Germany was intended to be a sort of halfway house for the novice expat retiree. I could scrape the rust off my decades-old college German and draw on the experiences of several earlier short vacations there. It was meant to be a gentle, gradual immersion into European culture and being away from my own nest. And in some ways, it was. I was ensconced in a bubble of English language speakers. Both Ulla and Helmut, my very kind and generous hosts for six weeks speak English well and in the 11 years we’ve known each other, since my son Mac and I, hosted their son Martin as a high school exchange student in Arlington, Va., we’ve become close friends. Moreover, I spent four weeks in an all-English speaking course in Frankfurt, learning how to teach English to adult speakers of other languages. That turned out to be unexpectedly brutal.
I’d been warned that the Cambridge certification course (CELTA) was intense. But I figured (as did all my fellow trainees), how hard can it really be? Answer: Very. It wasn’t so much the difficulty of the material. Although much of it was new to me it wasn’t as if I were trying to understand quantum physics. Reviewing and analyzing the language was relatively easy and fun. (Thanks Mrs. Graham for requiring us to diagram sentences in the 6th and 7th grade!) And the pedagogy was, for the most part, logical and readily understandable, once the concepts were made clear.
But putting it all together? It was like trying to simultaneously skip, rub your stomach, pat your head and whistle Dixie—while dodging a barrage of spitballs.
The hours were long: Three hours of “input” sessions in the AM, followed by a half-hour of feedback from the previous day’s teaching practice. Then, an hour break for lunch—often spent frantically making handouts and organizing materials for an upcoming lesson—followed by 2 plus hours of practice teaching. If you weren’t in front of the class, you were behind it, critiquing your fellow trainees and desperately praying not to fall into the same pitfalls when it was your turn. And, finally at the end of the day, a session with the tutor to plan your next lesson. Then home, to work on either the lesson plan, language analysis or lexis analysis (fancy terms for grammar work and vocabulary) or one of the four mandatory written assignments. I haven’t had so many 2 AM nights in a row in decades. And, as my former compatriots at Kiplinger know—I was the queen of late-night work!
But the most difficult part, hands-down, was simply dealing with no longer being the accomplished old-timer who had the routine down pat. It was humbling, even downright humiliating, to have a teaching practice fall flat or an assignment handed back as inadequate. It sometimes seemed to me that I learned everything just too late to put it to use in my lessons. Perhaps my son comes by his learning behavior –an experiential type who has to burn his fingers before he believes the stove really is hot—naturally. After a surprisingly successful first teaching practice, I felt as if I crashed and burned with each new lesson. The next time, I’d solve the problems encountered in the last lesson only to stumble on a whole new set of obstacles.
In the end, I passed, with a good recommendation from my tutors and a touching endorsement from some of the students. That feels great. I made some new friends. I now have confidence that when I take on a teaching gig, I have some notion of what I should be doing. And for four solid weeks, I wasn’t bored for a single moment.