No can-do

George Bernard Shaw noted that “Those that can do, those that can’t teach”. I could easily take offence to this, seeing as I’ve devoted the last fourteen years of my professional life to teaching English and I like to think I have a pretty decent grasp of the language.

For much of this time I worked for a language school. The particular school I worked at the longest is situated near to a busy bus terminal and not far from a fairly well-to-do residential area, not to mention the biggest university campus in Lisbon. All of this being true, I never fully reconciled myself to just how scummy the metro station adjacent to the school, and its immediate environs, are. It is significantly populated by an assortment of individuals whose main aim in life is to relieve you of any spare cash you might happen to have on your person. So, aside from the homeless and the drunks, Romany women routinely attempt to sell you umbrellas or sunglasses (even when you evidently already own these items), or more randomly, plasters. If you were ever in any doubt as to how much these items cost, you wouldn’t be for long. These women gather by the station exit, shrieking “um Euro” at a pitch that could shatter glass at thirty paces. The worst of it is that the general male population, taxi drivers included, use the outside walls of the station as a public urinal. The stench is revolting.

The five minute walk to the school transported me to a different world in some respects. While those inside the school worked or learnt, life outside carried on as normal. Metro trains rumbled past on the overland bridge in front of the school, while an unfortunate, heroin-addicted man eked out a living “attending” to parked cars underneath – in varying states of consciousness. One afternoon, the poor man fell flat on his face, felled like a tree by his latest hit, much to the voyeuristic delight of the group of 12 year-old juniors I was teaching at the time.

Added to the unpalatable scenes that unfolded in the vicinity on a near-daily basis, this part of the city is also extremely windy. Mini-cyclones were not uncommon, often resulting in a perfectly circular pile of litter being rounded up and deposited directly in front of the school’s main entrance. An all-time low was arriving at work and being confronted by an inebriated man who’d chosen to pass out in front of the school’s automatic doors. Senior management was scratching its collective head by this point, wondering why student numbers were dropping, whereas I thought the reasons were patently obvious.

After many years of feeling that my soul was progressively shrivelling away each time I stepped into this twilight zone, I called time on it. In all truthfulness, I was beginning to lose my patience in general. I felt a bit too long-in-the-tooth to bounce around the junior classroom TEFL-tastically. Simultaneously, I was losing the will to live in the same manner as many of my terminally-elementary seniors. These factors, allied with pressing issues to deal with on the home front, made up my mind. The time had come to ditch the young learners and consign the geriatric day-centre vibe of my morning classes to history. A fresh start beckoned.

Starting to work independently presented a new challenge, which I grasped with both hands. I’ve had the great fortune to acquire some outstanding students and now have the freedom to choose where I work and who with. In the process I’ve rediscovered my teaching mojo, able to structure my lessons unconstrained by a syllabus. I have a spring in my step once again.

This all said, I worked briefly with a fifty-something oddball earlier this year. He never paid on time and, despite decades of English-learning under his belt, had failed to master the basics. He had particular issues using “can”, which even my younger juniors had easily dominated. Text messages became excruciating (“Do you can teach next Wednesday? Please confirm me.”). Privately I despaired, although my husband proceeded to send me volleys of messages of his own, asking if I “do can do” anything from meeting him for lunch or picking the kids up.

The beauty of being your own boss is knowing when you’re fighting a losing battle and ultimately having the freedom to say after a while: “Sorry. No can-do”.

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