Apparently it was W C Fields that coined the expression “Never work with animals or children”. Strictly speaking, I’ve never worked with animals, but I have worked with children that behaved like animals. The TEFL junior classroom is a jungle and this tribe hunts in packs.
My first year at the language school involved teaching a number of junior classes. I liked children and had bags of practical experience, courtesy of my many nieces and nephews. Also, as a teenager I’d carved out quite a niche as a babysitter. How difficult could it be?
In truth, at least for me as an inexperienced teacher, I hadn’t properly considered that, with the students speaking one language and me another, quite how hard it would be to ensure complete crowd control. This, coupled with my total inability to enunciate the name João correctly (the given name of a huge proportion of the male juniors that year) caused me real problems.
I hadn’t banked on how much attitude these kids would have either. The memory of a 10 year old Carlota silently motioning at her eyes, then me, with a menacing “I’m watching you” undertone has never left me. That, and the time a live-wire called Tiago thought it appropriate to proffer “f@&#” as his verb in the game Stop! during the “F” round. “Oh teeeaaacher, is a verb” he contested. True, but I had to nip this one in the bud, otherwise I’d have 16 semi-fluent, but potty-mouthed 11 year olds on my hands by the end of the academic year.
I wouldn’t say I ever really loved teaching juniors, but I got used to it, learnt to deal with them better and occasionally, in an unguarded moment actually caught myself almost enjoying the experience. The pre-teens could be delightful and, when not, pleasingly sullen. At least this way they were quiet, which is a quality I came to appreciate in my younger students.
Over the years however, there were a few occasions when I knew I’d totally lost control. Humiliatingly, one of the worst was during a class observation of young learners. As is customary during story-based activities, I’d sat the group on the floor with me in preparation. Caught completely unawares, and for no reason I could understand, several more boisterous members of the class decided to jump on top of me. I was at the bottom of a “bundle”, the like of which I hadn’t experienced since secondary school in the 1980s. If these little monkeys didn’t have a problem behaving like this under the scrutiny of another teacher, what hope did I ever have with the little blighters?
As for working with animals, the closest I ever got was using a giant plastic spider to practise “in”, “on” and “under”. It was sufficiently gimmicky to engage students and was great for getting everyone involved. That was until a little boy decided to put that spider somewhere it had NEVER been before: “Oh, the spider’s in Manuel’s pants!”.
W C Fields must have had his reasons for the advice he gave. And overall, I think I’m inclined to agree.