OK, this is not a class perhaps in the sense that you wanted, but it was a class of sorts for prospective teachers. It is all true and I wrote it in a story format. (And it has never been proofread so spare me the detailed list of mistakes…)
There's a certain group of people who consider teaching English to non-native speakers as a very serious business. To them it's a real job, an actual profession. I should point out before I go any further that I disagree with this view wholeheartedly. Teaching English is about as serious as deep-sea fishing, only not nearly as enjoyable.
There's a large English language school here by the name of Gram English Institute. They are one of the most visible schools around. They spend what must be a considerable sum on advertising and have a reputation for, if nothing else, their advertising. Their popular slogan is "Conquer English," as if the language were some sort of enemy to be vanquished. Being a "serious" school, Gram doesn't just hire anyone who walks through the door looking for a job. They choose only "qualified" English teachers.
One day I noticed an ad in the English language newspaper. It seemed that Gram was looking for some of these high-caliber English teachers. So I went over to their office and was directed to come back in two days at 2:00 PM for a meeting of prospective teachers. This was told to me by a Dr. Christopher Bentley who, as he passed his calling card to me, pointedly announced that he could spell his name. I thought this was a bit of a strange thing to say right off until I notice that the printer of his cards had inserted an "r" in his first name in such a way as to add another, rather odd-sounding syllable.
I came to the meeting and found that some of the other hopefuls had also arrived. We were led to a room and asked to take a seat. In the room was a magnificently large oval table with the center cut out. Around the table and in front of each chair sat a very serious looking packet. Beside each packet was a nice, shiny can of Coke with a straw balanced across the top. The more I thought about it the more it looked like the prelude to a high school physical science demonstration or the boardroom of a company run by 12-year-olds.
I immediately chose the seat, packet and Coke closest to the door as I have often found myself in possession of an uncontrollable desire to bolt from a situation like this. Leaving a clear shot at the exit would avoid my knocking over chairs and spilling Coke should an escape be necessary. At any rate, I sat down, leaned back and opened my Coke (discarding the straw I might add).
As the others began to file in I found myself looking at a man of about thirty wearing, believe it or not, a three-piece suit. (And he was wearing all three pieces, too!) Now this was really serious. I had never seen an English teacher wearing a suit anywhere. The overkill was impressive.
Soon we were all present and presumably accounted for. Bentley came in as did a woman in her fifties (another "doctor" it turned out).
I should take time out to describe Dr. Bentley. First, I don't believe he was the "doctor" of anything. I have nothing to back this up with other than to say it's the same sort of thing when one feels certain that the woman seated across the bus is wearing false teeth.
Bentley is pear-shaped although he tends to hide this fact rather well. His hair is in that pseudo-stereotypical Italian variety - combed straight back with just enough Brillcream to leave nice, neat furrows where the teeth of his comb have run. His beard is one of those stupid beards - a stupid beard being one that is grown by a person whose face has no business sporting a beard in the first place. Most people whose stubble is uneven and a bit patchy never attempt to grow a beard because they realize that if they did they would have, yes, a stupid beard.
I'm leaving the most noticeable aspect for last. Bentley's left hand is graced with a mere two fingers. Now while trying to stay on the good side of those people who would like to require that ramps be built to everything, I must say that those two fingers (or perhaps the absent three) are a bit hard to ignore. Lighting and holding a cigarette, turning a page or just waving his hand around arouses a great deal of interest for me (as well as a certain amount of distraction).
OK. So Bentley goes through the perfunctories and then we are all, one by each, to go to the front and give a brief biography of ourselves. ("Please don't start at age three," advises Bentley.)
The first at bat is Mr. Three-piece-suit himself. The guy has one of those irremovable born-again smiles that radiates a pleasant vacantness. He speaks with an evangelical tone and I keep waiting for him to announce that his last statement was from first Corinthians, Chapters 14 through 16.
The suit! The suit! He probably wears that damn suit to bed!
It turns out that he's an insider. In fact, he's already been hired by Gram English in some capacity although what that is never seems to be made clear. He ends his unmemorable bit with, "And I look forward to working with you all." Actually I would be surprised to find that there was anything that he was not looking forward to.
The next fellow was a newly matriculated international business student from Thunderbird College in Arizona. He had a mustache that jutted out like a bottlebrush. If you were to put him in a line-up and asked someone to pick out the college student, he would be the one singled out every time. He had a certain eagerness about him as if he were poised to go to his next class.
His story (an all too familiar one in these parts) was the one about studying the Chinese language ("to the best of my ability" - a strangely obvious statement) getting a feel for...something (God knows what) and then being hired by some multinational firm of high repute or getting into the import/export business and making millions of dollars, maybe more. Later, during a break in the meeting, he told me what a fascinating challenge it was going to be to try and understand the cultural differences of the Chinese and how a professor of his had said, blah, blah, blah...yes, indeed.
The next future Gram English teacher was one of those men who have perfectly sculptured beards. Count Dante would have been proud. (Count Dante, for those of you unfamiliar with him, was pictured in zillions of comic books advertising either mystical powers (and how to gain the ability to acquire them) or how to use some special martial arts which involved, as I recall, throwing something sharp.
What Count Dante was selling, however, was unimportant. It was Count Dante himself that caught one's eye and, more specifically, it was Count Dante's beard. His was the most highly sculpted beard in existence at the time. Not only was it sculptured but exotic, with points and unusually curvy lines.
Anyway, Count Dante (or rather his beard) became the benchmark to which all other beards were measured and in some sense aspired.)
So this guy goes to the head of the table. He says he's in Taiwan to study some offshoot cult of Buddhism being, as he was, an anthropology major.
"You mean the ones who live in the mountains?" asks Bentley.
"No. The ones who were just legalized last week," he answers.
What? thinks I. Legalized non-mountain dwelling breakaway cult Buddhists? Personally I thought the meeting should have ended right there.
No one was reading my mind, however, and the next biographer was an Australian who said he felt that perhaps he was in the wrong place after having noticed a book in the packet that proclaimed in large black letters, "American English Workbook." He wanted to study the Chinese language also and revealed that he wanted to make some money teaching English as well. Bentley thought this revelation was the Virgin Mary of honesty and went on for a good minute about what a truly honest man this Australian was.
I was next and for some reason I was a bit nervous. I told them I was a mercenary and wasn't studying Chinese, that I was only teaching to make money and I was just trying to enjoy myself. Then I think I cracked a joke but fortunately I don't remember it.
The guy sitting across from me came next. I couldn't help thinking that I'd seen him coaching football somewhere but of course that wasn't very likely. He was another insider and like Mr. Three-piece-suit I couldn't quite figure out how he was connected with Gram or why he was at this meeting. He said he'd been in Taiwan for something like 12 years, was married and had a kid. I assume by that he meant he married a Chinese woman and had a child somewhere between the two but I didn't raise my hand to question him. He did sort of lose out on making my list of friends when he said in a snooty voice, "Actually I spend more time talking to Chinese people (in Chinese I gathered) than I do to foreigners." I thought that it was rather big of him to take time out to talk to us foreigners right now.
He also mentioned that he taught "only students of the highest level" which meant to me that either he was lazy (if the students' English is nearly perfect there's little actual instruction necessary) or he doesn't have what it takes to teach the low and middle levels students which does take some work. Of course to the rest of the people in the room it meant that if he's teaching at such a high level then he himself must be at a high level as a teacher - a conclusion that doesn't necessarily follow.
The last future educator was a lanky fellow from Liverpool, England. "Dr." Christopher Bentley, in an act of supreme buffoonery asked, "So, how are the Beatles?" I am sure that everyone present would like to have seen Mr. Bentley sentenced to a lifetime of moving heavy rocks in deep snow for this remark. This English guy managed to keep a straight face though and said, "Well, John's not doing so well."
I have no idea what this Englishman's story was; I had started to stare at Bentley's coiffure and the missing fingers.
At this point we took a break and I used the opportunity to partake of another Coke. Up to this time no one other than myself had so much as laid a finger on their free drink. Surely they must have noticed that I had drunk mine and had not dropped over dead. Perhaps there is some rule of etiquette that I am unaware of that demands the refusal of proffered drinks at this sort of function.
After the break we all filed back in and were lucky enough to have Bentley yield the helm to the other "doctor", Sally J. Bratt. For the next hour we went over the testing procedure at Gram. Why this took an hour is one of those things you understand but would rather not talk about. The whole boring line-by-line explanation could easily have been capsulated as, "This is the test. You give it to the students." What more need one say without stating the obvious into redundancy? This segment of the program was tolerable if only for the absence of Bentley who had gone outside to smoke.
We then had our next and last break. Now this whole time I was marveling at the intensely serious attitudes of the others at the meeting. "Ah, so this is the book we use! Oh, phonemes!" As if anyone in the room had a clue as to just what a phoneme was. "Look! A test! This one is a multiple choice, isn't it? Yes, I thought so." All I could think was how much do they pay and how many hours are they offering. It was as if working at Gram was so prestigious that whatever they paid us was incidental to the very eminent fact that we were going to be Gram teachers. Golly! But the show wasn't over yet. We had one hour to go.
When we returned the cans of cokes (a few had been emptied by now) were miraculously gone and in their place stood, yes, Pepsis. I've thought long and hard about this change from Coke to Pepsi and have come up with neither a profound statement nor a single funny line. There must be something but it escapes me.
As I pondered this, the secretaries came in with little red boxes filled with edible goodies (or so we were told). I had no desire to fill my mouth with crumbly food during this awfully important meeting so I put mine aside. (Later, after I had returned home I found the box to contain a few cookie-like things and a small multi-layered sandwich consisting of, in order: a slice of bread (crustless), some cucumbers, another slice of bread, a piece of hard beef and a tomato slice (as well as a black hair which I discovered while ejecting the tomato slice), another slice of bread, a paper-thin slice of ham and a final slice of bread. There was also a large cake-like affair made from compressed crumbs of what appeared to be broken cookies. It was all so bad I couldn't eat any of it.)
Consulting my program of events (yes, there was a schedule of topics for the day - something like a circus souvenir book) I found that we were now to engage in role-play. "In this section", went the blurb, "you will be asked to participate in several mock classroom situations with participants acting as teachers and students."
The first mock teacher was Mr. Three-piece-suit. The two mock students were the anthropologist and the Liverpoolian. Bentley set the stage: "You are in a MacDonald's in Los Angeles. You (Anthro-man) are taking the order and you (Liver-man) are the Chinese customer. Go from there."
Well, the object here was to have a little spontaneous dialogue and then have the teacher go over it, as with a class. Ah, but Mr. Three-piece-suit needed more information.
Suit: "Dr. Bentley, may I ask what the objective of this exercise is?"
Bentley: "You decide. You're the teacher in this scenario so you conduct the dialogue to whatever end you wish."
Suit: "Yes, but do you want me to stress a vocabulary building exercise or is this more of a fluidity training sort of thing?"
Bentley: "Well, it's up to you."
Suit: "Yes, Dr. Bentley. What I mean, is the Chinese student to practice the technique of ordering in an American setting or is this to be a reflection of the student's structural capabilities, and if so, should I break into the dialogue, as the teacher, and reinforce basal word-blocks in their correct format?"
People in the room had begun to look around at each other with that look that questions sanity.
Bentley: "Actually Mr. ____, I don't care what you do. You are the teacher in this exercise."
Suit: "Right. OK. OK. So is this MacDonald's in an affluent part of town or is it in an integrated area? I mean is the counter person used to seeing Chinese people?"
Bentley: "He's used to seeing Chinese people."
Suit: "OK. Now he's not ordering from the drive-thru is he? I mean he's not in his car or something, is he?"
By now people were shifting in their seats, rolling their eyes and casting disparaging glances at the ceiling. I couldn't help throwing in my two cents' worth at this point.
"Say, what day of the week is it in Los Angeles? Is it raining outside or overcast or what?" I asked straight-faced.
This seemed to break the air of lunacy a bit and Mr. Suit finally got on with it. (I must interrupt myself here to say that the word "cretin" just flashed into my mind.)
Well, Liver-man got his hamburger and fries and then, to the bewilderment of all, Mr. Three-piece Suit went into this incredibly dry and detailed lecture about something to do with the construction of sentences. He was quoting books on the subject, using strange academic buzz words ("conjunctive phrasal verb links") and by God if he didn't wind up drawing a graph! We were all getting a bit ugly and he was very lucky we didn't have any tomatoes and rotting vegetables. How did this man get a job with Gram? I doubt if the Hari Krishna would hire him to pin flowers on people at airports.
Well, lo and behold, who should be chosen to be the next "mock" teacher but yours very truly. I knew that with my experience I could nail this right on the head and by all accounts that's just what I did.
About finished with my dazzling performance, Mr. Suit raises his hand. "Excuse me, but do you realize that pointing at a Chinese person is considered very rude?" It seems that I had been pointing at the people I was calling on, a habit that during the past year-and-a-half had never been called into question by any of my innumerable Chinese students. I tried to tell Mr. Suit that in the classroom setting it was my experience that pointing was wholly innocuous but, naturally, he was insistent. This seemed like a good time to publicly condemn this man as a jackass, but as I still had some small desire to be offered a job, I decided against it.
Ignoring Mr. Suit and having had enough "mockery" teaching I took my seat again. Bentley resumed his drone about how one teaches English and finally wound things up by saying that we would be contacted in the next few days as soon as a schedule was drawn up. That was it. Meeting adjourned. No mention of money or anything.
Well, I figured the hell with it. I had my box of inedibles and had downed a dollar-fifty worth of Coke and Pepsi. Not a total waste of time I suppose.
True to their word, two days later I got a call from some woman named Margaret inquiring if I could teach on Wednesday.
"Just Wednesday?" I said.
"Well... Monday, Wednesday and Friday actually", she replied.
OK. Now came the obvious. "How much do you pay?" I asked.
This question was apparently not so obvious to Margaret. "Ah...well, umm...didn't Christopher Bentley go over that with you?"
"No. He just talked about the aspects of Gram English."
"Ah, well...you've never worked at Gram before, right?"
"Well, we start our teachers at 320 dollars per hour, less tax, of course, and then there's some bonus considerations which...."
"Tax, huh? Well, having been in Taiwan for over a year I know that my tax rate is 6 percent."
"Actually because you're new at Gram, you would be taxed at the 20 percent rate. This would be true for the first few months until we feel we can trust you."
"What? Trust me with what exactly?"
"Umm...until we just trust you."
"What is it I'm being trusted with?"
"Listen. I know how the tax structure works here. I've been here more than six months and that entitles me to the 6 percent rate. And anyway the tax rate has nothing to do with where you work. It's the government's tax, you know, not Gram's."
"It's Gram's policy is to tax new teachers at 20 percent."
"But you can't set the tax rate! It has nothing to do with you. It's totally dependent on how long a person has been here."
"It's based on the calendar year...."
"Fine. Use whatever sort of year you want. The fact remains that the government doesn't ask Gram English Institute what rate it should tax people, does it?"
"It's just our policy."
Policy, policy, policy! Jesus! Heads you win, tails I lose. What can you do when they pull out the bureaucratic brick wall? And poor Miss Margaret was obviously only the megaphone for some pinheaded policy wank. What could I say to her? I wanted to tell her to blow it out her ass but settled for politely (always the gentleman that I am) declining their "generous" offer.
I seriously doubt that I'll be getting another call from Gram and quite honestly I hope that I never do. I don't mind working with sods and idiots; however, when they begin to take themselves and the nature of their work seriously, well, I'm afraid that's when I head home, make a cup of hot chocolate and teach my dog to fetch a stick.