Teacher Tim's TEFL International Blog November 26th, 2011

Will Hay Redux

I dote on the old clowns and vaudevillians who messed about on the silver screen during the 1920’s, 30’s & 40’s. I’ve just recently run across a gifted British comedian from nearly 80 years ago.

Will Hay.

In many of his films he portrays a seedy school master who is given to boozing, womanizing, and gambling – always caught up short by the board of governors at his school, but managing to wiggle out of difficulty with some chicanery and sleight of hand by the end of the movie. A lovable rogue, who reminds me uncannily of many ESL teachers in Thailand.

I think the reason he was such a roaring success w/our grandfathers (and deserves to be revived today) is because of the universal and eternal disrespect schoolmasters generate. For every Mr. Chips bidding us goodbye, there are at least a dozen of the Will Hay variety, blustering like a calliope to cover up their ignorance and sloth. Just think of Cameron Diaz in ‘Bad Teacher’ last summer; a blockbuster that set educational standards back by at least 50 years.

While on sabbatical recently in the States I had the chance to attend my grandson’s Spanish language class for a few days. I thought it might be fun to compare ESL notes with his teacher. I’m not saying his teacher was a duplicate of Will Hay, but . . .

Well, you be the judge.

My grandson attends a special school, since his parents believe he is ‘precocious’ (that means his mother thinks he’s a genius and his father thinks he is lippy.) It’s a private school, with the kind of student-to-teacher ratio most farang teachers can only dream of in Thailand. My grandson’s Spanish class has just 3 other students besides himself in it.

My grandson has been studying Spanish for 3 years now. He assures me that Spanish is the easiest language on earth to learn, and that he can ace the tests anytime he wants to. Since he hasn’t aced any yet that I know of, I guess he just doesn’t want to. The other day on a walk we passed a church with a billboard in Spanish. I asked him what it said. He replied that it said Saturday was a church meeting, please. I puzzled out the billboard myself, since I lived in Mexico for a number of years, and figured out it said Sunday School classes at 10am, all are welcome.

This is just to show that I am not prejudiced; I know that my grandson is a lazy scamp who’d rather play Angry Birds than crack open a textbook. He reminds me a lot of most of the ESL students I had to contend with in Thailand. Heck, he reminds me of me at that age!

So how does his Spanish teacher, Senor Barbuto, manage to instill any Iberian knowledge in the rattling gourd that passes for the head of my grandson?

He’s rather casual about it. Doesn’t yell or rap a yardstick on the whiteboard. He uses the usual immersion method; when in class he speaks nothing but Spanish and expects his students to reply in nothing but Spanish, which means that half the time they are so tongue-tied you can hear a tortilla drop. When his scholars rebel and start to speak Gringo he retires to his desk to read until they stop it. Sometimes that takes just a minute, sometimes it takes 15 minutes. No matter, he patiently waits them out, not interacting with them at all until they go back to Spanish.

All the tests are open book tests (and yet, as I’ve said, my grandson has never aced one yet!)

Every Spanish teacher I have ever known my entire life can play the guitar, and brings it to class at the drop of a hat to teach their pupils Spanish songs. Except Senor Barbuto. He recited a poem in Spanish, instead; something about a bull and a cricket. It had an extraordinary lilt about it, and I managed to pick it up easily, along with the rest of the class. When we got home that day I nearly bowled my grandson over in my eagerness to show my daughter I had learned a poem in Spanish, but my grandson beat me to the punch and recited it, word perfect, for his doting mother, who immediately gave him a stack of Oreos and a tall glass of milk – while I was summarily ordered to take out the garbage and generally make myself useful around the place, since I was sleeping on their couch in lieu of renting a hotel room.

Now you and I know that to reinforce knowledge of a foreign language you have to repeat the material, sometimes hammering it to death, so the students will retain it. Senor Barbuto, I am sorry to say, did no such thing. The next day he moved on to something else. Well, I bided my time, and at the end of the week I slyly asked my grandson if he could remember that lovely little Spanish poem we had learned earlier in the week, the one his mother had so liked? We were sitting at the dinner table, with his mother beaming at him in a sickening manner. The little beggar began it, then fizzled out after just the first stanza.

Hah! Now I had him where I wanted him. So I began, in ringing tones, the little ditty about the bull and the cricket who met in a meadow and who . . . who . . . well, I mean to say, they both . . .well, I could say it much better in Thai than in Spanish . . .

The upshot was neither one of us got milk & cookies that day.

Had I been Will Hay, I might have gone looking for something a little stronger.