Fishing For Answers

Wake up, get out of bed, drag a comb across my head…

7.30am. I take the lift down to the ground floor of my apartment block – which was designed as a hotel, hence the atrium and lobby – turn right and head for the kirathane, a place where men sit and drink tea, read newspapers and play backgammon. Here I have the same nonverbal communication experience that I have been having every day since I moved to the area a year ago. I sit down, Yusuf brings the tea, I nod in gratitude. Ramazan brings the pastry and egg, I nod again. Yusuf lopes by, glances and raises his eyebrows, I nod, and more tea arrives. I eat and drink. I leave the correct money in shiny new Turkish lira coins, fearing Yusuf’s eyebrows if I haven’t got the right change, nod my thanks to Ramazan, and leave. No words are exchanged, but everything is understood.

8am. I take a taxi to the university. It’s only a five-minute drive, but I have trouble with my left hip these days, and the buses are hardly user-friendly to those with impediments. The driver is the sullen type, and I have to wait patiently before he deigns to give me the change from the note I hand him. I walk through the university’s glass sliding doors, pass two sleepy-eyed security guards, and head for the lift, pausing to grab a cup of coffee from the white-haired, white-coated man with a Marlboro perpetually hanging from his lips, and take the lift to the second floor.

Room 212 is where the teacher development unit hangs out. We are lucky to have a room. It is often hard to believe that this is a university; partly because it still resembles the hotel it once was, and partly because, given a student community of about 4,500, 139 foreign language instructors and umpteen academics, there is hardly anyone around. My colleagues drift in. Rob, a former civil servant, takes up his serious pose at his desk and stares at his lesson plan. Aylin, the Turkish member of our unit and heavily pregnant, slumps in her chair. Ian, our grammar and phonology man, lights an untipped cigarette and sits on the balcony to peruse a half-completed Herald Tribune crossword. There is a lovely view across Izmir bay, which perhaps makes up for much of what is to come. It would have made a nice hotel.

The four of us are teacher trainers, teacher developers, teacher educators or whatever label you would like to put on us, but we teach too, often for the first few hours of the day. “Preparatory upper intermediate 16” is my lot, from 9am to 11am. Many of the students don’t bother to bring their books, so I descend a floor to room 116, which looks remarkably like room 212 and all the other converted hotel rooms, armed with a battery of reading, writing, revision and other sundry tasks. Doyens of our profession these days talk of “multiple intelligences”, “catering for the individual learner” and “lesson preparation” rather than planning. This is it, without the intelligences. I am totally without a plan, but prepared for anything.

The students, fondly known as the Woodentops, are predictable. Fifteen of the 22 have arrived on time. I am supposed to take the register, but knowing that others will come late, I don’t. They do what they are told, even to the extent that I can leave the room for a cup of coffee in the neighbouring smokers’ canteen. This is called “learner training”, “learner autonomy”, and “teacher empowerment”, of all of which I have become a leading exponent. The students read, write paragraphs to formula, check vocabulary lists, and occasionally clutch their pockets as their mobile phones vibrate. They would prefer to be somewhere else. At upper intermediate level, few of them can string a sentence together verbally, and there are probably four of the 22 who might be considered able language learners. It doesn’t matter. What they have to do is to pass the proficiency exam at the end of the year. And they will, somehow. This is the private sector.

We struggle through a reading text. The Woodentops are OK on pre-reading and while-reading, but have a tendency to give up on post-reading, since it might involve some kind of language production. Undaunted, I decide to do some writing with them for the second hour. This involves casting aside the American academic writing book and scattering a few pictures around the class, with a view to inventiveness – which is worthwhile, because the Turkish education system has the habit of stunting creativity by the age of 15.

When teaching’s over, it’s time for the stuff of life, the stuff I’m really here for: teacher training. The teacher development unit in the school of foreign languages at Izmir University of Economics (TDUSFLIUE for short!) is the largest and most active unit of its kind in Turkey outside Bilkent University, the largest and longest established private university in the country – which is odd, because IUE is one of the smallest and newest. The unit more or less happened accidentally. We three native speakers are ex-Oxford University Press, ex-English Fast, and ex-British Council, with a collective age of 170. We have been labelled washed-up has-beens by contributors to Dave’s ESL Cafe but, notwithstanding the problems of age and infirmity, still manage to run seminars, workshops and short courses together with Celta and Icelt for Cambridge. We work hard, often rowing against a tide of discontent and Ottoman-style management. We are lucky because we operate largely outside the top-down management structure.

Today is my short course day: learner training for tired teachers at the end of the afternoon. The course is a good idea, since most of our students are devoid of study skills, products of rote-learning systems – and still unable to use a monolingual dictionary, having already spent eight years studying English at private high schools. My group of a dozen young teachers is keen and aware of the problem. We brainstorm study skills and invent or modify tasks to make the students more autonomous. What comes out of the session is good stuff, but I head for room 212 knowing that I am unlikely to live to see the day it all comes to fruition. These would be great teachers in another teaching context. I often begin sessions like this with the oft-used quote: “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and feed him for life.” This, as my teachers point out, is all very well providing that the man knows one end of a rod from another and hasn’t got a mobile phone in one hand and an MP3 player in the other. Most of our students, anyway, have enough money to buy a fish a day for the rest of their lives. “Know your learners,” I preach. And they do.

So why am I here? Because I live in this neck of the woods, I suppose, because I have a love-hate relationship with Turkey and because, in 20 years of language teaching, I have learnt that making a difference to a few is all you can expect, and more than most others ever manage.

In Room 212, now depopulated, I switch off the computer, retrace my morning steps, and head for the little cafe next to my apartment block, where, doubtless, tea and pastries await and I can sit and ponder the peculiarities of the small world I inhabit, and, more to the point what on earth I’m going to do with the Woodentops tomorrow.

first published 31 August 2005,15385,1559922,00.html

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