Here is just the first installment of awkward moments I have had with my students. There will be more to come.
Who are my students? Mostly, they are business people who would like to learn English for work. If they are lucky enough, they have lessons at the office, during work hours, paid by their company. Most often they already know some English but from time to time I get a student who is just starting out. I teach factory workers, accountants, doctors, company presidents, politicians, lawyers, other teachers, university students and even some children. Some of my students take lessons just for fun, some focus on business English and others are preparing for exams such as CAE. I also have a small group of students who have lessons because their friends have lessons with me and they want to have bragging rights too. For whatever reasons my students have lessons, I am happy to teach them awkward moments and all.
**Please note that the ranking does not represent level of actual awkwardness. It represents nothing other than what popped into my head first.**
Awkward moment #1 When I go to a company for a first lesson, it is easy to place my student in the hierarchy of the company. I see the position on the door, the size of the office, the number of hot secretaries, the obligatory leather furniture, the framed picture with Bill Gates (Did somebody say, “Next, please”?) and any other office status symbols. When I meet on neutral ground for a first lesson, I often get some information like this from my boss Misiu, Przezes Zarządu (CEO) of our language school: “You gotta meet with Jurek from the bank. 9 am Saturday. Don’t be late.” And so I met with Jurek from the bank on a Saturday morning 9:00 sharp. I was wearing jeans and a blouse. Jurek was also wearing jeans and a t-shirt that had seen better days. Think the t-shirt you paint your house in after you’ve painted your house.
With coffee, notebooks and pens ready, the first-lesson tango begins.
“Where are you from?” he asks. “From Pennsylvania,” I answer.
“Why do you want to learn English?” I ask. “For work,” he answers.
“Why did you decide to come Poland?” he asks. “Long story,” I say.
“How long have you been learning English?” I enquire. “For 15 years, on and off,” he states.
“Mówisz po polsku (Do you speak Polish)?” he jokes. “Trochę (a little),” I laugh.
“What do you do at the bank?” I ask.
The music stops and our tango screeches to a halt.
“Hmm, umm, well I, ah, I work there,” he says.
“Ok, but you have a job title, I suppose. What is it? Knowing what you do will help me prepare our lessons,” I explain.
“Well, I do so many things that my job title is unimportant,” he defends.
“I understand that, but it must say something on your business card,” I pry.
“Well, it does but it doesn’t really matter because it is my brother’s bank. I basically help my brother,” he explains.
Reverting to Valley Girl, I ask, “ So like what, like your brother, like owns the bank?”
“Yes,” he replies.
Thank goodness I had not led out with my Exercise on the 2nd Conditional entitled, What would you do if you had a million dollars?
Awkward moment #2
After many lessons with questions such as the million dollar one from above, I can predict what my students are going to say and what mistakes they are going to make. That’s my job. However, you should not ask a question assuming you know the answer and you should never ask a question you do not really want the answer to. I learned that lesson well when I was starting out teaching. (BTW, top answer by Polish people to the million dollar question is to travel around the world.)
I had what I thought was a brilliant worksheet practicing the difference between “Have you ever done this?” and “Would you ever do that?” Most of the questions were pretty tame like “Have you ever eaten sushi?” or “ Would you ever jump out of an airplane?” For one particular student I decided to spice up the questions a bit. With the mildly spicy question “Have you ever driven drunk?” I got to know that my definition of drunk driving (drinking alcohol and then driving) is different than my student’s definition (drinking alcohol, driving, getting caught by the police). The question “Have you ever stolen anything?” required a Bill Clinton definition of what exactly “ to steal” means. In the eyes of my student, poorly-secured items could not be classified under “stolen” and if you acquired them while abroad, whether the items were secured or not ceased to be an issue. While strange, those moments were not awkward. Here comes the awkward.
First, I must explain that this student had a peculiar habit of closing his eyes for extended periods of time while speaking. He would begin to speak and take a 20-second or longer blink. It was very unnerving when we started our lessons together. Later, I learned to take advantage of my 20 seconds of invisibility to yawn, glance at the clock or scratch my nose. After learning that my student had in fact eaten sushi, been bungee-jumping and climbed Kilimanjaro, I asked the next question on the list, “Have you ever been to a prostitute?” ha, ha, ha. A very awkward yet honest answer ensued. My student had started his career as a sailor and as a sailor often frequented prostitutes in ports all around the world. Thank goodness his eyes were closed and he couldn’t see that my face was red as a beet.
Awkward moment #3
Awkward moment #3 also involves a 2nd Conditional Exercise. Who knew that grammar could be so dangerous? The student in this case was a very nice, soft-spoken middle manager. He was so nice in fact that he made up a wife to talk about in order to make the lessons more interesting. It almost backfired on him when he invited the secretary on a date and I told her that he was married!
Question: Would you donate a kidney to a stranger?
Answer: No. (That’s not the shocking part.)
Question: Would you donate a kidney to a family member?
Answer: No. (Still not shocking)
Question: Would you donate a kidney to your child?
Answer: No. (There’s the shock for ya.)
Chris: No?! Not even your own child!?
Selfish, middle manager: No.
Chris: But, but why not?
Selfish, middle manager: I have only one kidney.
Totally embarrassed English teacher: Oh, sorry about that.
One-kidneyed, middle manager (There’s one-legged so I guess that is how to write one-kidneyed): That’s ok, you didn’t know. Maybe my wife could donate her kidney…
Misiu has reminded me that I have also had awkward moments while teaching in the US-maybe next time.
What about your awkward moments?