A big hearty welcome to Alex, our first international subject* of So What Do You Do Exactly? Alex lives in Turkey, teaching English to both willing and unwilling students alike, many of whom ask him for the definitions of awkward English phrases like “premature ejaculation.”
What’s your actual job title? I’m both a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) and English Language Instructor at a regional university outside of a major Turkish city.
What would your job title be if it described what you actually did all day? English Language Instructor is reasonably accurate, but it’s still missing something about socially drinking çay [Turkish tea]. I came to Turkey expecting to be a “native speaker” informant (running conversation classes, helping grade, doing side projects, etc.) for Turkish English-language instructors, but ended up being the sole instructor for five to six classes per semester, with only the name of the class I was supposed to teach to guide me (my favorite: “British Culture”**).
What’s a sample day like? Let’s take a busy day, which starts the night before:
Three to four hours on the internet trying to come up with grammar points (also relevant, fun, interactive activities). Curse that my students don’t all have working emails, that there is no way to make photocopies, and that nobody would do a worksheet anyway. Go to sleep, nervous about running out of things to do in class and being left with 40 pairs of eyes staring at me blankly.
9:00am: Yogurt with honey, walk down a smog-filled road to the dolmuş (shared minibus) stop. You pass your fare to the person ahead of you, who passes it up to the driver in a chain. If there’s change remaining, the still-driving driver passes it back to you person-to-person in the same way.
10:30: Class. Mostly slogging through my syllabus, and fending off personal questions (TEACHER DO YOU DRINK ALCOHOL?). Mostly lapse into chatting and walking around the room while they do in-class writing assignments (can’t copy from the internet!) Field some more questions (always about my personal life, never about grammar) and head over to drink çay and chat with the guys in my office.
1:00–5:00: Teach more classes, chat with the other American in the office over how ridiculous our students are. Go into “American Culture” class and give a Powerpoint which they will later memorize word-for-word and regurgitate on my short-response test specifically designed against regurgitation. They tell me how the Illuminati and the Jews run the U.S. Government. I’m speechless.
6:00–7:00: Bağlama [a Turkish folk instrument] lesson from a teacher in the music department.
Come home, realize I have to do more lesson-planning. Facebook. Lesson-plan. Look forward to some adventure on the weekend (what keeps me going.) Wish for a job that doesn’t spill over into my home life.
You weren’t a teacher before this program, right? How does one learn to teach on the spot? Classic sink-or-swim. I’d say I’m doing a decent doggie-paddle. I had volunteered to teach informal English classes to recent immigrants in Chicago’s Chinatown, but it didn’t really prepare me at all for the actual terror of coming home from a tiring day of class and thinking, “What the hell am I going to teach tomorrow?” It is a great learning experience to create syllabi and find course materials and write and grade tests and have the complete freedom to run my classes how I want, but at the same time a little bit more guidance would have been nice. I don’t even have a course book to use!
Lessons for the next guy? Try to chill out, be interactive, and make friends with the internet. Over-plan, don’t under-plan. And, unlike me, don’t try to teach without a course book, even if you think they’re stupid. For your first time teaching, you need some sort of backbone that you can then improvise from.
Fulbright has been around for a while, right? Do you feel like it’s a relic of a past system or still worth investment in our nation’s youth? I do think it does a great job getting Americans into foreign places (Kırıkkale: pop. 200,000) that might not see a lot of us but hear and read a lot about us. We’re purposefully sent to cities off the expat track (no İstanbul), so I think it’s good promoting some sort of international contact in places that are usually left out of the global loop. Only after I came on the program did I come to appreciate how much of a tool for soft diplomacy I am, but I’ve made peace with that.
Do you think the U.S. would be a better place if all 22-year-olds did some foreign service? It’s hard to think of anything that everybody “should” do, but I’m gonna go ahead and say getting some perspective on who you are and where you come from is generally a good thing. Of course, there are many other ways of doing this than by being abroad, so I’ll compromise and say foreign service should be more accessible and available.
What did you learn about the English language or American customs that you had never realized was so unique until you tried to explain it to someone else? “Phrasal verbs!” (e.g. verbs that are combined with prepositional phrases for differences in meaning, like “give up” or “pass out”). English has tons of them, and they’re weird and hard for non-native speakers.
I’ve appreciated more fully how awesomely diverse the U.S. is. Turks eat…Turkish food. Not much dietary variation (though there is some regional variation). I’ve come to appreciate how America’s culinary landscape is constantly changing and borrowing from itself and other traditions.
On another front, while there’s definitely cultural erasure in the U.S., Turkey hasn’t done a great job either. For instance, to become a Turk you must adopt a Turkish last name. I now have a strange, overwhelming sense of pride reading the names in the credits at the end of an American movie.
Higher education is a much debated thing in the U.S., what with rising costs and debatable preparation for the real world. How do the Turks look at it differently? One great thing is that the Turkish education system, including higher education, is essentially free. That said, it does sort of encourage young people to go to college for want of something else to do. Problems start early. I’ve had many Turks tell me this: educators are continuously, and fairly, complaining about ‘the system.’ Your score on a national university entrance exam determines both a) what university you can attend and b) what department you can take classes in. If you change departments, you must change schools. If you are in a department, you can essentially only take classes within that department, with the same students. For six hours a day. It sounds like hell to me. I understand why many of my students had problems paying attention.
Foreign language classes are traditionally teacher-focused and heavily multiple-choice test–based. In fact, classrooms even have a raised platform for the teacher and my classes were crammed with long benches that I couldn’t even arrange in a circle. These classes are mostly grammar-based and taught in Turkish. There’s this really messed-up governmental English test for which, with certain scores, you can get a pay raise, but the entire test is multiple-choice reading comprehension and grammar questions. No writing. No speaking. No listening. It’s absurd that it purports to measure language ability and also carries some serious real-life consequences. There are many dershane, or cram schools, that only teach English grammar as it applies to the test. But, no joke: I’ll meet people who’ve aced the test who can’t even hold a basic English conversation. Or, for that matter, English teachers who can’t even hold a basic English conversation.
So basically…let’s not look to Turkey to help fix our problems. They’ve got different problems of their own. To grossly simplify, we tend to have more problems of access, while they have more problems of quality.
What lessons from teaching college-aged Turks would apply in any American classroom? Has this made teaching your passion? Or turned you off of it forever? To put everything in perspective, I was thrown into the classroom with a week of training. I learned that no matter my energy and excitement for language, they’re not going to magically make everyone pay attention. I do like how, in teaching a language, shooting the shit with your students actually counts as teaching. I found those times to be the most effective for them, where they actually had to communicate with me in English, and most rewarding for me, where I got some insight into what their lives are like.
Finally, I really want to say that despite sounding negative about the job/education aspects of being here, I’ve met some truly lovely people and seen tons of beautiful things. And one of the most important lessons I’ll take away is learning to chill and take cues from those around me. The Turks love to sit around, drink çay, and shoot the breeze. As my boss told me, “You Americans work harder and get more done. But we know how to enjoy life.”
*The views expressed Alex’ and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.
**I made it into “American Culture,” and I now try to do some serious cultural essentialization to come up with something to teach to people who can’t even write a coherent paragraph in English.
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