and it was only the weather that was a downer. In truth, it’s only bad weather and an increasingly unacceptable homeless crisis that bring Manchester down. Otherwise, Manchester is wonderful and it’s even more wonderful in the build-up to Christmas. Yay for Manchester’s Christmas markets!

I’m now resolved that, whenever the opportunity arises, I will harp on about how great Manchester is where once I was a bit indifferent and ambivalent. In brief, this place has got pretty much everything – Manchester’s an idiosyncratic mix of tradition and modernism, gothic industrialism married to shiny 21st century style. It’s gloriously cosmopolitan, is full of distinctive character and has a youthful spirit. It’s always moving forward but it knows its roots. Plus, the population are friendly, good-humoured people and the sound of the city is Northern accents. In total, eeyy-aaaah, Manchester’s aaaalriiiiight.

#4. Disconnecting from social media is brilliant

Titus Oates was never on Twitter, but when it came to starting the course I realised that it would be best to channel his spirit with regard to social media. I needed to concentrate. I needed to cut out distractions. I needed to focus on what was really important, get on with the work and devote all my energies and attention to the mission. Thus, I uninstalled all the social media apps on my phone and abstained from Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr for over a month. (I also didn’t go to the cinema and watch TV. I basically just did the course and in downtime spoke to my family and watched the news. I told you: give me something to do and I will go all-out and method actor-ish on the task.)

What did I miss? Aside from keeping in touch with distant friends and being in the loop with some news, nothing really. I also – in spite of the heavy workload and all-consuming rush of the course – felt more relaxed when I wasn’t hooked up to social media. My mind wasn’t as cluttered with trivial stuff, irritations and constant noise. I also found that I was, actually, more aware of the wider world because I was reading the news rather than reading reactions to the news (or just reading unfiltered, self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness ramblings or memes).

I had such a pleasant time being offline that I turned it into a lesson for my teaching pratice on the CELTA course (inspired by this article on a Danish study of people taking a break from Facebook). Now, having finished the course, I’m back connected and it’s good to be in touch with lovely people again but I feel a change. I intend to be less attached to these cyberspaces so I can reap the rediscovered benefits.

Those then, are things I learned and relearned on an excellent course that levelled me up as an educator, galvanished me and made me a happy Mancunian. On to the next quest… (possibly trying to find the Lost Kingdom of Neo-Oates, Lord of the Krill.)


Duolingo and Language Learning like a Game Fronted by a Friendly Green Owl…

Sprechen sie Deutsch? Nein? Erm, okay. Italiano? Français? No? Erm, você fala Português? Espagñol?

Yeah, I thought as much and, hey , neither do I. We’re all a bit pathetic in our monoglot state, except you people reading who can speak in foreign tongues and use those tongues fluently. You’re very impressive and so are your tongues. We will now coat both you and your tongues in honey and glitter. Actually, no, we won’t because then you’re going to find it difficult to articulate those foreign phrases. Sorry. As you were you über-impressive linguistic genius, you…

I too would like to be an über-impressive linguistic genius because I like words (naturally, I’m a writer) and because I want to engage more effectively with foreign cultures. I have polymath enthusiasm and aspire to be a polyglot with a capable command of a language that ain’t English (I’ve mastered, disastered and bastardised my mother tongue many times over). Time and time again I trip off to somewhere like Italy armed with basic vocab but no ability to form complex sentences and fully comprehend the conversation that’s thrown back at me. Every time I come back to my homeland (where people can’t speak English never mind another language) vowing “I will learn! I will get better and really, really get educate myself so I can exotically garble on with style and confidence!

That determination then ebbs away. At least that’s the typical pattern but this summer the picture has changed (I covered it in glitter and honey). I came back from Italy with a few new phrases (“Una buona vita inizia con una buona collazione“) and fresh motivation to actually study and self-improve. My friend Giuseppe had presented a new method through which I might actually be able to advance my basic blunt Italian. He was very evangelical about said method and talked fondly about something called Duolingo which he was using to enhance his (already excellent) English. He beamed a lot when he said “Duolingo”, waved his phone at me and made sure that I noted down the name.

I did my research and hit the website. It looked brilliant and, finding that there’s an app in addition to the main site with all extra features, I hit iTunes and downloaded it to my techno-techno magick device. I then opened it up and started to explore what it offered, subsequently finding that I really liked what it offered…

But what does Duolingo offer? Commence the non-official heavy-hype press release pitch: game-ified language-learning in an easy-to-use app with a colourful format. It is way better than any other quiz-style linguistics app I’ve played with in the past and more appealing and convenient than audiotapes. Duolingo’s charm is in its gamification as it kicks at your own compulsive nature while carefully expanding your cognitive comprehension.

It breaks down big blocks of language into subjects and splits everything up into levels to conquer (and then conquer better). You clock up skill points and are rewarded if you don’t make mistakes (you lose hearts if you do, so it’s a little like ‘Linguistic Legend of Zelda’). Users pick up vocab, grammar and syntactic nuances as they go along without even realising it because it feels more like a game with goals to unlock and achievements to achieve. You’re tested with multiple choice questions, sentence-making exercises, listening exercises and ‘repeat into the mic, please’ prompts. It takes you back to classroom language learning but feels fresh and fun because you’re only competing with yourself and the app rather than an oppressive curriculum and uninspiring high school teachers. Duolingo’s mascot is a friendly-looking green owl, by the way, and when I see her or him beaming at me on my phone screen I can’t help but think “Awww, the nice owl is smiling at me. I should go on Duolingo…

The added bonus is that it’s all free. Duolingo funds itself through translation services it offers to third parties as performed by eager, advanced users. It’s therefore altruistic in addition to being an outstanding high-quality educational tool for the technologically-empowered masses. It’s amazing and I continue to hold on to that view even when I’m frustrated by my own mistakes in the quizzes or find myself tackling odd sentences that no one will ever say (stuff like “The duck has the apples” and “Six trousers are good“).

I came back from Italy, hooked up with this thing and am having fun with it, feeling like I’m getting a better grounding in a foreign language. The irony is that I returned from Italy determined to improve my Italian and am instead relearning German. I blame a two-hour stopover in München that reminded me just how much I love the country, how much I wanted to go back and grapple with all the umlauts and glorious words I throttled back when I was at school. I’m now on Level 6 German and am checking in every day to advance further. I’ve revised and bolstered my basic GCSE-standard Deutsch and can now say things like “Nein, ich bezahle nicht” (No, I’m not paying) and “Wofür brauche ich fünf Katzen?” (For what do I need five cats?)

I’ve got a long way to go but I’m getting there gradually, every day strengthening my Teutonic tongue and enjoying the challenge. Learning is fun and foreign languages are beautiful. I recommend Duolingo if you feel the same and want to improve your linguistic abilities. Es ist sehr gut, indeed…