Because I don’t have any better ideas, I’ll begin by describing the room I am in. It is a bedroom. It is a bedroom in my mum and stepdad’s house, in Bardsey, in Leeds, in Yorkshire, in England. It wasn’t always mine, this room: it used to be Charlie’s, back when he was finishing Sixth Form and I was away gallivanting. For many years, I had no permanent room in this house. That’s changed now: this room is largely considered to be “Dan’s’ room”, because for the last year or so I’ve been living in it. Nice to have a room.
When I say ‘living in it’, by the way, I do mean it. It’s been a funny sort of year. Not funny ha-ha, particularly, although I’m sure I’ve laughed plenty. When I say I’ve been living in this room, I mean that I’ve been spending the vast majority of my hours within it. Here is the outline of my average day since mid-February:
- Wake up in bedroom, go downstairs, scrag Millie about (pooch), make coffee, come back upstairs to bedroom.
- Drink coffee, read.
- At 8:30, plan lessons for the day. Each lesson takes ~5 mins to plan: intro, convo topics, grammar/vocab, outro. There’s a bit of an art to it. Here’s how I do it:
When interviewing new students during their first lesson, I ask about their hobbies and goals. I ask which parts of English they find hard, which are easy, which they enjoy and which they don’t. This helps me to plan lessons which are tailored to them and bang-on what they were hoping for.
For each student, 50% of the lesson is conversation. Nothing is as satisfying to a language-learner than the feeling of successfully chatting in another language. The grand secret to it all is that you don’t need to know much grammar or much vocabulary in order to be fluent: you just have to A) relax, and B) use everything at your disposal to communicate. Tone, body, expressions, surroundings, context, cultural references. I’ve had perfectly understandable and well-flowing chats with people who couldn’t even conjugate ‘have’ consistently.
To help the conversational half of the lesson along, I often make up little games. Nothing too crazy – just simple word games of the sort you might play at Christmas. I regularly play a Taboo-type game where the student has to describe a film / book / celebrity / country and I have to guess what it is. They always enjoy that one; we laugh a lot. That’s the aim: to get them to forget they’re learning.
For the second half of the lesson, I usually give the student a choice: reading, I ask, or grammar? Phrasal verbs or idioms? I find that letting them choose between several options gives them control and keeps them attentive. When I first started I often got this wrong: planned a whole grammar lesson and then presented the student with it only to see their face droop with sorrow. So now I ask what they’re in the mood for.
If it’s a grammar lesson, I choose a topic from this giant grammar book I keep on my desk. My mum bought it for me as a gift when I first started, because I quickly realised that although I have a great instinct for cadence and whatnot, my ability to explain the ‘why’ of any of it was pedestrian at best. Through this book I learned all about conjunctions and prepositions and conditionals, and I learned about all the ways we use adverbs and the difference between ‘I ate’ and ‘I have eaten’ – all of that stuff which I used to hate as a writer, because I felt that giving language too many strict rules was turning an art into a science. In fact, I’m very glad to have learned the rules. Knowingly breaking them is great for comedy:
“How absolutely dare you?”
Grammar lessons are very labour-intensive on my part. When you do your TEFL training, you learn that, as teacher, you’re not meant to talk too much – but this is tricky during grammar lessons, because often the student has no clue what you’re talking about initially, and you need to provide many examples of a concept until it finally clicks. Major grammar breakthroughs are perhaps the most satisfying part of teaching English as a foreign language. Watching somebody’s eyes become clear and sparkly when they finally grasp a difficult grammar concept is a real treat – particularly if it’s one that’s plagued them for years. You feel like you’ve really done something for them.
If it’s not grammar, I teach vocabulary. These types of lessons are easier, because I have to talk less and think less, but they’re satisfying too because I feel as though I’m giving real value to the student. I teach vocab not through bland lists of words, but through book chapters and magazine articles. I choose things I think the student will like. I read Harry Potter with some students, or Holes by Louis Sachar with students who seem less whimsically-inclined. Sometimes I get a C1 or even C2 student, and then I bring out the big guns and throw some classic literature at them.
I ask the student to read a paragraph or two at a time, and then I ask them questions about it: what’s going on? What does this phrase mean? What’s your opinion? What is the opposite of this word here? And to help them, I write down any new vocabulary in a big list in a personalised Google Doc I create for them in our first lesson (formatted fanatically, of course; I’m a neat freak when it comes to documents). I list any new words we come across, and beside each I give a definition. Then, in italic blue font, I give an example sentence, like this:
Horse (noun) – A large animal used for transport, with long legs that help it to run very fast.
It’s not hard to explain something like, I dunno, ‘cacophony’, for example, because if a student is asking what that word means, they’re likely to be at a high level already, and this allows me to explain it to them in standard English, as you might explain a piece of slang to your parents. Similarly, if an A2 student asks what ‘tumultuous’ or whatever means, I just say ‘don’t worry about that for now’. Because there’s no point having ‘tumultuous’ in your vocabulary when the rest of it consists of phrases like ‘my dog is brown’ and ‘I like to swim’.
The really hard bit comes when a student of a middling English level, near-fluent with a lot of mistakes, asks me what is meant by abstract terms like ‘lend’ and ‘owe’ – and I can’t use any vocabulary that a six-year-old wouldn’t be familiar with.
“Well, it’s… right, okay. Let’s say you need some money.”
“Who need some money?”
“I don’t ask for money.”
“No, I know. But imagine you do need money. As an example. Okay?”
“What is ‘imagine’?”
“It’s like ‘pretend.'”
“What is ‘pretend?'”
“Okay, okay. Let’s start again. Acting, okay? We will do some acting. Now, you need some money. I give you money. But you can’t keep it forever. This means you ‘owe’ me money.”
“So you borrow me money?”
“No, you borrow money from me.”
“Okay, I borrow you money.”
“No no, you borrow money from me. Or, I suppose, you could say you borrow my money. And then you also owe me my money. No wait, hang on–”
And on and on. There’s always Google Translate, but I only use it as a last resort. Feels like a cop-out.
And then at the end of the lesson, sometimes but not always, I give homework. Some students love homework. Others are indifferent. Nobody is annoyed at least, because in order to avoid them feeling stressed or guilty, I always make sure to remind them that the homework isn’t crucial, and that while the students who make the most progress do do the homework, I personally couldn’t give a fig if they complete it or not.
Sometimes students do amazing homework: entire presentations, detailed stories, fantastical diaries – I’ve been blown away. And I always relish the chance to go over their homework together and see what nutty things they’ve cooked up. I always try and give creative, weird homeworks, you see: Write the diary of a penguin living in New York. Write a letter to your uncle, Dracula. Describe a family trip to Atlantis.
So: that’s basically what I do when I plan my lessons.
- At 9 or sometimes 8am I begin teaching. This goes on until around 7pm most days, with between one and three hours of breaks depending on how my schedule gets booked out. Sometimes I have to teach five lessons back to back, with only a minute between: that is very tiring. It was so tiring, in fact, that when I first started teaching I used to have to fight to keep my eyes open on occasion. I even lost a student because of it, once, humiliatingly: I was teaching a Thai student and my eyes kept closing when he was talking to me, and he must have noticed because he never booked another lesson. Those were distressing times, but I’m used to it now. I can do eight or nine lessons in a day without too much of a problem.
- In between lessons, I eat and apply for jobs. I am applying for jobs because teaching online, although I love it dearly, pays very little, and if I ever want to save up any money (in order to retrain as a teacher full-time in a few years’ time), I need to take another full-time job while tutoring on the side. Since October I have applied for around 100 jobs. I have had a handful of interviews, but it has never been a good match. I got very close, once: I was informed I had come second out of a total of 600 candidates.
600 candidates. I remember applying for a job in London back in 2021. I got the role, and they told me I’d beaten a whopping 100 applicants. In Bristol, 2019, they congratulated me on beating 30 applicants to get the job. 600 people? That’s twenty times more! That’s the whole army of Leonidas at Thermopylae – twice!!!!!!! It’s pretty dire out there for writers these days – but hey, got to keep faith that something will come along. And if it doesn’t? Well, maybe that’ll push me to set up classes in person – start a business, make money on my own terms. And how terrifying and how wonderful that will be.
- When I finish teaching at 7pm, about 30% of the time I do a workout. Nothing insane, just 30-40 minutes of moderate intensity stuff, with a specific focus on my back and posture because sitting down all day is bad for you. I’ve started doing deadlifts recently, which are fun, but they also make me need a wee which I imagine is an indicator that I’m doing them wrong in some way.
- And then I eat dinner and go to bed and that’s it.
So, as I say: I lived in this room for the last year. And somehow, against all odds, it wasn’t a dreadful year. It wasn’t even a bland year. Yeah, I might not have done much beyond working and a couple of brief-but-intense holidays, but it’s actually been one of the loveliest, most wholesome, most peaceful years I’ve had since I entered my twenties. It’s not been easy, but looking back, it’s been a pretty beautiful ten months.