A Bizarre TEFL Experience

Near the end of my first term in Sarajevo, I was getting pretty stressed out. I’d been given two or three advanced groups and was often at a loss for what to do and how to do it. There was an antiquated book and no director of studies at the school; three different teachers would provide three different answers if I asked.

The director asked me if I wanted to attend a seminar through another organization. I really didn’t: I felt overwhelmed by my teaching load and didn’t think I’d be receptive. Plus most obviously I needed my day to prepare for my evening classes.

Later, two other teachers approached me as a team in the copy room. They would help cover those advanced classes so I could go – they wanted me to report back on the seminar.

I caved in and agreed to do it. It might be interesting and most importantly, it would get me out of teaching those much-dreaded advanced classes.

The day started off with the groups of teachers from two different school sitting separately and not mingling.

I sat in the middle of the TEFL-famed U-shaped arrangement. The man leading the seminar seemed open and friendly – a jolly, rather rotund, middle-aged American guy. We participated in examples of storytelling which were engaging and great to use in class. Then he brought out a large phonemic chart with colors instead of letters. And a teacher’s pointer.

What followed was an “emperor’s new clothes” moment, for me anyway. He explained that each color represented a sound and went on to demonstrate (light green was the schwa, orange the long i and so on) …for thirty-odd sounds. Then he started going around the group. He would point, and the teacher who had been nominated would go “ah, w, ey, ih, ee, t, l…”. What was happening? Had they met secretly before I’d arrived and practiced this? Was it a joke? All I could see was six other people performing effortlessly and I had no clue whatsoever. When he got to me, I tried to decline, but he urged me to give it a go. So I did. And literally couldn’t do it. What’s green about the schwa or red about s?

It could be a memory thing, or a visual/audio learner type thing, or even a native speaker thing (though he was a native speaker and seemed to get it). I have kind of an odd color association with words somehow, and maybe this just conflicted with that. But it was hilarious because everyone else could do it so smoothly and I couldn’t.

What’s the lesson here? I shouldn’t have so quickly agreed to attend a random seminar to get out of teaching my classes, possibly. Something perfectly clear and easy to some people may be ridiculous to others? Maybe it’s that many experiences look different in hindsight. But here’s one thing I can advice: if you attend a seminar and an American guy pulls out a colored chart and pointer, hurry out of there as fast as you can!