If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, 14 May 2016


[swansong:  BrE /ˈswɒnsɒŋ / [noun singular] the last performance by an actor, athlete, etc. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, © Oxford University Press, 2010]

I have always thought teaching is a bit like performing on stage. The changes you are trying to bring about in your students are the goal, collectively. But whether you reach your goal or not will depend largely on your performance on the day. The biggest challenge for a teacher is, while s/he is in class, to captivate the audience, that is, students. Just as a brilliant play might fall flat because of poor acting, the best of the teacher’s plans go awry if s/he fails to enthral the class. A successful session is one in which students forget everything else, get immersed, and more than anything else, when their shining eyes tell you that they “are loving it”! When it happens, learning takes care of itself – automatically, phata-phat. It is a tall order, I know. And I do fail occasionally, but I try.

So in a way, next Sunday, 15 May will be my swansong when I go into a classroom in the British Council English Language Centre for the last time. I don’t think I’ll ever be going into a conventional language classroom again. … It’s time to move on. And it’s also the time to look back.

Since I stopped working as a banker, I have been teaching for almost 16 years. The first ten years was in conventional classrooms, teaching English to engineering students. I loved it while it went and my students needed whatever little help I could offer. A majority of them had learned hardly any English in school and struggled to cope with textbooks, which were always in English. That gave me the idea of writing a book – a book that would help learners acquire English on their own, without the support of a teacher.

And while I was writing a chapter, a happy accident occurred. The topic I was writing on was the biosphere of the Sundarbans. As I googled for "delta", the search engine returned DELTA, that is, Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults. I thought it would be a good idea to do it, but realised that in order to DELTA, one has to do CELTA, that is, a certificate course, first. More searches – and a CELTA programme was coming up in Mumbai in the following month.

If you allow me to digress a bit, I happened to come across by-far-the-most-terrible teacher in my life during the programme, which was being conducted by – trust me – the University of Cambridge. This teacher began the course with the lesson: “Know your students”. But in practice, she put a spy in the classroom to report what students discussed during the recess! She was also not very sure-footed about English grammar and once I made the infantile blunder of telling her she was wrong! Oh Dear, I am happy that I came out of the course with a certificate. Participants were disgusted with this manipulative tyrant. I was possibly the least affected – but the pressure of unfairness was so intense that a few of my classmates, including my new-found foster daughter, a lovely Gujarati girl, were close to nervous breakdown in four weeks. This lady teacher reminded me of the nurse in Milos Forman's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Midred Rached, whose cold violence and disregard for human dignity had haunted me for months after I'd watched the film.

So when we heard that a representative from the university would fly in to meet us on the final day, many of us were excited: at last, the university would find out what was happening on the ground. But lo and behold – the feedback session happened just a few hours before the certificates were to be printed – and the said lady sat beside the fake feedback collector to look daggers at anyone who opened their mouth. Every one of us had paid over a lakh of paper-gold rupees to do the course. So when we realised that the feedback session was a sham, none of us risked giving genuine feedback and forgoing the certificate. Also, the secrecy about the results was bizarre. Even now I don’t know who in the class failed, but I am sure one or two did.

Fortunately, the second trainer that taught us was brilliant. It was a saving grace. I certainly learned something over four weeks, but I wouldn't like you to go through the experience. Anyway, why am I sharing these bitter old memories?

Honestly, they aren’t bitter anymore and they really don’t matter. I am writing this only to tell you that we need to develop a healthy disrespect for brand names, even if the brand is one of the finest universities on the planet. We must check the value of the product ourselves. Caveat emptor!

However, the certificate and an introduction by the second teacher – I'll be grateful to her forever – helped me find a teaching position in the British Council English Language Centre in Kolkata. And it has been a fascinating experience since then. Only a microscopic minority in the world get paid for doing something they love doing. It's been great to be in this privileged group. Besides, there have been many a manna from heaven.

Firstly, how do you help people acquire a second language? Language teaching is a fascinating combination of science and arts. It’s easy to make your students “learn” the rules of English, but how do they reach a position from where they automatically conform to the rules of the whimsical English grammar (and vocab)? How do they cross the threshold beyond which they themselves become their personal tutor? As my students learned to use English – many of them brilliantly – I was trying to learn the answers to these questions. I don’t claim I’ve gotten them all and the quest won't end soon.

Secondly, it has been a privilege to work with some wonderful people, both my mentors, peers, and other colleagues. I won’t try to justify this statement because it would take me the rest of the night, but if you have been in one of our classrooms, you would know the answer already.

And more importantly for me personally, as I interacted closely with young people in their late teens or early twenties, I began to grow young. Every class shaved a few days off this old bat. Just as age couldn’t wither Cleopatra’s beauty, time has left me alone over the last few years.

Finally, what wonderful people you are, my Dear Students … Let your eyes keep shining, let nothing stop you moving relentlessly towards your goals … and do keep going, language acquisition isn't a hundred-metre dash, it's a long-distance race that never ends. And trust me, there is no limit to human achievement, you CAN be a writer like Salman Rushdie or a speaker like Barack Obama.

Goodbye and all the very best.

Kolkata / 09 May 2016

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