Teaching English (or Trying To)

A company contact (and friend) asked me one evening at a social function if I’d like to volunteer part-time as an English teacher. She knew of three guys who were looking for a little help, but for some reason couldn’t use the company’s training department. She thought one of us expat wives might enjoy a project a couple times a week, and knew I was looking for ways to get involved. So I was happy to say yes.

That first class was April 19, 2011, over three years ago! I can’t believe how time flies. It started off as a twice-a-week sort of thing but then quickly grew; by September 2012 I was teaching five days a week, and today I still am. The numbers vary pretty widely as people come and go, but today on average I would say I have about eight regular students. That’s a good number; about as many as our little picnic table can hold.

At the beginning, I didn’t have any materials or experience teaching English, so it was quite a challenge to come up with ideas and lesson plans. We went over the obvious things, like greetings and salutations, how to introduce yourself, your job, your family, basic verb conjugation, numbers, telling the time. Once we had named all the objects we could see around us, we took a walk around camp and named a few more. A friend donated some children’s books in French & English (the French is necessary so that they can double-check their understanding or get help with unfamiliar words). We studied those for a while, leading up to this funny story about Little Red Riding Hood. But generally I was hurting for ideas.

On vacation in Botswana a year later, my father-in-law told me about a program he was following to teach himself English, Apprendre Anglais by Michel Thomas, and later sent me a copy. It’s basically a recording of a bilingual teacher teaching English to two French students. The teacher explains things in French, slowly introducing the English, and then drills the students by giving them words or phrases in French which they then have to translate into English correctly. All I have to do is hit “pause” to let my students answer before the students in the recording do.

I think it’s brilliant. It’s a much more active way to learn than merely repeating after someone, the way most languages are taught. You can do that phonetically and robotically, without truly understanding what it is you’re saying. With this approach, you have to actually listen, understand, and come up with the right words yourself.

students were able to take the French equivalents of each of these and come up with the correct English -- pretty cool

students were able to take the French equivalents of each of these and come up with the correct English themselves — pretty cool

Bonus with the Michel Thomas approach: I get to continue with my French studies while teaching English! That’s been one bummer about teaching, actually; over time my focus on my own studies has really waned. Even while studying French I’ll think of something that would work well in reverse in the English class, and find my mind wandering.

The other thing is that I really don’t want the reputation of being someone who moves to French-speaking Africa and then tries to convert the locals to her language. I’d much rather be learning French and practicing it with them! And I think all of us who move here should make an effort, whether in French or Swahili. But this is a class that the Congolese asked for, and it seems to be popular. They are learning English faster than most of us Americans are learning French, which gives them yet another marketable skill. Good for them. If they want it, I’m happy to help. And I’m grateful for the experience; it gives me something to focus on, to feel good about doing. It’s daily interaction with people I enjoy spending time with.

99% of the time, anyway. A teacher’s gotta have her stories about the annoying ones, too, right? More on some of those stories later!

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