My best worst lesson

19th December 2008 at 00:00

BEST: Hungary, 2002. I had been offered a job at a vocational school. My 12th grade class was competent in English, but lacked confidence in speaking. I wanted to encourage them to talk and ask questions. So I told pupils that my 113-year-old uncle was coming to visit them and asked them to think of questions about all the events he had lived through.

The class became excited and prepared screeds of questions. One pupil was anxious about the ill effects that the long journey might have on this frail old man's health. I began to feel guilty, as I had no old uncle, just a husband who was willing to dress up in spectacles and a sheepskin hat.

My "uncle" limped into school during break time and started snoring on a bench in the corridor. Before long, he was surrounded by a group of bemused pupils and was just about to be apprehended by an irate chemistry teacher when the bell rang.

My pupils soon realised they had been duped, but were quick to enter into the spirit of things. A lively conversation followed and for a long time afterwards my class loved to reminisce about their meeting with one of the world's oldest men.

WORST: Hungary, 1998. I had fallen in love with the country after a wonderful summer there. Keen to prolong my stay, I bluffed my way into a job at a language school, despite my lack of experience. The school had a contract with the Army and I was to prepare a class of officers for an exam that they would sit the following summer.

I was still in holiday mode as I breezed into my first lesson, confident that my native ability in English would see me through. The faces on the group of anxious-looking men I met in the classroom did not share this confidence.

Two out of the group of 10 had a few words of English: my Hungarian amounted to ordering a beer. Nerves beginning to jangle, I realised, too late, that I hadn't written on a blackboard since childhood.

There was a knock at the door. My boss came in and sat down at the back of the classroom. "Let's play a game," I blurted out. I explained the rules: we would count out loud around the classroom, and each time a multiple of three was reached the person whose turn it was would be required to substitute their number with the sound "buzz".

There was a stunned silence, so I explained again, shouting "buzz" enthusiastically. Another silence. My boss cleared her throat and suggested another sound might be better. How about "click"?

Not long afterwards I realised that "buzz" sounded like the most offensive swear word in the Hungarian language.

Genevieve White is a teacher from Lerwick in Shetland.

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