My first private student

My first experience of giving private classes was with a student I’ll call Ana. She had done a course I taught at ESADE Idiomas, Barcelona, in 1982 and wanted to try 1-to-1 classes. An intelligent, sociable woman, married to a surgeon, with three grown up children, Ana had time to spare. Having brought up her children, and with no need to do housework or cooking, she spent most of her time reading, keeping up with world affairs, and moving around her various circles of friends. She was a member of what was, at that time, a powerful, smugly confident middle class, the beneficiaries of Franco’s regime – albeit she belonged to one of the lower echelons of that carefully- calibrated class. (Above them were the aristos; not quite as madly numerous as in Italy, but just as useless and greedy, and just as keenly followed by the middle class. TV and free mass media would soon ensure that fascination with the aristos’ vulgar, boring lives spread quickly to those outside the bourgeois stronghold.)      

Initially, I was reluctant to do the classes; I felt stretched enough with my job at ESADE. I did the max. 24 hours a week contact hours permitted by the boss, and that involved me in at least 50 hours work a week. I’m not exaggerating; every teacher in ESADE did the same. We were paid very well –   about five times as well as electricians, plumbers, and mechanics, for example (how times have changed!)  – and we were, without becoming bona fide members of the middle class, enjoying a high standard of living. But it wasn’t just the money. Our boss was an inspiration – he encouraged us to innovate, to do what we wanted in class just so long as we covered what was on the skeletal syllabus. He provided the best teachers’ room I’ve ever been in; he added books to the teachers’ library as soon as they were requested; he paid for lots of teachers to go to conferences; and he organized workshops incessantly, inviting people like Earl Stevick and John Fanselow to come for week-long events where we hardly went to bed. So we didn’t mind working – no, we wanted to work – long hours preparing our classes and doing all the other stuff.

Friends advised me to do the class with Ana – I could charge top rate and if I did 6 hours a week, I’d make a lot of money – so I phoned her and agreed to start the following week. (Now there’s a good pliable chunk for you: xxx agreed to xxx the following xxx. Note “the following”, not “next”, ho ho.) I turned up for the first class with a notebook and several short books from the Longman’s Graded Readers library. We sat down, I asked Ana to tell me about herself, and off she went! “I born here. I live here all my life. I am three sister, no brother. My father medico. I love my mother, ….”.  The slightest prompt was enough for her to speak at length – I’d never met a student so keen to talk! I helped out and took notes as fast as I could and at the end of the session, I told her how much I’d enjoyed it, that I’d deal with some stuff that she’d said in the next class, and asked her to read one the books I’d brought with me.

At our next class, I started by giving her a long vocabulary list drawn up from our previous session, and went on to remind her about how English forms the past tense. She listened patiently, but It was clear that she wasn’t interested.  “Did you read any of the books?”, I asked her. “Yes, David Copperfield, fantastic! Some questions, please”. The questions were about vocab. and lexical chunks. My answers had to be quick, because she wanted to talk about Dicken’s Victorian England, her great grandparents and life under Franco. Off she went again, asking for help when she got stuck. This time I made a few recasts, raised my eyebrows at things she knew were wrong, that kind of thing, but basically, I just took notes and tried to keep up.  

Apart from the classes, Ana read over 20 graded readers, wrote a diary, and went over the notes I gave her quite thoroughly. Her progress was phenomenal; in six months she had improved so much that she could easily have passed the Cambridge First Certificate oral exam. She was thrilled with her progress, told all her friends that I was a genius, well the phone just didn’t stop ringing. Hello, Geoff. This is Fidel, Fidel Castro! Claro!).

I spent less than 5% of the time with her talking about grammar, and I spoke less than 30% of the time during the classes. I threw out a few bits of bait and then she took one and swam, so to speak. I knew next to nothing about SLA, but I’d been hugely impressed by Krashen’s (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning and I was already convinced (even if unable to articulate it)  that second language learning was mostly a matter of implicit, unconscious learning, with the implication that you best help students by getting them to engage in communicative tasks, where they, not the teacher, are the protagonists. Of course, there’s a huge difference between teaching a class of 10 to 30 students and teaching a single student, but if this “get out of the way and just help them talk” approach works so well in 1-to-1 classes, then it should, perhaps, be applied to any ELT environment.

I must add quickly that it was unusually easy for me to get out of the way and not slow down or mess up Ana’s development. Ana needed the minimum scaffolding, I was lucky as hell to have her as a student. You might well say that most students need more help, but that’s a slippery slope.   

P.S. I know: I describe language learning in a priveledged environment. Its content is purely contextual. Go to town on it, why don’t you, all you 19th century Marxists, and you 21st century postmodern, Derrida-doting, Lacan-loving, Faighclough-following deconstructors.

But for the rest of my readers – you gentle, story-loving readers, those who enjoy my cosy little fireside chats here on “What Do You Think You’re Doing?” – here’s the moral (which, for the benefit of the Marxists and post post modernist scoffers of my simple tale, posits, contradicts and transcends class conflict so cogently; and with apologies to Lewis Carroll): the more there is for you, the less there is for them.

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