Nightmare on IELTS Street.

The IELTS exam is becoming increasingly important, as a sign of English proficiency, and as a requirement for working or studying abroad. It is quite academic, and requires a lot of work by the students. From a teacher’s point of view, it can be quite unappealing, as a lot of the work is quite dry; students will get bored and restless, which will manifest itself in their behaviour. I’m not just talking about teenage classes, or younger learners; one of my worst classes EVER was with an adult (so-called) IELTS class

I first encountered IELTS when I was applying for my second job in Sai Gon. This was with a smaller company, centrally located and smartly-designed, which offered IELTS classes. I had to prepare an IELTS lesson and I, of course, had no idea what that entailed. After some online searching, I groped together a vague lesson plan – it was a writing lesson, I believe.

The ‘lesson’ was for two young adults, under the supervision of the office manager. I recall I had to talk about a graph, then guide the students as to how an essay should be written (word count, structure, paragraphs etc).

Naturally, I had no idea how well I performed (because a lot of teaching is a type of performance) and waited for my Grabbike home, thinking that there were other schools to which I could apply. But the next day, I got the call that I was accepted. Obviously, their need for teachers overcame my blatant shortcomings.

The site of my second English centre, opposite the War Museum. The campus has now relocated and the site is a medical centre.

And so to IELTS. I was sent to ‘the best’ public school to teach 45-minutes classes. Public schools in Sai Gon are usually in rooms with no air-conditioning, probably no IT or whiteboard – it’s chalk and dusters – and an average of forty students, most of whom couldn’t care less about English. It was, for them, simply a free lesson, a chance to do their chemistry homework, or play with a Rubik’s Cube, or sleep, or anything save learning English.

It was certainly a mixed bag. Teaching the same lesson to different classes are different lessons. One class was silent as the grave (except one loud-mouth who thought he knew everything and was intent on proving how the Cambridge books were wrong and he knew better). Apparently they were used to the teacher speaking, and they just wrote (pretended to). Not great preparation for the speaking component. Another class of supposedly higher-achievers hated me, and loved showing it. I was lucky if I got five students to even acknowledge my presence in the room, let alone listen to me.

However, the last class of the week was the best. I was able to introduce Camus, Kafka and Rimbaud into the lessons. It made a change from the quotes attributed to Lenin that adorned several classrooms (apparently, “study, study and study,” or “learn, learn, learn.”). And it was one of these quotes from Camus that made to decide to quit this company:

“What am I doing here, wasting my time, destroying my vocal chords and exhausting myself when the vast majority of students couldn’t care less.” The situation was absurd. I want to spend my mornings drinking coffee and reading Camus. I resigned the same day. Merci, Albert.

Some time later, I was working for one of the top centres and was offered an adult IELTS class. Let me do my best to reproduce the scenario.

There were about a dozen students, two over thirty years of age, but the rest teenagers. Oh, crap ! All types were represented here: the one that says his mother sent him and he DOES NOT want to be here, the one that walks into the room, ignores the teacher and begins to sleep on his desk, the one that looks with contempt and hatred at the teacher, deciding that there was nothing I could teach him and he was going to sigh and mutter throughout the lesson. Let us not forget the type that has confused a class room with a social club, and thinks it’s absolutely acceptable that he should carry on a conversation, top-volume, with his neighbour, in Vietnamese (which, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, is not the most euphonic of tongues). Latecomers are par for the course in Vietnam, barely worth mentioning. And then there was the know-it-all; the student who had studied the grammar book and wanted to ask questions. And more questions. And … yeah, so on and so on.

The ‘Camus’ moment came when, after a lengthy discussion about the placement of adverbs, he informed me that he was going to continue using adverbs as he thought best, and ignore my advice (after all, I only have a distinction in linguistics, have written plays and been published, not to mention possessing a teaching qualification from one of the best teaching schools). I know teachers are supposed to be endowed with infinite patience, but after a long sweaty day, screaming teens, sourly teens, swearing teens, the odd-lunatic, and work-shy TAs, infinity somehow becomes a lot nearer. After three lessons, I requested, then begged, then offered to pay for a replacement teacher. Full credit to the centre, they complied, but it was the final nail, or straw, take your pick. Notice given and by October I was a free man … but after reading Camus, that is a very contentious statement. And now … time for coffee.

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