The Coffee Shop

The Coffee Shop in Bangkok

Teaching conversational English, or any subject for that matter, requires great peace of mind.  In the case of conversational English, I feel like I am in a unique position to be a teacher.  I live in Bangkok, a city in a land with people who are phenomenally skilled in the art of conversation.  I also live in a community of people who come from variety, both in terms of cultures and in terms of walks of life that happen to teach here.  Conversation is life for us.  My friends and co-workers come from South Africa, America, Canada, England, Ireland, the Philippines, New Zealand, Australia, and India.  They are former actors, business people, DJs, military staff, backpackers, University students, con men, lawyers and sex tourists.  They are people who are finding an oasis by teaching in Bangkok, and they span the globe.  Teaching in Thailand is a catch basin profession.  I would call it a melting pot, but that would be misleading.  In a melting pot, all ingredients look the same after they have spent time in it.  It is a catch basin, and all those in the catch basin have been rejected in some way or another, marked by uselessness to some institution, community, family, nation or other established group of people.  I am blessed in this catch basin, because it is a great place to either find one’s self or to become lost.

We are all gathered out of convenience at the coffee shop, which is in a prime location.  It is next to the sky train station and, being next to a rare upward bound escalator on this overhead but down-to-earth form of public transportation, the coffee shop leans upward on the dharma scale.  In other words, it isn’t Starbucks, but the coffee is great.  The coffee isn’t cheap either, but the smoking area on the patio has metal four-legged chairs in which only three legs touch the ground at any one time.  I am sitting on the dusty wooden bench framed by chicken wire which protects the underground home of a New York-sized sewer rat.  The teachers collect here at 7:45 a.m. every Tuesday, because we have a school-wide break in our schedule.  We’ve been told by the institution that we should be planning lessons instead of gathering here, lessons which constitute pronouncing “cat” and “dog” for the kids, and pointing at pre-made flashcards taken off the internet.  We are gearing up for tests when kids will have to say things like, “I like elephants” in present simple tense sentences that are tense yet surprisingly complicated.  We all avoid the afternoons for two reasons: it is too hot to smoke in the sun, and the sun-burnt tourists getting off their boat tours of the Chao Praya like to come around and ask directions from “the locals.”  I guess we fit that definition because we wear short-sleeved white dress shirts and black ties that reflect the formalized grief of our host culture.  In the afternoons, we just mourn the heat.  This morning, we are talking about classes that went badly even though we did just as the institution had instructed us to do.

“Teaching English requires serenity,” I said to jolt people out of the habitual thoughts.  A few smirks appeared, and then chuckles, and then a fit of laughter overtook the group of us.  “I am thinking about writing an instruction booklet about how to teach English, and I am thinking that will be the first instruction.”

“That’s a great instruction,” Joel said, but skeptically added, “but there are already lots of books on how to teach English.”

“Do any of them give you peace of mind?” I added whimsically.

“That is a good instruction!” Francois piped in.

“That’s kind of why I saved it,” I said.  “At first I laughed because of the memories of the first English classes I had botched, and of course, the unintended slur on published conversational English curriculum.  But there is a lot of wisdom in that statement.”

Joe looked at me apprehensively and, with hand opened to the sky, cued, “The professor will now expound.”

“In reality, peace of mind isn’t superficial at all,” I continued.  “It’s the whole thing.  That which produces it are good habits; that which disturbs it are bad habits.  What we call a good class is just a manifestation of this serenity.  If you don’t have serenity at the beginning of a class you’re likely to bring your personal problems right into the class itself.”

The group looked at me just thinking.  They are used to explosions of ideas from me, especially after I have meditated on something for a while.  A week ago, when I was having class management problems, the group knew I would have a moment like this in the near future.  Joel and Joe knew it was coming today.  I think they postponed meeting with their coordinators that morning because they knew we would have fun that Tuesday morning.

“It is an unconventional concept,” I said, “but common sense bears it out.  Any particular class can’t be right or wrong.  The students are students and there is nothing moral about saying ‘I like elephants.’  The test of a good class is the satisfaction it gives you and the students.  There isn’t any other test.  If the class produces tranquility it’s good.  If the class disturbs you it’s bad until either the curriculum or your mind is changed.  The test of the class is always your own mind.  There isn’t any other test.”

“What if the class is bad and I feel peaceful about it?” Dana asked.  Laughter ensued.

After it had somewhat subsided, I replied, “That doesn’t make any sense!” If you really are at ease you aren’t going to know it’s bad.  The thought will never occur to you.  The act of pronouncing it bad is a form of caring.”

I added, “What’s more common is that you feel less than peaceful even if it was a good class, and I think that is actually the case here.  In teaching a good conversational class, if you’re worried, it isn’t good.  That means that it wasn’t prepared or executed thoroughly enough.  In theory, an English class that isn’t prepared or executed thoroughly can’t be used again even though it may have gone perfectly well.  Collectively, your worry is essentially the same thing.  You haven’t achieved the ultimate requirement of having peace of mind, because you felt your instructions were too complicated and you may not have executed the plan correctly.”

Saul asked, “Well how would you change the instructions in teaching English so I would get this peace of mind?”

“That would require a lot more study than I have just given them now.  The whole thing goes very deep.  Instructions for teaching English, like the ones we studied in our CELTA, TESOL or TEFL courses, begin and end exclusively with the class.  But the kind of approach I’m thinking about doesn’t cut it off so narrowly.  What’s really angering about the instructions we got from our training institutes, or better yet, from the College itself, is that there is only one way to teach conversational English – their way.  And that presumption wipes out all creativity.  Actually there are hundreds of ways to teach an English class and when they make you follow just one way without showing you the overall problem the instructions become hard to follow in such a way that you don’t just screw it up.  You lose your feeling for teaching.  And not only that, it’s very unlikely that they have told you the best way.”

“But they’re from the school itself,” Joe said.

I’m from the school too,” I added.  “And I know how these instructions are put together.  You go into the English department with a tape recorder and the department head sends you to talk to the teacher she needs the least, the biggest loafer she’s got, and whatever he tells you – that’s the instructions.  The next teacher might have told you something completely different and probably better, but he’s too busy.”

Everyone looked amazed.

“I should have guessed,” Francois said, anticipating where this was going.

“It’s the format of the instructions,” I said.  “No teacher can buck the thought behind it.  Technological thinking presumes there is just one right way to do things and there never is.  And when you presume there is just one right way to do things, of course the instructions begin and end with the class.  But if you have to choose among an infinite number of ways to put an English conversation course together then the relation of speaking English to you, and the relation of you speaking English to the rest of the world, has to be considered, because the selection from many choices, the art of teaching is just as much dependent on your own mind and spirit as it is upon the curriculum and the institutional method of the class.  That’s why you need peace of mind.”

By this time, the coffee had arrived, iced and slippery.  I thanked the server, pulled 50 baht out and lit a smoke.  I was struck by the ironic fact that my more lucid thoughts of peace of mind were simultaneous with harming my body.

Seeing that the time was rolling along, conversation drifted into the future.  Mostly, people were talking of the dread they felt of having to face their worst class at some later time.  That future thought, the dread it inspired, infected our communal thought and suppressed the present.

“I am eradicating the use of present continuous to talk about the future.” Dora said with a smile.  We all snickered.  Of course, we wedged ourselves back into the present.

“I’m serious.  Too often do we you the present continuous verb tense best suited for describing something we are currently experiencing and weighing it down with future nothings.”

Joel piped in, “But the future is not nothing.  I, for one, will get fired in the present if I don’t make a lesson plan for next week.”

“No you won’t.  You MIGHT get fired, and you will still teach your class.  They just want some assurance the future will happen like houses that appear from blueprints.  They just want some security.” Dora’s tone was starting to turn more sinister, if not cynical.

“Insecure bunch, aren’t they?” I added.

“Damn right!  And I wish they could just focus on the present, focus on what they have.  Otherwise I’ll go and find another job.”  The present started opening up a bit.  I looked at Dora in the eyes, and I felt that she was lashing out a bit, like a wounded dog.

“Dora, I’d venture a guess that you are disappointed with this place.  Are you?”

“Sure I am.  I feel like there is no future here.  I feel like the administrators consistently forget what is right in front of their noses…. a bunch of really great teachers.”

It got quiet, and people were starting to fidget.  Teachers get quite nervous when something personal comes up.  Eyes began to dart around, and look at watches, the place of the sun in the sky – any time clue that would release them from this present moment.  Unconsciously, they began to resist what was being presented to them.

“Dora, have you really thought about why you’d leave?  My guess is that the problems with this place would be something you’d encounter anywhere in Thailand.”

Dora said, “I’ve thought of that.  And you are right, there would still be wasted activities, wasted time, lesson plan and time-clock hawks, and there would still be this incessant heat.” Dora paused for almost 30 seconds. “But somehow by quitting I will make my point.  I will show them that they can’t take for granted the good teachers they have in front of them.  They have to know that it is because of the teachers that this is all successful.  It is the TEACHERS!”

As she was speaking I began to think.  There was really a lot going on here, more than I first realized.  I relaxed, and opened myself to hearing not only the drama, but more of the metaphysical point that Dora had touched upon.  I thought I would start reflecting about time, and I thought these guys might be the right ones to help me iron out my experience of it. Just then, Saul showed up.  Saul was an interesting man because he was a walking contradiction.

Saul piped in, “Good morning! What a gathering of sunshine we have here.”  “Saul, the last thing we need here is more sun,” Dora retorted.  “The light and the heat are oppressive.”

I welcomed Saul and then asked Dora the question that had been brewing in my mind.  “Why are you interested in eradicating the present continuous to talk about the future?”

“I am feeling that it is just misused.  It doesn’t suit what we really experience.  Teachers of grammar often talk about it like it explains what is about to happen immediately or with a degree of certainty like semi-finalized plans.”  Dora paused to gather her examples together. “No matter whether you think language is expressive or reflective it amounts to the same thing.  If I hold this cup near the edge of the table and slowly slide it over, you might say…,”

Saul interrupted, “Be careful, it’s going to fall!”

“See? That is the first use of the language.  It is inappropriate for two different reasons.  First, it doesn’t take into account the fact that I don’t smash cups (or other things for that matter) carelessly, even for something as important as this.  The person uttering would express an assumption that I am deliberately destructive.  Second, it brings a whole concept of time into the situation that doesn’t belong.  By saying it one expresses and reflects a sense of fear based on the past – on previous experiences of cups smashing or of things falling.  But this is precisely inappropriate because it precludes a new event.  Our utterance of the present continuous in this way forces the past onto the present about the future.  It muddles the whole experience terribly.  And this is exactly what English is NOT known for.  It is not known for its imprecision.  It is a precise language.”

“OK.  That describes the situation where something is about to happen.  What about the case where we have semi-finalized plans?” I queried.

“Well, as you know, there are the finalized plans that are quite factual.  “I will teach a class in 45 minutes’ is a good example.  But that is a case where we either use present simple tense to talk about a fact, or input the word “will” to express a foregone conclusion.  But the semi-finalized plan like ‘I am renewing my contract for next year’ is dubious at best.”

“How so?” asked Saul.

“Well, it ISN’T dubious because it isn’t certain; it is dubious because it projects an idea of ourselves into the future.  It projects the role of teacher on my life, and not just that, but also that I am going to be a teacher at this place; and moreover, it projects that the current administration likes me enough to offer me a new contract.”

Something inside me triggered.  “I see.  You mean that speaking in the present continuous in instances like this project something altogether false into the future – the idea of ourselves, is that right?”

“Yes, exactly.  And that idea is NOT who we are; rather, it is what we wish ourselves to be.”

“But then the sentence is not expressive about anything that will actually happen in the future.  Instead, it is reflective of a wish we have right now.  In that sense, the present continuous would accurately reflect something happening in the moment – and therefore, it would be appropriate.”  Dora looked like a deer caught in the headlights.  I could tell she hadn’t thought of that.

“Dora, that doesn’t mean your effort to dictate the use of the present continuous to talk about the future is off-target.  It means that such sentences don’t have a directly descriptive function.  It is more metaphorical, or figurative if you like.”

Dora kept thinking.  “Right!  We are still inappropriately using the grammar form, and to the point where we actually change ourselves!  We impose our idea of ourselves and our place in the world by speaking it.  The form destroys the content.”

“Well, it all depends on the listener then, doesn’t it?  The listener has to hear the current wish, and not the future plan.”

“But the person who spoke it is misguided.”

“Yes, that is certain.”

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