A couple of weeks ago, a nearly advanced (upper-intermediate) student of mine was all excited because he had bought a book in English at the bookstore at the Santos Dumont airport in Rio. He paid more than US$ 40 for the paperback, which costs about US$ 11 at bookstores outside the airport – but the rip-off schemes at airports will be left to another blog. What his purchase showed was his commitment to developing his language skills such as vocabulary and writing through reading. The book he chose was The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Now he wasn’t sure it had been a wise choice since he had already tripped over the vocabulary in the introduction page:
“She’s buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn. …”
And down under the stones goes my student’s confidence. His natural reaction was: “gee! if I can’t understand the first sentence of the introduction, imagine what trying to read this book will be like”. The following class he came to me with the book showing me the ungrateful text and saying: “I don’t know what a birch tree is! What is a cairn? I think I made a mistake buying this book. It’s too difficult for me.”
After telling him I didn’t know (or remember) what a cairn was, we looked that up together on google using the entry “cairn meaning” and then Google images to visualize it. As regarding the birch tree it was enough to know (at least, at that point) that it was a tree [period].
I encouraged him by saying “it’s not a textbook or a study book he should underline or research different ideas or terms. As a novel, the first approach should be to enjoy it. Start getting used to the flow of the language, the plot, the characters and not to feel guilty if he decided to stop reading it”.
Together we reviewed a generally accepted how-to reading checklist:
- Previewing – what’s the story about? what do you think happened/ will happen?
- Contextualizing – where? when? who?
- Visualizing – picture the scene
- Asking and answering questions
- Summarizing – can you tell what has happened so far?
- Skimming – getting the main ideas
- Scanning – looking for some specific idea or piece of information
Of course, each student will have different needs and reading habits. Graded books can be an excellent source of pleasure and information, but he rightly tried to dip into deeper waters.
There are those days when you feel a little bit unsure of what to do, where to go… . And I’m not even talking about going to the doctor and undergoing medical tests, things that I dread just based on the fear that some bad diagnosis will happen. Well, traditionally men don’t like going to the doctor because they feel they can’t get sick as they’re the breadwinners of the family, the strong sex, etc. in this day and age? Come on! Men don’t like going to the doctor, at least in my case, because we’re afraid they’ll find out something horrible and you start feeling all the symptoms before you even have the diagnosis. Talk about reasoning with your unreasonable mind. But I digress…
Uncertainty comes to teaching as well, more so when you’re self-employed. You know the drill: no student, no pay. And it’s not like when you’re working for a company / school and they will provide you with the students and if they’re generous enough they’ll give you some training and teaching material such as textbooks. They’re also required by law (at least in Brazil) to give you paid holidays and a 13th annual salary (a sort of Christmas bonus) in addition to contributions to your government’s social security pension fund.
My wife and friends quite often remind me of how lucky I am because I don’t have a boss, which is true (although in some ways my students ARE my bosses). But the solo teaching career requires some constant care such as:
1. Attention to trends in teaching, textbooks
2. Attendance to teachers’ conferences and seminars
3. Prospecting for new students while at the same time keeping the back door shut in order to keep your current students.
4. Self-motivation – you can’t slack off and stop preparing lessons, or stop showing up on time.
5. Billing is never the most pleasurable of activities but necessary. On the other hand, there are always a few smart asses who “always forget” to pay their teacher in the time agreed and you must kindly ask them if there was any problem with their payment because you couldn’t locate their deposit in your bank statement.
Hey, life is uncertain by nature, so what I must do is to continue doing what I enjoy and enjoy what I have to do.