Thursday, 5 July 2012

Back to where it all started...

The photo above is of St Johann im Pongau, the village in Austria where I spent the third year of my German degree as an English assistant working in two schools.  

Last week while I was in Munich the weather was unbearably hot for this poor Brit used to Manchester weather, so we hired a blissfully air-conditioned car and drove down into Austria (or up into the Alps) to revisit the place where my teaching career began.  I'd not been back for 28 years, so it was quite an emotional day.

Since my very first day at primary school, all I ever wanted to be was a teacher.  I couldn't imagine anything more wonderful than being able to spend all my time helping people to learn new things.  At secondary school I loved German best of all my school subjects, and I was extra ordinarily lucky to have two of the most amazing teachers for German - Mrs Burras somehow had me convinced that learning German grammar was the best fun it was possible to have, and Mrs Irving re-awoke my love for literature that had been killed off by having to read Shakespeare at the age of 11. It was a foregone conclusion that I would choose to study German at university, and my only plan was to go on to be a school teacher.

Teaching in Austria was a terrible shock.  My only training was a couple of days in Vienna with the entire group of English assistants for the whole of Austria that year, and all I can remember from that time is being in rather nice bars and restaurants being plied with food and drink at the expense of the Austrian government.  I certainly don't remember being given any idea at all how to teach English.  

English assistants are generally supposed to 'assist' the actual class teacher, but in one school I was expected to teach the whole class (with no course book to help me) while the teacher put her feet up in the staff room with a cup of coffee and a cigarette (yes, in those days the staff room was full of smoke...) and in the other school I sat in the corner of the classroom as bored as the pupils with the teacher throwing an occasional, usually very difficult, question at me.  For example, I was asked, without warning, to explain in detail the British parliamentary system of government.  I was 20 and more interested in boys than politics, and I still remember the red-faced humiliation I felt when I stumbled over my inadequate answer.  I also remember how much the students resented being made to learn English throughout their whole time at school, and how little attention they paid.

There were many wonderful things about that year in Austria, but school teaching was not one of them.  I came away absolutely certain in my conviction that I would never become a school teacher, and I never have.  I truly admire those people who are successful secondary school language teachers, but I knew it wasn't for me.

I wouldn't be sitting here writing this now had it not been for a friend I met at an aerobics class in St Johann, who taught an English evening class.  She invited me to attend her class to meet her adult students, and I fell in love.  Not with a student - but with the idea of teaching people who had chosen to be there, who were giving up their own time and money to come and study.  Some were learning English to help them in their jobs, others just for something fun and social to do, others for the sheer pleasure of learning.  The teacher had freedom in the classroom to teach in her own way, to meet the students' goals in the way that she felt most appropriate rather than being forced to follow a strict syllabus.  

So, to cut a long story short, I became a teacher of German in Further Education, quite often teaching retired people who had had a longstanding interest in Germany, Austria or Switzerland and who wanted to learn the language when they had the time.  It was a wonderful career - not well paid or secure (everything was dependent on student enrolment numbers) but incredibly enjoyable and satisfying.  I eventually moved over to teaching mainly English - alas, the British are not great lovers of language learning, and German is not so popular these days - and it all began with that one evening class in St Johann which I taught all those years ago.  

I discovered then that what I want is to teach students who want to learn, and what I need is to know what I am doing.  I admire people who can teach anyone, or who be thrown in at the deep end and begin teaching without any training or doing any lesson preparation, but I'm not like that.  Like most people I know, I needed some good teacher training - I did a one year Cert TESOL plus lots more training later on - and plenty of time for lesson preparation, particularly in the early years.  Maybe if I had been properly trained before I started teaching in St Johann, I would have gone on to become a secondary school teacher, but I can't imagine that I would have had as much pleasure in my teaching career as I have had up to now, and expect to go on having in the future.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Julia,

    Great view of St Johann im Pongau. I will visit it in the future after I get my qualified IELTS result 4x7.

    My grand grand father is a teacher, my grand father is a teacher, my father is a teacher. I am currently an engineer, however, I do not deny that I am potentially to be a teacher in the future.