Teaching English as a Funky Language

Expat life

I started my “career” in teaching English as a Foreign Language in 2001. I wrote “career” instead of career because, other than selling macrame potholders and hemp seed salad dressing at the farmer’s market or getting stoned and watching telenovelas all day when you don’t speak Spanish, there’s nothing more hippie and/or slacker-like than teaching EFL. At least where I started: the Sprach- und Kulturbörse, SKB for short, a language and culture institute tied to Technische Universität Berlin.

The SKB was formed in 1989 by a couple of left-wing sociology students who used the winter semester strike of 88/89—which they most likely also instigated—to think of new ways to bring culture and language into life on campus. Or so it says on the website. From insider knowledge, I know the beginnings mostly involved lots of pot smoking and excessive drinking in squatted buildings in Kreuzberg while a bunch of punks and anarchists went off on different ideas for how they might stick it to “the man.”

By the time I came on the scene the institute was much more established, but it was still very leftist, very queer, very out there in every possible way. My California soul felt very much at home.

Since the institute is run as a basic democracy, we had to vote on everything (and I mean everything) before any decision could be made. Get 100 people together from 40 odd countries and I can guarantee any joint decision making will be a disaster. The Italians were always the worst. They argued against anything no matter what it was.

Plenary chairperson: So next point on the agenda: Should our meetings be limited to 3 hours, yea or nay?

Luciano, Marisa and co.: Protest! Protest! Protest!

Sven (from Germany or some Scandinavian country): But you’re the ones who are always complaining the meetings regularly go past midnight…

Italians: YOU CAN’T MAKE US VOTE!!!!

Chill, ragazzi, chill.

We always had a third voting category: Wer enthält sich? (Who abstains?), informally known as the “Italian vote.”

To work at the SKB you intially have to be a university student in Berlin or Brandenburg—I started during my short stint at Humboldt University—but you can stay on after finishing your degree, if you finish at all. Since most SKB members are majoring in gender studies, philosophy, the study of obscure Indian dialects or the like—in other words, not exactly winners in the job market—the majority do stay on. Regular work, ok pay and, as for the actual teaching, you can do anything you want. Literally anything.

In the English group we had an old timer from the squatted house pot smoking days, a crazy Sudanese guy named Tawfiq.

When I started Tawfiq was in his late 50s. He had an afro with gray streaks exactly like the Bride of Frankenstein and nearly as tall. Tawfiq had been somehow involved in a major fraud case that went down before my time(teachers booking classes and teaching them independently, pocketing the money themselves). His involvement wasn’t enough to get him fired—although to get fired from the SKB you’d have to murder at least five students, and even then the Italians would probably fight for amnesty—but he wasn’t allowed to place any students in courses. Because he was never in the office during course registration, no one from the English group saw him much. We’d just run into him on occassion in the halls before our classes started. When we did see him, it always involved a lot of hand shaking, back slapping and the same couple of sentences every single time:

Tawfiq: Hey! How’s it going? How’s it going? We should totally go out for a beer. For a beer. Yeah, let’s do it.

None of us ever actually went out with Tawfiq for a beer. At some point the whole thing became a running gag.

Other English group member: What should we do after class today?

Me: I don’t know. What do you want do?

OEGM: How about we go for a beer with Tawfiq?

Me: Oh yeah, we should totally go out for a beer with Tawfiq. For a beer. Let’s do it.

From his former students we heard Tawfiq’s classes meant grammar worksheets copied out of book hailing back from Sudan’s unofficial rule under the Crown (FYI, Sudan gained independence in 1956) which the students filled out for the entire class. He occasionally taught a conversation class where he would eat his dinner at the front of the classroom and bark at the students, his mouth full of food:

You wanted a conversation class, so talk. What are you waiting for? Talk! I don’t hearanything!

When I did course registration I inevitably became jealous if I was placing students in courses next to someone who taught one of the sexier languages. When these teachers asked prospective students why they wanted to learn said language, they would answer:

Italian cinema rocks my world.

French just sounds so beautiful.

I love South American literature.

When I asked people why they wanted to learn English I always got one of two answers:

(monotone voice): I need it for my job.

(frantic voice): I won’t be able to graduate unless I speak English at a C1 level.

Sad but true: for most foreigners, the English language has been reduced to a distasteful requirement.

When we did course registration, Tawfiq’s courses always posed a bit of a problem. As I mentioned, firing him was not an option. Besides, we felt a little sorry for the guy. Other than the SKB, where on earth would he be able to find a job?

We avoided putting anyone in his course until the other courses were full, which usually happened within the second or third day of a six day course registration period. (English: a distasteful requirement, but a requirement nonetheless.) When the time for Tawfiq’s course had come, we decided honesty was the best policy:

English group member: We do have a place available in one course, but if you take it you need to know the teacher will only teach you antiquated grammar and you will never ever talk.

If the prospective student came from one of the former Russian Republics, this is probably what they expected in a foreign language class, so everything was fine. Other people were so desperate for an end-of-course certificate they were up for anything. In the end, his courses always filled up the same as all the other ones.

Every semester we had at least five or six people who showed up on one of the last days of course registration and completely freaked out when we told them all the English courses were already full.

As someone who was once at the power end of such a situation, let me tell you this: Don’t be that person who yells and demands and gets up in the face of the powers that be.

If the panicky person remained calm or, better yet, teared up a little, telling me they couldn’t come any earlier because they had to go to their grandmother’s funeral in Santiago I would bend over backwards to see if I could free up a space in a course for them. Sometimes I still couldn’t, but I would always try.

But if someone got belligerent and tried to force me to magically find them a place in one of the courses, I always stuck to my guns. Why should I do any favors for someone who’s acting like a jerk?

However, if the person in question was a particular asshole to me, I would sometimes find a course for them:

Me: Today’s your lucky day afterall. A 13th place has somehow opened up in a class with our teacher Tawfiq.

They’d fill out the registration form with a smug smile of victory on their face while I thought to myself:

At the end of this course you will have learnt the eternal usefulness of the past perfect continuous whilst Tawfiq partook of his victuals.

Viel Spass, motherfucker, viel Spass.