Questions that will drive you barmy as a TEFL teacher

In the real world, what do you get when you ask a silly question? That’s right, a silly answer, a funny look, or even a slap round the chops. What about in class though? Have you got any pet hate questions that students ask you repeatedly, over and over again, which are pushing you to consider becoming a lollypop lady?

I don’t think I could ever be a lollypop lady: all that abuse from chavy English kids on a cold wet morning, the risk of getting run over by a mother driving her screaming kids to school while on her mobile phone, but mainly because they’d probably realise I was a bloke at the interview. 

I do have a few questions that chisel away at my knee cap and make me want to shout out certain expletives. But I am a professional, and professionals don’t swear in front of a class. I do imagine silly answers though, and sometimes I give one, depending on whether they’d understand me or not.

Here are the top ten questions, with a hypothetical answer underneath in brackets, which I don’t recommend you using, unless you think you can pull it off, nothing wrong with teaching a bit of irony in class, I suppose.

Photo by Marco Bellucci
1. “We do now?”
   (“Now? Yes, or you could come back on Saturday morning.”)

Why do students ask that? You spend about ten minutes on a grammar presentation, let’s say, showing the difference between past simple and present perfect. You do a couple of examples on the board, check key words and do some drilling. Then you hand out a sheet with some examples, or shout out the page number for them to turn to. There is still a good hour of class left, but someone always asks “We do now?” “Well, yes, that was the idea, unless you just wanted to sit and flick through this dictionary?”

I’m not sure if this has something connected to their school; do they never do grammar or vocabulary activities there? Do they spend the whole class speaking in English and then do all the writing at home? From what I’ve heard, I think not, so I just don’t get why they even ask the question.

2. “Pen or pencil?”
(“Whatever grabs your boat, mate.”)

This is another that bemuses me. I get it with the small kids, the ones who still are unsure what the actual difference is between a pen and pencil, or those who have a new pen and their mother told them to check before they used it, or those who have only just been allowed a pen at school. I remember those days, it was like a reward that we could actually use a pen. We were finally old enough to be trusted to use fountain pens and not get ink on out ties, but what did we do? Flick it at the teacher's white shirt. But I don’t get it in an English class, especially as it’s their book or notebook. To have a bit of fun with this one you can say no to both, and watch them glaze over.

3. “We copy the example?”
(“No, don’t bother, it’s not like it will take less than a second, and it won’t help you with the next activities at all.”)

Of course you copy the example. It always seems like such a struggle for them, doesn’t it? To copy an example. They are about to write ten sentences, so why will another one hurt? I guess it’s the easy way out. They are at school, writing, and writing, with both pen and pencil, for most of the day, so any less work is a god send. One day I said no to copying an example, there was literally a cheer round the class, just because they didn’t have to copy: I play tennis with my rabbit. I sometimes wonder whether they get together before class and decide who is going to ask the 'copy the example' question. Do they have a bet on it? And see who can save the class from the dreaded example sentence.

4. “Is for homework?”
(“Or you can just stay and do it here while everyone else leaves?”)

You would have thought that half way through the term, once the class have triggered onto your routine, the old traditional routine of setting homework at the end of class, that they would just assume it was for homework. So when you write homework on the board, with pages numbers, activities, and are standing at the front, with the activity book, going over the homework, then why do they ask? Is it a security thing, do they feel safe knowing that it’s definitely homework, or are they just testing us to see if we will change our minds at the last second? 

What I love doing sometimes is setting the homework at the start of the class, just after we corrected the previous homework. You should see their faces; they literally think it’s time to go home.

5. “In the notebook?”
(“No, today I want you all to write on your partner’s face.)

Yes, the notebook. You have the notebook on your table. I just said "notebook", no I didn’t say "no book", as much as it sounds the same, and we do most of these activities in our notebooks so yes, unless you have a folder of paper, or a receipt in your jacket pocket with lots of extra space at the end, please use your notebook.

Someone must have asked him a few times already.
Photo by Vox Efx
6.“What time is it?”
(“It’s time to stop asking me what the time is.”)

This gets on my nerves. Not only because it makes me think of the time, which slows down the day, but because it obviously means they are having a rubbish time. The only time I check my watch when I am enjoying myself, is while watching the footy. I rarely do while watching a film, unless it’s getting late and the ads are being particularly long. So when a students says “¿que hora es?” I don’t answer. If they do in English then I respond quickly, and using precise past and to functions to confuse them.

7. “How do you say laptop?”
(“Laptop, why, how do you say it?)

I quite like this question actually, but only because I have fun with it. When they confuse the two questions of “What is a laptop?” “Or, what is laptop in Spanish?” and instead they ask "How do you say laptop?" I just say it. This can go on for a while, usually until another student dives in and either says it in Spanish, or tells them to use the other question. By the end of term though, they've normally mastered the question.

8. “What does mean mean?”
(“Are you actually joking? Because if you’re not, then you really need to find a decent teacher.”)

Okay, this doesn’t happen a lot, but I reckon at least once a month, or term, someone will ask what mean means. I read once that it takes a while for students to process information, but that's just being silly. Surely most people would cotton on, especially after the activities we did in class explaining the meaning of mean. I dunno, sometimes I think there is a camera set up on us just to see how long it is before we blow.

9. “Can we play a game?”
(“Of course you can?” “Si?” “Sure, there’s about twenty minutes left of class, and when you get home you can play on your new Play Station 6 as much as you like.”)

It’s worse if they just say “game,” then I just don’t respond. I like games, I really do. I know they are useful for revising vocabulary, phonetics, and adding competition to the class can be motivating. But what I don’t like is the way it changes students, and me. Everyone suddenly becomes aggressive, a grass, or a snitch, try to fool the teacher and make him pay for making a mistake. Gang up on the Profe and catch him out at his own rules.

Yes, games are good, but it has to be controlled. Which is why I don’t just whip up a game at the end of class if I haven’t planned one, because nine times out of ten someone will leave the class soul destroyed and in tears (and it's usually me).

10. “Can we watch a film?”
(“I’m sure you could watch a film, but could is about ability, and as there is no film on here, then I’d have to say that you couldn’t watch a film.”)

Sure, films are great, I’ve learnt loads from Spanish TV. But I can’t just chuck on a film and let kids watch it. Not only would I lose my job if I did it every week, but if they are going to watch a film, how do I know if they were actually watching, and not just sitting at the back talking in Spanish, or doing a bit of free time doodling? So I can’t just put on a film, no. Let me prepare one for you with some questions, yes. But I'm guessing you didn't want to have to think while you watch the film.

So those are the top ten questions that get on my goat. Obviously, I’ve never used any of the actual answers as a response, and this blog was just a bit of fun, so don’t get your y-fronts in a squirm.

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