I’ve noticed something interesting with my students. No matter how good they are, or how much they improve. they think they’re terrible. I’ve had some students blow through grammar they’re seeing for the first time, or pick up new vocabulary… and all they can tell me after the lesson is how bad they are at English.
I’ve come to realize that to be a language teacher, you have to be as much of a confidence coach as you are a teacher of words. Starting to learn Czech (and I emphasize the word “starting”), I can see why a person would be down on themselves. They’re going into a bewildering word of vocabulary, grammar, and prepositions. Articles are scary. Tenses are confounding. Verbs mutate in the strangest ways. I don’t blame them for being spooked.
It’s about more than just hammering the language in this business. You have to make the student feel like they’re actually getting somewhere. And that can be far, far harder than conjugating “catch” or saying a third conditional. I frequently tell my students that I’ll only get angry if they give up or don’t even try. And that’s usually true; I asked to be released from a class come September because some students couldn’t be bothered to tell me I spoke too fast, and instead stopped going to the class. But I admit I can lose my patience. I’m only human. But at the same time, it can be depressing to hear such pessimism from people who are honestly trying and improving all the time.
I don’t grieve, though. I’ve been there. I have terrible anxiety issues. Always have, still do, and probably always will. I’ve met a lot of people who could have been good friends – in school, in New York – but after they finally give up, they refuse to see me as anything but that twitchy, “negative” cartoon character, no matter how much I show that’s not me. One person in particular is in my thoughts far too much. So, I can see why that nagging voice of doubt and self-contempt is very hard to silence. Of course, I also recognize that while I made mistakes yesterday, they will be the lessons of today and the benefits of tomorrow.
A lot of the other people in the program have been to dozens of cities; already gone back to the US; moved onto another part of the world. I’m not really into any of that. I feel like I’m making a difference. Sure, it’s not curing cancer or stopping terrorism, but bit by bit I do see confidence building in my students. And I would like to think that in some way, it may spill into another parts of their life. That’s something to be proud of. I look at my time in Europe as a second chance; a retry of all the mistakes and missteps I made about life during my time in New York. Being able to change lives, even if it’s just to make someone more comfortable with the present perfect continuous… well, seeing that look of delight when they get it, that’s worth all the corrections in the world. And definitely a lot more than another selfie in front of a European landmark.
As I frequently point out to my students, even the weakest of them can still have a basic conversation with me in English. All I can do in Czech is “Hi! Give me…?” while pointing. That being said, I do sometimes like to run Czech words by my students. Not just because of hearing it from a native speaker, but I can see a certain delight in their eyes when I’M the one stumbling and sputtering… that when it comes to an alien and weird language, it’s not just them.