When life gives you lemons…

As a teacher, you have to expect the unexpected. Like when only 5 students out of 12 turn up for a class and your lesson plan goes right out the window. What do you do in this situation? You improvise.

When it happened recently I was at a loss as to what to do. I found myself watching one of the students balance his pencil on top of a glue stick, and had an idea. I remembered a management training course I had attended (under protest) many years ago, when participants were split into teams, handed a bag of random materials and told to build the biggest tower they could. I rushed off to the teachers room and returned with cups, glue sticks, straws, elastic bands and a load of other stuff. After a short instruction period they were off!

The idea was that one or two students would build the tower while the others made suggestions and gave instructions and criticisms from the sidelines. And it worked! At the end of the class they had built several variations of the tower – the criterion for success being that it had to stay up for as long as it took me to take a photo of it, and they had fun.

The dynamic of the group changes enormously when only a few students turn up, and I’m happy to try things like this. Under normal circumstances it’s impossible because I have a couple of very dominant, trouble-makers in the class, who are so disruptive that it’s impossible to do anything except stick to the book. The funny thing was that the students who were in this class realised this, and said as much to me. I held my tongue and just smiled. Hopefully the good kids will put pressure on the troublesome ones and the class will come under control. That would be good for everyone, as we could have more fun, but I won’t hold my breath.

I never thought that management training course would be useful. Turns out I was wrong. Life is a long learning experience and you never know what will turn out to be of use further down the line. 🙂

Useful tools for the classroom

One of my colleagues recently used a pack of cards with famous paintings on them to get students to write sentences beginning with “I wish”. I saw the cards and borrowed them to do an exercise with my class. The idea was that they would describe the pictures using adjectives with-ed and -ing endings. I’m not sure it worked 100% well, but it was worth a try. I aim to get a similar pack of cards as I can see them being extremely useful in encouraging students to write sentences.

Common mistakes made by Czech and Slovak students

Students from different countries make different mistakes when speaking English. Here’s a list of the most common mistakes made by my students in the Czech Republic and Slovakia:

I did a mistake

I made my homework

I like me shopping

When I arrived to London…

I went to the Prague last week

Can I have a question?

I was on a concert

I was in the nature (they NEVER learn to say countryside, it’s always the nature)

I went to home

Riding a car / driving a bike

Looking on the pictire

I was watching a film in tv

In addition to the above, pronouns and prepositions are a bit of a lucky dip, with the student opting for the first one they can remember rather than the correct one for the sentence.

My students also came out with a few classics:

I like to suck out the energy from the nature.

Jehovah’s Victims

My dog had an operation under seduction

And no matter how good a teacher you are, you will probably never be able to get Czech or Slovak students to pronounce “thirty three and a third” or “Thursday at three thirty” correctly. If you manage that one, you have my eternal respect. 🙂


Classroom madness

Exhibit A:

Student: I like tigers. Tigers live in the florist.

Teacher: I think you mean forest. (In fairness, the Portuguese word for forest is floresta, so it’s an understandable mistake).


Exhibit B

Student, week one (September): What time does this class start?

Me: It starts at 17:20

Same student, week two (September): What time does this class start?

Me: It starts at 17:20

Same student, week 5 or 6 (October): What time does this class start?

Me: 17:20

Same student, December: What time does this class start?

Me: Still 17:20

Same student, January: Does this class still start at 17:20?

Me: Yes, it does

Same student, one week later: What time does this class start?

Me: Have we told you the time has changed?

Student: No

Me: Well then you can assume that it still starts at 17:20

Same student, a couple of weeks later: What time does this class start?

Me: Sign. Still 17:20. We will tell you if the time changes.

Same student, March: What time does this class start?

Me: For heaven’s sake! It starts at 17:20. It has always started at 17:20. It will always start at 17:20. Why do you keep asking me this?

Student: I just wanted to check.

Me: Sign, followed by a prolonged episode of tongue biting.

Exhibit C

Teacher: Can you describe your family home?

Student: My what?

Teacher: Your family home. You know, the place where you live.

Student: Oh yeah, I live in a condom.

Choking noises ensue from all around the classroom.

Student (with very red face): Condo, I meant condo.






Take my advice – what you need to know before moving to the Czech Republic or Slovakia

Having worked in both countries, I have learned a thing or two about the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Both are beautiful countries, where you can travel widely, have a lot of fun, and gain valuable teaching experience. However there are some drawbacks, and some unscrupulous employers, so here is a checklist of things to consider when contemplating a job offer in the region.

1  Are you aware of the current political climate?  Both countries have very vocal populist movements which are anti-immigration, and very anti-Muslim. In last year’s general elections in Slovakia, the extremist right wing parties got almost 25% of the vote. This can make living there uncomfortable, especially as people feel free to voice their dislike of immigrants, especially those whose religion or skin colour differs from their own. And even the people who don’t mind the immigrants hate the gypsies. This is something to consider – how will you deal with people voicing these opinions in your class? Don’t think they that won’t – I’ve had many a class descend into a diatribe about gypsies, irrespective of the original topic. If you can’t deal with this, then a job in central Europe, and I’d include Hungary and Poland in this, is probably not for you.

2  Where are you going to be located?  There’s a huge cultural difference between small towns and big towns in the region. If you’re someone who loves the outdoors and is happy spending a lot of time on their own, or with a very limited number of fellow ex-pats, then you’ll probably be fine in a small town, or within an hour’s travel of a bigger one. If, however, you crave company, enjoy concerts and the latest movies and love eating out on a regular basis, then you’re probably better off in one of the bigger cities. Either way, doing some research to find out what’s available in the area around the place where you’ll be living is a good idea.

If you can, it’s a good idea to visit the town before moving there, but even this isn’t foolproof, as visiting during the summer when tourists are around won’t show you what the place is like during winter.

3 Where are you going to live?  Some employers will offer you a flat which goes with the job, others will find you something near the school. But be aware that what your employer thinks is suitable for you may not fit your needs. Ask for photos of the place and check out public transport links if you’re going to need them, before committing. I spent an awful first night in the Czech Republic in a small cottage with no glass above the front door, and insecure back door, with traffic hurtling past on the main road all night long. By 8am the next morning I had my bags packed and asked my boss to take me to the nearest hotel, where I stayed until I could find somewhere better to live. If you can, stay in a hotel for the first night or two, to ease the culture shock. Because there will be culture shock, no matter how prepared you think you are.

Also, check how much of your salary you will need to spend on rent, and how much the deposit on a rented flat will be. Some landlords will want two or three months rent up front – two for the deposit and the first month’s rent, so you will need to have this in your account when you arrive.

4  Will you have a contract or be a freelance worker?  This is becoming a huge issue in this part of the world, as employers are moving away from employing staff and relying instead on freelance workers. This is fine if you just want to teach for a year or two, but as well as having to pay your own tax, social insurance and health insurance you will not have any holiday or sick pay, and this can leave you very vulnerable. And if you do have a contract, do you have a guaranteed monthly salary? If not, you will be paid by the hour and may well find yourself in a position where some months you don’t have enough hours worked to enable you to pay the rent.

If possible, speak to a teacher who is currently working in the school and find out what their average monthly hours were, so you have an idea of when the quiet times are, when you will earn less. Plan ahead. Also, check how long the school is closed at times like Christmas and Easter. It’s not unusual for a school to be closed for 2 or 3 weeks at Christmas and even if you are on a contract, you may not be paid for all of that time. So be prepared to work extra hours when things are good so that you can put money aside for the quieter months.

You may also want to consider additional work, such as proofreading or online teaching, as this can be a valuable source of additional income. Some schools will also allow you to take on private students – if you are a freelance teacher, there’s nothing to stop you doing this. However private students can attend class erratically, and don’t always pay up on time, if at all.

Also, check what the local average salary for teachers is. While the local salary may be adequate for someone from that area who has family and friends to rely on, it may not be enough for a foreign teacher to live on, particularly if you want to travel while living in the area. Also, local teachers paid on a lower wage within the same school may be resentful of your higher salary, and can make this very obvious.

5  Check your entitlements.  There are a number of ex-pay websites which give details of what workers are entitled to in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These include things like a meal allowance and paid breaks, as well as holiday entitlements. Your employer may not be aware that they need to pay you these things, or they may choose not to tell you about what you are entitled to, so you need to find this out yourself. The Slovak Spectator, Slovakia’s main English language newspaper, has a list of answers to frequently asked questions about employment relations in Slovakia which is worth checking out. Expats.cz has similar information for the Czech Republic.

6  Find your local English language newspaper, a local ex-pats association and register with your country’s embassy.  Your local English language newspaper will have details of events happening in your area, which your colleagues, who may not be as interested in local culture as you are, may not know about. There are also lots of ex-pat groups which are useful in terms of making contacts, and for finding information about issues like registering with the foreign police, where to find decent healthcare, etc. If you are really lucky, they may also run social events and outings.  I have happy memories of a trip to the Czech national wine cellar at Valtice – at least I have happy memories of getting there, the journey home was a bit hazy! Also, register with your country’s embassy so that they know you are in the country and also because they too sometimes send out invitations to social events.

7  Get used to waiting. You will need to register with the foreign police in your area, also with social security and the local health service. This will usually involve multiple visits and a lot of waiting. Also, despite the fact that staff at the foreign police work with foreigners every day, don’t expect them to speak English – they don’t / won’t. If possible, get someone who can translate to go with you. A good employer will do this automatically, others will need some persuasion. And if you’re moving to Slovakia, be prepared to pay for your registration with the foreign police in postage stamps! Yes, really. Shiny beads and magic beans, on the other hand, are not accepted, despite the local love for fairytales.

8  Do you have any special dietary needs? Be prepared to spend time searching for normal ingredients, and to spend even more time searching for anything unusual. And be prepared for items to be available occasionally, if at all. If you like fresh coriander don’t move to either of these countries – you won’t be able to find it! You will find yourself making multiple trips to the supermarket in order to find what you need, and if you need anything from a health food shop this will take time and patience, and a lot of searching. However most supermarkets do have a limited range of diabetic and gluten free products, and they have things like tofu. But if, like me, you’re vegan and like the occasional non-tofu meat substitute you may need to plan a trip to your nearest town around this. Asian supermarkets, like Seoul Plaza in Bratislava, are treasure troves of products not only from Asia, but also from the UK and USA, so don’t overlook them. I still have happy memories of travelling home from there with a packet of Linda McCartney sausages and devouring the lot in one go! But you will pay extra for these products, so make sure you have plenty of money when you go shopping there.

9  Don’t register with the first doctor recommended to you. Take your time and search out one who speaks English – get advice from local ex-pats. It’s worth the effort because there’s nothing worse than trying to communicate with someone who can’t speak your language when you’re ill.

Going to the doctor in this part of the world involves a lot of waiting. In many cases you can’t make an appointment with a doctor, you find out when their office hours are and turn up a couple of hours before that if you want to be at the front of the queue.  Dealing with a general practitioner is usually quite straightforward, but getting hospital treatment can be a nightmare, and the staff may try to deny you treatment if they don’t understand you. Be prepared to insist on being seen, and have a friend/colleague on the other end of the phone to argue with the hospital staff if you have to go there on your own. Hospitals can vary – in the Czech Republic my local hospital in Blansko was quite modern and the staff made a lot of effort to try to understand me, but I would rather go without medical treatment than ever set foot in Piestany hospital in Slovakia again. Check with colleagues as it may be better to travel to a hospital further away than to go to the one in your town.

One thing that seemed very odd to me is that doctors in the Czech Republic and Slovakia do not have receptionists. Instead they have a nurse who works in their room with them. So when you arrive you have to wait for the door to open and thrust yourself in front of the patient being treated, so that they know that you are there and need to be seen. This seems horribly rude the first few times you do it, but you get used to it. Very occasionally the doctor’s waiting room will have a list to which you can add your name, so make sure you look for one. Other patients in the waiting room will point it out to you if they’re feeling helpful.

10  Staying connected. You may need to take out a wifi contract if your home doesn’t already have one. Shop around, and you may find a deal that includes your mobile phone and/or cable tv package. However be aware that a lot of these deals run for a minimum of two years, so if you only stay for one year you will have to either find someone to take over the remaining contract period from you, or pay a penalty charge for early termination.

I hope at least some of these tips are useful to you. I spent 4 years working in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and it was a great experience. It’s a beautiful part of the world with endless opportunities to travel and discover something new. The language is very difficult but it won’t take long before you learn a few basic phrases and then you’re on your way. The local beers, which are excellent, will also help you achieve fluency 🙂

If there’s anything I haven’t covered above please leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

Good luck and happy travels.






Spring has sprung

And that means that my students have to produce spring-related posters. This is what they came up with.


Basic is an understatement, but it’s impossible to get Portuguese teenagers to produce anything if it’s not related to an exam.  😦


I’ve spent a lot of time working on tests recently. While tests can, of course, assess students skills relating to reading, writing, listening and reading, there are a lot of things tests can’t assess. This photo I saw on Facebook illustrates some of them.


10 types of students you meet when teaching English

Having been a teacher for a while, I’ve noticed that no matter where I teach, there are some students who have a lot in common. I’ve come up with 10 groups which include many of the students I’ve met during the past 5 years. I wonder if you recognise any of them from your own experience?

1  The cancellation artist. These are usually individual  students, and although they can be very charming, they tend to wait until the last minute to let you know that they won’t be coming to the lesson, and can they please change the lesson to another day? And they do this all the time, usually when you’re already in the classroom waiting for them. Sometimes it gets to the point where they’re paying more for the classes they don’t attend than for those they do! When they do turn up to class they’re great, it’s just getting them there that’s the problem.

2  The exam student. Often studying English so that they can get into a university abroad, these students, usually teenagers, can be terrifying because they’re so incredibly motivated and incredibly committed. And they often speak English very well already. It can be intimidating for a teacher to deal with a student who speaks English nearly as well as you do, hoovers up all the work you give them and asks for more, and more, and more. On the other hand, these students are also very rewarding to teach, and it’s so satisfying when you get the call to say that they’ve passed the exam and been admitted to the course of their dreams.

3  The happy hobbyist. These have probably been the largest group of students that I’ve dealt with, and they are a lot of fun to teach. If there’s no pressure in terms of tests or exams, lessons can proceed at the pace set by the students, and can often go off at a tangent. But as long as everyone’s interested, nobody minds. They want to learn a language but there’s also a social side to the classes. It can be very interesting to teach students like this, because they don’t mind discussing what’s going on locally – a good way for a foreign teacher to learn about local events and personalities. They also enjoy the occasional “liquid lesson” down the pub at the end of term.

4  The job hunter / promotion seeker. These students need to speak English so that they can either get an interview for a job at a multinational company in their area (often Ryanair), or so they can be promoted in the job they already have. They are often very motivated, but can get discouraged if they interviews they want don’t happen. Be prepared to give lots of interview advice and to help them with their CV.

5  The traveller / sportsperson. Eager to improve their language skills so that they can communicate better on their travels, these students tend to be interesting people with a wider worldview than some of their peers. Although some of them can be obsessive about their favourite sport – be prepared for in-depth discussions of fishing, skiing or ice hockey – they are often happy to digress into other areas and can be a lot of fun to teach. And they give great travel tips!

6  The company class student. Attending classes because their employer requires it, the motivation level of these students can vary, as can the level of English they speak. Some of these students are happy to have time away from their desks, but others attend the classes reluctantly, and are happy to let you know that they don’t want to be there! You will have a lot of cancelled classes, when workloads get higher or audits are scheduled. Absenteeism is also a factor in group classes, which makes progress hard to monitor. You will spend a lot of time listening to discussions about office politics, giving you an interesting view into life at the companies where you teach.

7  The professional. These people often have company classes, or individual classes they pay for themselves, and want to learn English that is specific to their job. Over the years I have taught medical English, legal English, English for the fashion industry, English for customer service, and technical English, as well as classroom management vocabulary for teachers. All were interesting in different ways, and it’s amazing how you end up knowing about things you never anticipated, such as pharmaceutical development processed, or photocopier repair.

8  The disaffected teen. These are probably the biggest challenge for any English teacher, especially when dealt with in large groups. They take advantage of you not knowing their language, and use this to discuss you when you are in the same room, usually in terms that you would not find flattering. Often in class only because their parents want them to be there, their motivation can be very low, and their reluctance to participate can be very difficult to deal with. Add to this the fact that they are teenagers, their hormones are kicking in, and they feel a desperate need to fit in, and to be popular, and these classes can be very demanding. On the other hand, sometimes you get all the teenagers interested in a particular topic and they get engaged and involved, and the class flies by! If only the topics that interest them were easy to predict.

9  The bored housewife. For this student, learning a language is a way of filling up their time between cleaning their house and picking their kids up from school. They can be very difficult to deal with, especially in conversation classes, as they simply don’t have very much to talk about – apart from their house, their husband and their kids. I had one student who had no hobbies or interests she could discuss, who cleaned house for her abusive ex-husband on a regular basis despite being afraid of him, and whose idea of a good day out was to travel to another city to clean house for her daughter before travelling back home again. And she was not interested in changing her lifestyle in any way. I thought she really needed help, far more than an English teacher could provide. Students like this will drain all of the energy out of a room and you will spend a lot of time gazing forlornly at the clock in the corner, the hands of which appear to be stubbornly refusing to move.

10  The “English as a status symbol” student. These are the students who want to have classes with a native speaker, so that they can impress their friends. For them, the important thing is that they’re having classes, the fact that they make little or no progress, and continue to make the same mistakes they’ve been making for years, is irrelevant. I sometimes refer to these students as “fur coat and no knickers”, as they’re the ones who know all of the big impressive words, while failing to grasp the rudiments of grammar. So they can’t use in, on, or at correctly but they can throw out obscure words like calumniation, which they don’t realise that nobody uses in normal conversation. The fact that these students are far more interested in the sound of their own voice than in anything their teacher has to say makes teaching them virtually impossible. And there’s no chance they will do homework. Ever!

I’m sure you’ve met some, if not all, of these students. There are probably lots more groups that I haven’t thought of. Teaching being what it is, I may well come up with a completely different list of groups in the future. Stay tuned!






Meeting the parents


This week I had my first experience of meeting the parents of the students I teach. Although I’ve been teaching English for over 4 years I haven’t done this bef0re – because my students have mostly been adults and the children I’ve taught have usually been related to people I’ve worked with. So this was interesting.

Not many of the parents turned up. This wasn’t really surprising, as I’d been forewarned that this might be the case. And as this is test-writing season I had plenty of work to do anyway, so wasn’t too worried about the gaps between parents. And those parents who did turn up were lovely, and very concerned about how their child was doing. I really enjoyed meeting them. And now I can see who the kids resemble, and where they get some of their mannerisms. Of the parents that turned up, 3 identified themselves as teachers (do teachers care more about how their kids behave towards other teachers than other parents?) and the majority were mothers – I only met one Dad. And it was largely the parents of the well-behaved students that I spoke to. Which wasn’t a problem in one way – I got to say all the nice stuff and didn’t have to complain about their kid’s behaviour in my class. And I could be really encouraging instead of having to raise negative aspects of their child’s behaviour.

But really, it’s the other parents that I want to speak to. The parents whose kid doesn’t come to class very often, the parents whose kid is badly behaved, and is rude to me and to their classmates. The parents whose kid has a sixth sense about when we’re going to do something difficult in a particular class (like writing) and doesn’t turn up. The parents whose kids don’t have any idea about how to wait their turn to speak, or how not to disrupt the whole class because they don’t have a pencil, or a pencil sharpener, or whose kids spend the class kicking other kids, or swearing at me in Portuguese because they think I don’t understand (hello, I can understand your tone of voice, and your body language). But I guess those parents are the ones that prefer to avoid meeting the teachers.

What those parents don’t seem to realise, or maybe they do and don’t want to face up to it, is that the behaviour of their kids reflects on them. I can see where the kids learn their behaviour, not just in how they behave, but in what they say. And in how they talk about their families. I can see these kids as the adults they will become.

I worry about how some of the kids I teach now will manage in the future, when they have to fend for themselves in an ever-competitive employment market, where behaving like a rude, entitled brat just won’t work out in their favour. I can see that some of the behaviour I deal with on a daily basis in my workplace will not be tolerated by future employers and co-workers. And I can see that some of  the kids I teach may well be considered as being unemployable, because no-one has ever addressed the fact that their behaviour is inappropriate and unacceptable, and that it cannot be allowed to continue.

So next week I will reach out to some of those parents. I will ask them to come and see me, so that I can tell them about the problems with their kids. And I will tell them, as gently as I can, that if they don’t help to solve these problems they’re going to have to deal with bigger problems down the line. These won’t be easy conversations to have, but I’m willing to make the effort. I hope that the parents will meet me halfway.


When the kids just won’t get off their phones…

The teacher turns collector. This was taken during the summer. I only had to do it once. Next day there wasn’t a phone in sight.