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Alejandro's Story

Category: The TEFL Business

Alejandro's been my student for about a year now. When we started off he was applying for a new job and part of the selection process involved an interview in English where he needed to show he had a working knowledge of the language. Alejandro was the very picture of a hardworking, motivated student. Besides the interview, he had a real interest in the language itself. He did all sorts of things outside of class, from home-English type stuff to watching TV series in English. He even listened to podcasts when he was training for marathons.

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By the way, I'd just like to add that the interviews went well and he got the job. After the interview in English, they told him his level was upper intermediate. In fact it's more intermediate, which just goes to show that if you prepare for a predictable context, you can give the impression of having a higher level. I mean, Alejandro was going on about career objectives and his biggest successes to date. By the way, that reminds me of students who, when talking shop, give the impression of having a high level, but get them off topic and suddenly their listening comprehension goes down the tubes and they're groping for words.

In any case, getting back to Alejandro, lately I've been getting the feeling he's been slipping away. He's more distant, less motivated; and that leaves me feeling unsettled. Should I figure out how to motivate him, or should I start advertising on MadridTeacher for a new student in case he drops?

Perhaps the biggest problem is time. As he's settling into his new job they seem to be demanding more and more of him, he's working long hours and doesn't have much time to smell the roses these days. In fact he's mentioned he feels like the job is taking over his life, for example, he hardly runs these days. I know I'm spending considerably more time on my bike than he is in running shoes.

He has no time for photography these days, another of his hobbies, or for English! In our last class he had trouble remembering some fairly basic vocabulary. You know what they say, ‘if you don't use it, you lose it', and Alejandro is struggling just to maintain his level at this point, much less improve it. So after heady progress, the pendulum's swinging in the other direction and he's feeling discouraged. It's unfortunate that English is not required in his work because then he'd at least perceive an immediate benefit of his classes.

Another possible symptom of waning interest is he doesn't want to work from the book much. While obviously not a definitive symptom, it's got to mean something. Often following a book means students perceive more progress because they work through an organized syllabus and touch all bases. More improvised conversation classes are good for reinforcing what they already know, or can consolidate what they're learning elsewhere. Come to think of it, after Alejandro's huge effort, he may want some easier conversation classes for a while.

Speaking of forsaking the book, I have another student who's largely done that, but he's very active with written English on his master's degree course, having to both read and write at length. So I figure our English class is a sort of counterweight: he wants to talk, talk, talk, but I believe he's putting into practice English he's come across on his course.

In our last class he gave me an hour-and-a-half presentation on Australia, where he went for a month on his honeymoon. He's a nerdy sort who know lots about a wide variety of topics, so the class was like watching a documentary, and getting paid for it! Of course I gave him detailed feedback on language points that came up, but I have to admit it's a great way to make a living.

In any case, returning to our main character, a more worrisome symptom is Alejandro's increasing number of missed classes. In spite of that, I've been staying with him. He was an excellent student and is a really good guy. In fact, beyond our teacher-student relationship, he'd be a good friend so I'm reluctant to dump him. I suppose I'm being ‘flexible', I mean, maybe he's at some sort of low point on a learning curve or life cycle, so I'm willing to juggle classes around for him.

However, I'm a bit wary when I get emails from potential students who right off the bat use the F-word: ‘flexibility'. I fear that it's code for ‘going to be missing loads of classes'. Actually I'm normally locked into my timetable and the vast majority of missed classes are simply lost forever, impossible to make up because we just can't find another time when we're both free.

At present I only have two classes where I suppose I'm ‘flexible', and what this really amounts to is giving them two time slots and every week they choose the one they want. One is Alejandro and the other is two sisters, who are about the nicest people on the planet. One of them has just had a baby so naturally focusing on English is more challenging for her. In fact there are three of us in class now: the two sisters and the four-month-old baby. In any case, if I did this for everybody, I'd go out of business in short order.

I've been giving some more thought to Alejandro and I think what he needs to boost motivation is a success with English, for example, giving a successful presentation at work, or negotiating something, or entertaining a foreign visitor. But alas, none of this is required of him. By the way, another of his hobbies is traveling, which he does every chance he gets, so a good success would be to use English effectively while abroad. I should mention that in his past travels he's felt frustrated because people had trouble understanding him, but he's improved vastly (since he's been with me :)

Well, I obviously can't organize this sort of thing for him, so in the meantime he'll have to settle for the little successes that come from learning and seeing your level improve in and out of class. By the way, another of his hobbies is electronic gizmos, in fact he has a smart phone with a voice recognition feature in English, so he can say, ‘call parents' and viola, it calls his parents! I'd just like to interject here that these new electronic toys never cease to amaze me.

In any case, he was telling me that he was saying ‘call parents' and it didn't understand him so he checked the pronunciation of ‘parents' on-line and realized he was pronouncing the first syllable like ‘par' instead of 'pair'. So he was telling me that this is a way to improve your pronunciation. You know, I really learn a lot from my students, especially the good ones like Alejandro.

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