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.)

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Pronto! Back from Italia, with the Weird, the Sweet and the Sublime…

Ciao ragazzi! I'm back from Italia…

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Allora, mi amici! It’s a-me! I’m a-back! (, though my name is not Mario there is a little part of me deep down inside that’s a chirpy 16-bit fake Italian. I’m going to keep on talking like this and pretending that I’m in an ultra-colourful videogame ’cause that’s how I roll and I’m still delirious, strung out on lack of sleep and affected by my latest Italian adventure trip.)

Erm, yeah, I’m back in the UK and hooked up to my laptop again and going about trying to get back in th’loop. I’ve hugged some relatives. I’ve drank a lot of ‘real’ English tea. I’ve done my washing. Phones ring but no one answers “pronto!” in response and the steering wheel is on the left side of the car.I’m definitely home, and that feels nice and eases my soul as I simultaneously go through the bittersweet motions of missing the spiritual home I’ve left behind and trying to get into British rhythms again.

As always, it’ll take some time, especially as I’m exhausted after a particularly challenging summer camp and a fair bit of travelling. If you want to hear anecdotes about some semi-impossible, strange and violent Italian kids – they attacked me, viciously attacked each other and built cult-like grave shrines decorated with sketches of, erm, Gandalf during breaktimes – I can share them, occasionally punctuated by gasps of “the horror… the horror…

Still, in spite of that – and that makes it sound pretty grim – I had an absolute blast and always do when I’m in Italy. I’ve had a wonderful summer in that very special place with very special people and I’m grateful for all the assorted experiences. Off the top of my head, some highlights from this time round would be getting to explore the centre of Milano again, visit the Emilia-Romagna countryside again, see old friends and my various extended families again and camp it up at English-language summer camp again. My favourite food, my favourite people and my favourite place – thank you very much and grazie mille Italia for giving me even more at the end of the summer.

Anyway, now I’m in the UK and once I’ve caught up on some sleep and relearned how to communicate in English properly – i.e. not putting Italian words into every sentence and speaking in hybrid Broken English/Shitaliano staccato – I’ll be writing a lot and creating some fresh nonsense. I’ll be sharing on the interwebs and the first thing that will be uploaded in coming days will be my lunchtime diary doodles from summer camp. From there, “boh?!” as we say in Italian (I can’t stop saying “boh“, “allora“, “pronto!” and “che schifo!” and I think I have a problem.) In conclusion, back to creative action in Blighty and it’s good to be back. I’m gonna make a brew and then brew up some creative action, pronto…

Andiamo! Abandon the Internet, Amico, and Escape to Italy…

Andiamo, Super Mario! Avanti!

A post shared by James Clayton (@jamazingclayton) on

Andiamo! Go, go! I’m like Super Mario in the above sketch – on the move and all amped up to take on some colourful adventures. I’m also, like Mario, a two-dimensional fake Italian. The nice thing is that I now get the chance to make myself a better fake Italian by spending some time in Italy.

So, yes, it’s a me, Super-Giacomo, and I’m a-going! Io vado in Italia, to put into practice what I’ve been learning on Duolingo, to see friends, to soak up some culture, to experience some sunshine, to eat the best pasta and to make an ass of myself at kids’ summer camps. I did this last year, and it was such a blast I’m that going back for more. I am now all psyched for the whole experience and can’t wait to have another crack at the “I’m an educational entertainer/entertaining educator, kids! Now let’s all pretend to be bananas!” craic.

First though, I’ve got to do some packing and leave behind an ‘out of office’ note. While I’m on the road I won’t be wired up to the interwebs (the laptop gets left behind) so don’t expect much in the way of online noise from me for six weeks.  That means no Den of Geek columns, short stories or doodles on my sketch blog for a bit but a break is good. What’s more, I’m making the resolution to return creatively re-invigorated and full of fresh energy to kick out some new jams. I can guarantee that I’ll be getting up to creative trouble and forming fresh ideas while I’m flouncing about and pretending I’m in a Fellini film – doodling, scribbling in notebooks, doing the Kerouac thing and suchlike. Then when I return, I’ll unleash some things on y’all and it will be ultra-enthusiastic, dramatic and expressive because I’ll have spent six weeks around Italian people. Hey, I’m a fake Italian whose desperate to fit in. When in Rome… *frantic gesturing*

On with the adventures then and I will now begone from the internet and finish packing my bags. Until July then, mi amici, ciao! Vado! Andiamo!