Saturday, May 17, 2014

Teaching English in Morocco

American Language Institute FezAfter bunking in cozy hostels, wandering in parks, getting drunk in small barritas, taking notes and pictures, and winking at the guapos on the streets of Barcelona, I boarded the ferry to Morocco, arriving in Tangier, an exotic, grungy seaside city made famous for its neurotic denizens of yesteryear – the writer Paul Bowles, Betty Hutton and Mick Jagger, to name a few. Soon after, I began a search for another language school in need of an ESL instructor as my resources were getting scarce, particularly after the strafing my pocketbook had taken in sunny Spain.

The American Language Institute is a chain of schools located in ten cities in Morocco, so while in Fez, I decided to apply for a teaching position. Any positions available? I asked the Director. No, sorry, perhaps for the next semester. But days later, the Director phoned me at the Casablanca Youth Hostel. Would you fill in at the school? We’re short a teacher all of a sudden. An emergency. I returned to Fez the next day.

American Language Institute Fez
American Language Institute FezUpon touring the school, I liked it, an exotic compound filled with gnarly trees and plants, a kiosk selling small meals run by a Moroccan man who was a knockoff for Elvis and inside the building, tiled floors, a winding central staircase, and some spectacularly mirrored classrooms interfaced with mosaic white tile. The usual assortment of discombobulated expats worked there, teachers from America, Morocco, England, Australia and me, the only Canuck.

The classrooms within the main school were large enough and worked; however, the port-a-potties erected out back in order to cram more names onto the student register, didn’t. I sometimes had 17 students in a room the size of a San Quentin jail cell, and with no escape from the intermittent hell of the students, it felt like jail. The desks were arranged in a U-shape, making it easier for the kids to sit and goof with one another and in my experience, there is always, always, one student who is a ruination to the class and whose personality must be dissected and put on ice straightaway.

After getting to know the Director, I was given a room cross the street from the school in the students’ quarters, a ten by twelve foot affair with a single bed, warm blankie, a table, two chairs, and a balcony overlooking a garden. I bolted myself in the room, not wanting to get involved in all the drama that accompanies people sharing communal refrigerators and bathrooms. Except for the bone-chilling weather and the shower room, I could have stayed there forever. After unpacking my small suitcase and settling in, I was met again by the Director, who then asked me to observe another teacher’s class for a week so I could ‘learn the ropes.’ It was the first time I had ever been asked to sit in on a class in order to get started.

American Language Institute FezMy first day on the observation deck, I met my new ESL mentor, Ricky, along with another assortment of the teaching contingent. We then went to a classroom on the third floor of a building which was beside my bunker. What we were now doing until the next term started was called ‘team teaching,’ in other words, I would observe Ricky, then Ricky would observe me and give the Director the thumbs up or the thumbs down on my ability. Basically, they did the team teaching because many of the new teachers had never taught before, being fresh out of college or off their CELTA program. But for my first day on the job, I was just observing.

Except for one or two, most of the classrooms consisted of long tables set up in a U-shape, which I've never found congenial to teaching because of the close proximity of all the students, and such was the case now. While discussing the lesson plan with Ricky, the kids filed in, twenty of them, most of whom were teenage girls with the word trouble stamped on their hijabs.

American Language Institute FezOnce the class started, the girls who were seated in front talked and talked and talked and never came up for even a gulp of air, in particular, two girls who argued, whined, complained, and rolled their eyes for most of the class. Ricky is pleasant, he said ‘ssssh’ and ‘ladies stop talking’ about twenty times, but those wenches just kept talking and re-wrapping their hijabs and over their incessant interruptions, Ricky taught his class. After the class was over, one girl approached him and complained ad nauseum about a low mark she received on one of her assignments and he commiserated with her. After she left I said, 'it's probably because she never shuts up' whereby he answered, 'yeah, I know. None of them do.' I could see it was going to be tough.

American Language Institute FezI finally got my own classes and knew what Ricky had been up against. It was awful, a viper's nest of teenagers sitting around a made-for-failure arrangement of bad ideas. One smart ass kept saying things in Arabic and the class kept laughing, so I sent him to the office when he refused to quit. It was the first time I ever sent a kid to the office. When his parents were called and he got a knock on the head and he apologized to me, he wasn’t quite so witty when he returned. Another time I returned a quiz to one girl from whose test I had deducted marks for cheating and she stood up, balled up her quiz, threw it in the corner, screamed she was never coming back and stamped out of the classroom, wailing. I looked at the kids. ‘Whew,’ I said, ‘I hope that’s a promise.’ She did, in half an hour, with the administrator, and she was all quivering tears and heartbreak. I was so over her the first class, a real first class pain in the ass. Not all the students were like this, of course, I had some brilliant times with some interested and interesting students But those dullards who were cuffed in the head, dragged in and forced to learn English by wealthy parents who carped on about the great advantages to learning English, lost on these kids, would have been better served at a charm school.

Come final exams seven months later, I was pretty much over teaching feral teenagers. For the invigilation, and in case I got bored watching the kids trying to cheat, I brought a newspaper, a book, a crossword puzzle I hadn't finished, a little snack and my coffee. I told the kids I'd rip up their papers along with their heads and throw them in the garbage no questions asked if I caught anyone cheating, then proceeded to do my crossword. Suddenly, the door swung open and the Assistant Director came in to check my class and wasn't too impressed with half the contents of my room on my desk and he rushed off. The Director then came in and whispered in my ear that I wasn't to be doing anything while the kids were writing their exams. So I put away all my stuff, yawned and watched the kids waffle through their exams. Afterwards, I told one of the teachers what had happened.  'Oh, the last time David saw someone reading while invigilating, he fired him.' The next day I was called in to meet with the Director in his office.

American Language Institute FezWhat happened to the teacher I had replaced? Apparently, in the early morning hours of a summer’s weekend, the wretched bloke ran naked and screaming down the street with his frantic co-workers in pursuit, was loaded kicking and screaming into a taxi and committed to the nearest mental hospital, where he was refitted with a new personality before being sent home to his parents. But after living in Fez, and teaching at the American Language Institute Fez for nine months, I was pretty clear as to why dude had lost his mind and done an 80-yard dash towards his homeland.

Things aren't always what they seem and here are some of the fantastic students I had at American Language School Fez.