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March 28, 2005

TEFL in Kastoria: the darker side

Okay, I admit it, for the first classes I was just a little scared.

It wasn't just that they were supposed to be get-to-know-you classes. You were supposed to be friendly, while at the same time being strict and imposing iron discipline so that they would respect you, while making it clear that this was nothing personal. You had to entertain them, but get them started in the book and make sure they followed the book in a boring way, so as not to let them get too excited at the fun they were having learning English. Furthermore, you could give them maybe one game, as long as it didn't get out of hand, and then you were asked to throw them out of the class if they got too noisy.
The only class I enjoyed was Proficiency, because here were people who actually wanted to learn English and were motivated, and weren't being told to do 'extra English' by their parents, alongside the 'extra physics' and the 'extra maths' and the 'extra whatever else' they were told to do.
I am sorry if any Greeks are reading this, because I know how defensive they can get when they feel they are being criticised, but the frontistirio system sucked like a huge teacher-devouring whirlpool. I am at least told things have improved since then.
Before crying 'teenagers are the same anywhere', I would like to point out that the issue isn't teenagers. I have taught teenagers in Italy in both a state high school and at a language school, teenagers in Poland, teenagers in the Czech Republic, though I thankfully managed to avoid them in Turkey, and I think I can say that in all these countries, though not completely free of discipline problems, the experience has at least been rewarding.
So, what sucked about Greece? The system. I was supposed to be working for a reputable group; if this was a good group of schools, god knows what the lesser ones were like. Firstly, they were willing to take on totally inexperienced teachers to teach higher levels. Then they took on inexperienced students to study at the higher levels. In Greece, you may find a boy or girl as young as 14 studying for Proficiency, (the highest level of exam) when he has neither the language nor the maturity to do it. The reason why he doesn't have the language is because the students are crammed to pass through the levels at top speed, taking very little time to get from Beginners to say, First Certificate. To be sensible, you take a minimum of five, preferably six or even seven, levels to pass the First Certificate exam (an Upper intermediate exam). They tried to knock this down to three in the language schools, so, in effect, you skipped a couple of levels. Even more so when you got onto the Advanced stages. By now, you had probably skipped four levels. Students just aren't that clever or willing to be pushed so hard.
The reason why a student at 14 doesn't have the maturity to do the very high levels is obvious. Proficiency, for example, is very cerebral, and the interviewers in the speaking Paper when asking the question: what music do you like? expect people to say more than just a sullen: "I like XX Xheesburger and the Screaming Sect of Sado Sorro". "Oh, and why those bands in particular?" asks the examiner. "Because I don't know. I just like them."
Secondly, the methodology we were expected to use was all Dark Ages stuff. Scare the shit out of your students and bore them rigid. But pretend that in fact you're using very interesting and entertaining methods to get the students engaged - called the "Greek Way" by unscrupulous school owners wanting to work you into the ground and trying to push the students who are already doing extra physics, extra Latin, extra domestic science, extra zooology, extra lobotomy, extra Greek studies, extra Ancient Greek studies, extra Alexander the Great studies, extra dance, extra extra-ology.
Also, the school director and parents pointed out that it was 'extra' English; this showed me their attitude towards learning the language. And so, since leaving Greece, I have been able to use the thoroughly sensible teaching methods taught me on my excellent course, and various workshops and seminars on teaching younger learners I have attended since I joined a sensible organisation.
Noise of any kind was unnacceptable. When I drew a person on the board, my bad drawing caused enormous amounts of mirth in the classroom. The Director rushed into the classroom. She must have thought there was a riot going on, just because the students were laughing.
They were also put in desks and in rows to face the teacher, not the horseshoe shape of class used in other language schools.
I admit it. I was a green teacher, and like most of them when they've just started, not much cop. Some proper teacher support would have helped, a feeling that people were behind you, supporting you, developing you. That wasn't there, either. Yes, I started off as a bad TEFL teacher. But I can't think of a worse place in Europe to start your journey through the world of TEFL than Greece.
Also corruption. I was stunned when a certain parent asked me how much it would cost him for me to make sure that his darling son would pass the FCE. I pointed out that the people who corrected the exam were Cambridge, not me. "But you might be invigilating the exam," he said. "If he passes the exam, I'll eat my tie," I said. That was that.
Thessaloniki, where I taught for the folowing two years in Greece, was much better. I was a better and more experienced teacher; I had worked out ways around the system; I knew what to expect; I was given more adult classes (three, or two plus a throughly mature teenage class, compared to the one in Kastoria) and I was surprised when I realised that in Thessaloniki with the same group of schools, they didn't exploit you quite so badly. Also, I liked the city. I liked Kastoria, too, but more for its prettiness than its atmosphere. Thessaloniki was the opposite.

Posted by Daniel V on March 28, 2005 10:06 PM
Category: connections with Kastoria, 1992
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