Throughout my life I have worked at various jobs and each of these occupations have been accompanied by their own recurrent nightmare. When I think about it though, all these dreams have actually only been variations on a theme; I am screwing up and I’m helpless to do anything about it.
My first job at sixteen was as a check-out attendant in a supermarket. I wasn’t long at this job before I began waking up in the middle of the night with feverish dreams of endless food items moving along my conveyer belt towards me; I would be unable to keep up by entering all these items into the check-out till. In this dream I would be surrounded by impatient customers who were becoming vocal in their condemnation of my lack of skill.
In my late teens my job changed to that of a barman, and this time the customers in my dreams are angry because I am not serving their drinks fast enough. When I became a nurse in my late twenties my nightmare changed to that of being unable to find the correct medication during the drugs round and everybody becoming angry and impatient.
This type of nightmare has followed me into teaching. I am standing in front of a large group of students and have no idea what I am going to say. They are becoming noisy and impatient. I feel trapped and helpless. The really scary thing about this nightmare though is that unlike the bad dreams associated with my previous occupations this one has occurred in my waking life; it has actually occurred more than once.
I don’t think that there is anything worse for a teacher than standing in front of a group of students and realising that you don’t have anything to say. You check the time and see that you still have forty minutes left in the class. You become suddenly very uncomfortable and feel vulnerable in front of this group of learners - it actually gives me the willies just thinking about it.
I suppose the main reason for this embarrassing pause in the flow of teaching is inexperience and lack of preparation. I must admit that now that I have a few years teaching under my belt it occurs far less, but occasionally it does still happen; the students manage to work through the fifty minutes of work I have planned for them in just ten minutes. How am I going to keep them interested for the remainder of the time?
My saviour has been the lesson-filler. These wonderful games and activities which can be used to fill the embarrassing silences. The old favourite ‘hangman’ or my personal favourite ‘mime-a-word’. In my early days of teaching these would often be needed to fill up the class time, but as I became more experienced I found myself using them less and less. Now I hardly ever have a problem filling class time, but instead find it hard fitting in all that I want to teach during the fifty minutes.
I remember when I first began teaching in Bangkok that some of the old-hands would tell me that these lesson-fillers were all you needed to become a successful TEFLer; after all as long as the students remained entertained your job was safe. I never felt comfortable with this approach and decided that signs of my progress could be better evaluated by my lack of need to waste class-time. I still get the nightmare of standing in front of the class with nothing to say, but thankfully it seems to be in my waking life less and less.