5 March 2011

It's a two way learning curve

Teaching English as a Foreign Language, makes you realise how stereotyped the British are in text books.  Breakfasts are shown as bacon, egg, fried bread etc which I try to tell students is  only a rare occurence these days as time constraints and working mothers, mean no-one has the time to do this unless at a weekend.  The photographs showing British food still stick to the old roast beef, fish and chips image, which I do find depressing considering how the food industry in the UK has radically altered in the last 20 odd years.  The one thing I do find amusing, is how popular Jamie Oliver is over here.  His series, sub-titled of course, have been shown on portuguese cable stations and his books (translated into portuguese) are everywhere in the book shops.

When I first started teaching, I had a class of the most wonderful people.  They all worked for   an international school - the ladies as cleaners, playground supervisors and the two men were  the gardener and the security man.  It was an ecletic mix of ages, nationalities and education.  One lovely lady could neither read or write, but the classes seem to give her confidence and she started to blossom.  The majority were Portuguese but I had a Romanian and three Ukranians, who were all very interesting.  One thing I found out, and still find sad, is that all the Ukranians had had good jobs back in their own countries - one had been a lawyer, one a nurse and one an engineer - but due to the strict rules and regulations here, none of them could afford the cost of the exams to enable them to practice their professions here. 

It is very hard to cater for classes such as this as some had a smattering of English gained, either at school or in some cases, when their families had left Portugal when the revolution happened and had gone to Germany, France or Switzerland and returned many years later, others knew nothing at all.  I began by making lots of collages of things from magazines and the free supermarket flyers and then making a sheet of paper with boxes with the names in English.  I put them in groups and let them sort out how to match it all.  It was hilarious.  There were squabbles, giggles, confusion and then, total success.  It was a great start and then we moved on to Hangman - which was a class favourite, closely followed by a version of 'Give us a Clue'.  They soon started to gain confidence, although you always get one who never, ever speaks because they are shy, but you know they know, which can be frustrating.

We covered all sorts of topics over the year from cinema, soap operas - they love them, houses and who had the most verandas, gardens, family trees, professions - one of the girls was married to a policeman who was a dog handler and in 2004 for the Euro 2004 being held in Portugal, they had to go out of the country to buy new police dogs.  It was not really possible to follow a book without making some of the class feel inadequate because their level of education was, in the most part, very poor due to the fact that the education system in Portugal under Salazar was dreadful. 

The ladies taught me a lot about themselves, their families, the life in Portugal before and after the revolution, all sorts of tips on cookery and cleaning but one lesson that stands out was the one I had to teach about swearing.  The headmistress wanted the playground supervisors to be able to recognise specific sentences so as to prevent them being used. Obviously, the men were not present in this particular class.  I blushed at the beginning because the idea of teaching some of the older, very shy, ladies our rich Anglo Saxon swear words, was a bit daunting, however they loved it and I also learnt some vocabulary that I would not find normally in a small dictionary.  It then degenerated into a riot of giggling and tittering and in some cases, tears of laughter.  Then, colloquial parts of the body - we were nearly helpless by this stage as it involved quite a bit of miming by me and by the more outrageous members of the class.  I taught them for a year and it was the best training ground ever. 

Once they gained confidence, we would often, using both languages, talk about their lives before they worked at the school.  The security man had been a soldier during the Angloan War and talked about the experience of going to Angola by boat.  One of the ladies had been a shepherdess as a young girl in the north of the country before moving to the Lisbon area.  Another had lived in Switzerland - it was fascinating.  Their interest in everything English was sweet. They knew all about the Royal Family and had varying views on Prince Charles!  All loved the late Princess Diana.  They well very well up on music and the security man's favourite music memory was seeing the Rolling Stones in Lisbon back in 1995 - he was still raving about it.  We also discussed film stars and I was amused to find out that Steven Segal and Arnie were great favourites on the male side and Julia Roberts was the preferred flavour of female.  All this brought up great vocabulary for them and for me learning the portuguese equivalent.

I was also invited out for their Christmas dinner when our Romanian lady excelled herself with the amount of gold she wrapped around herself.  During the Easter holiday I was ordered by about six of them, to get to the school by 8.30am for a surprise.  When I got there, I was kidnapped into a people carrier and we set off down the motorway with me having a guessing game with them on where we were going.  I failed miserably.  When we went over the 25 of April bridge I realised we were going south. In fact, they took me to Cabo Espichel - a fabulous place of pilgrimage with amazing views.

Igreja by Tiago C Lima
Cabo Espichel

We then visited the family house of one of the girls in a place called Lagoa de Albufeira, which was really interesting.  It was their holiday home and had amazing gardens with an outside barbeque area complete with washing up facilities, dining table and chairs.  We then went to the actual Lagoa and had a walk on the beach before going off for a super lunch in a small restaurant close by.  On the return trip we got stuck in the usual nightmare traffic leading back into Lisbon but we were entertained by one of the girls making eyes at a passing driver.  When I say 'girls', all the ladies were married (some not so happily) and had children but loved letting their hair down away from the ties of home.

Lagoa de Albufeira

Occasionally I still bump into one of the ladies and am greeted with hugs and kisses and requests for me to return - so touching.  They really took me to their hearts and vice versa.  It was my first teaching job and so far, the best I have ever had.  Thank you ladies - you know who you are.

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