Friday, November 23, 2007


Wednesday's screwup was caused by the loopy professor who surprised and confused me on Saturday. As I mentioned, I taught her classes together with mine last Wednesday, and yesterday we were supposed to go back to our usual routine for the two afternoon classes. The usual routine is that I teach the two A classes one week while she teaches the Bs, and the next week we swap. However, for some reason she started her first class on time yesterday (she is usually at least five minutes late, more often ten or fifteen) and when I got upstairs I discovered that she had gone to the wrong room, and had already started teaching the class I was supposed to be teaching.

This presented me with a problem. It meant that the lesson plan that was supposed to serve me for two weeks had run out a week early, because I'd already used it with that class (although not with the other). Moving onto the next unit in the textbook was no problem (aside from the fact that the students hadn't brought their textbooks for my class so I had to run downstairs and make copies of the pages we were using), but we only use the text for half the class time. For the other half I have an ongoing little thing where I am giving them games and activities which are all linked. I had not printed out or copied the next one yet. Actually I hadn't finished making it. I was planning to finish it this weekend.

So I had to make up something, quickly, that did not require preparation. I thought about it while they were doing the pair practice in the text (badly, but I wasn't capable of supervising and dreaming up a new activity at the same time), and in the end I decided on Chinese Whispers with sentences that used the structures they were supposed to be learning. I used some sentences they should have known from their homework, but they didn't seem to notice and the sentences got garbled hopelessly as they went down the two lines I had set up. The last student in each line, who was supposed to write it on the board, had a terrible time of it, causing great hilarity. They wanted to play it again and again. I don't know if they learned much, but at least it worked.

But the best thing at all, and the thing that made this a totally brilliant game for a teacher with a throbbing head, was that the students had to whisper. You can't imagine how clever that made me feel. Those are my noisiest classes, and I hadn't been looking forward to them at all.

Later the professor asked me, anxiously,

"That was the wrong class, wasn't it? Did you have a problem?"

"Never mind," I said. "It was all right. We'll sort it out next week, somehow."

"I'm so sorry to cause you trouble!" she said.

"No problem!" I said, cheerfully, and she looked relieved.

My new on-the-spot lesson plan was so much quieter than the one I had planned to do that I was prepared to forgive ANYTHING. The next couple of weeks will be messy, but never mind.

Today's farce, at a different university, was even more . . . farcical. My morning classes went quite well, but in the afternoon something was obviously wrong. Why was half my class absent? What was going on? The students who came did not know. I did not want to do the test I had planned with so many missing. This was not just one or two students, it was fourteen, out of twenty-nine. (Twenty-nine who usually come, that is.) Again, my lesson plan was messed up, so I improvised like mad, got the students writing, and went through the numerous papers in my bag to find out if there was an unopened envelope somewhere that might explain things. I get so much paperwork from that particular school it is not unusual to miss something important in all the dross, and perhaps I had been warned about some event students would be absent for. But there was nothing.

Towards the end of class, one of the students told me she'd just had an email from her friend, who had sent a photo with it. She showed it to me. The photo was of the notice that had been pinned up on the official noticeboard over on the other side of campus, saying that my class today was cancelled.

I stared at the phone. There was no doubt about it. There was my name. There was my classroom number. There was the date and time.

"Why was the class cancelled? Nobody told me!" I squawked indignantly. Then I added, "And why are you here?" (If my class had been cancelled, why wasn't I having a little nap in the teachers' room?)

"We didn't see the notice," they said.

I let them go a bit early. My ingenuity was not up to entertaining them for the last twenty minutes of a lesson that had apparently been cancelled anyway. I couldn't assign the homework I had been planning to assign, and I was at the end of my rope.

I went off to look for the boss, but he was not in his office. I waited a while, but when it was clear he would not appear before my last class I left a note for him on his door.

I wrote something like this:

Here is a little puzzle for you. Half my class was absent, and eventually one of the students got an email from her friend with a photo of a notice on the noticeboard saying that my class was cancelled. Unfortunately not all the students saw the notice. If the business department complain that I are not giving the tests we are supposed to give, or teaching the full 90 minutes, please inform them that it is difficult to do either when they suddenly cancel classes without telling me.

Why wasn't I told? Any ideas about what is going on?

Then I went off to my last class. Since this one was in a different department I assumed that the same problem would not happen again, and I certainly wasn't going to hike all the way over to the engineering building to find out.

This time, I had a grand total of eight students turning up, and not only that, they were the worst ones. It was a nightmare, particularly because it was the end of the day and I was feeling like rubbish. When you are expecting twenty students and have planned accordingly, it is hard to make the sudden switch to a small, intimate class of slackers. I did my best, and after the usual conversational stuff got them doing some boring grammar from the textbook we are supposed to use but which I usually ignore. I can make grammar far more interesting than that, but I did not have the energy to do it. I told the students that we'd finish class early, when they completed the exercises. This motivated them tremendously.

While they were working on that, my boss rushed in, looking harried.

"Did it happen again? How many students are you meant to have?" he asked.

I showed him the list. He counted how many had turned up (and didn't even run out of fingers), rolled his eyes and rushed off.

Twenty minutes later he was back.

"It's a total screw-up," he said.

What had happened was that the teacher a couple of classes down from me was ill. He'd come in for the morning classes, but by lunchtime was feeling so bad he decided to cancel his afternoon classes and go home. This meant he was REALLY sick – nobody wants to cancel classes at that place, because we have to make them up later, on a Saturday. We will generally die on our feet rather than give up a precious day off, but poor David was so feverish he could barely focus. So he went over to the business department to tell them he would be canceling his afternoon classes. He told them his name, and also asked if they could inform the engineering department about his last class. We are supposed to inform each department separately, but he could hardly stand and the engineering department is way across campus. (So is the business department, only in a different direction.)

The problem was that the secretary in the business department did not catch his name, and was too polite (or stupid) to ask him to repeat it, so instead asked him which classroom he was in. David couldn't remember (they move us around so much you tend to remember where you are but not the actual class number), and he said he thought it was room 201, but wasn't sure. The secretary wrote this down, and he went home.

Then the secretary looked up who was in that room, found my name, failed to notice that it was a woman's name and the person who had just been practically expiring in front of her was a man, wrote out the notice, informed the science department, and the rest is ... pure farce. Presumably David's students turned up and then went home again when he failed to arrive.

And the reason I got only the bad students is that they had skipped every class except mine, and so had not been over at the engineering building for their 'required' classes in the early afternoon and so hadn't seen the noticeboard.

Later, the boss asked me what to do.

"David should have made sure they got his name right," he said. "And he gave them the wrong classroom number. Should I say something? Recently it seems that practically anything I say to anybody gets me criticized by all the teachers. I'm just trying to do my job! Why does everybody hate me? I'm under attack here. Help!"

We don't hate him. We get irate with him a lot because he is loud and annoying and frequently goes over the top, and because he thinks he's a wonderful teacher who can tell us what to do in our classes (he isn't – I've seen him teach), but we don't hate him. But he wants to be loved, so I was kind.

I thought about David, a lovely, gentle man who is very conscientious about his work, and who had been feeling so ill he could not face even just two more classes. Then I thought about the ridiculous hoops we have to jump through to cancel classes when we are ill. Why on earth can't we just tell the secretaries in the part-time teachers' room, so they can inform the different departments? We used to be able to, and it worked well that way because the secretaries know our names and know what to do. But now they are refusing to do it. As far as I can see the only thing they do for us these days is to stick the various bits of mail that come for us into our mailboxes. They do not do photocopying any more, either. I don't know what they do all day, except sit around drinking tea and gossiping.

I asked the boss if there would be any comeback from this incident.

"No," he said. "It's all over. I already told the people in the business department that it is their responsibility to make sure they have the teachers' name and classroom number right. They have accepted responsibility, more or less. And the engineering department is blaming them."

"Then leave it to me," I said. "Next week I'll tell David what happened, and you know what he's like. If he gets an official reprimand from you he'll feel like shit, and you will feel like a heel because he is a nice man, and everybody will think you are a total bastard for picking on him because he was sick and it's the system that's screwed up. I'll tell him, he'll apologize because he will feel responsible anyway, and he'll be very careful in future because he hates causing problems. I'm the only person who was affected, so you don't need to get involved."

"Thanks," said the boss. "Everybody hates me now anyway because of the textbook thing, and these days I never know what to do any more. I've lost confidence."

He stopped and stared at me suspiciously.

"Are you one of the ones who is angry about the textbook thing?"

"Furious," I told him. "But I'm furious at textbooks in general, not particularly at you. They're all rubbish. The only classes I have that learn anything significant are the ones where I don't use a textbook, and I know they'd never allow that here."

"And you're OK about the whole cancelled class thing?" he said. Our boss is an attention hog, and recently most of the attention he's been getting has been negative. He wanted me to say I LIKE him and do not BLAME him for everything. He wanted APPROVAL. He wanted me to tell him he is a good boss, and that I think he is doing a good job.

I could not quite go that far.

"No real harm done," I said. "I can handle it."

Actually, the thing that annoys me most about the whole cancelled class thing is that only half the students read the notice.