The Battle for Number 10 Ch4 Milliband, Cameron and Paxman

So the election 2015 is approaching and I am trying to persuade myself that I am interested, engaged and that I care.

Ch 4 got the ball rolling with ‘The Battle for No 10’ last night. It wasn’t a head to head between Cameron and Milliband as I expected but an interview with Paxman and then questions from the audience. The politicians were kept apart like prizefighters before a match.

Cameron was his usual self. I felt my eyes glaze over as he started to speak.Hard working families…snore. he did manage to get a reference in to his dead child as he does in every interview. Tasteless. It is hard to believe that he is the Prime Minister, this oleaginous PR man. Ugh. Paxman grilled him efficiently but he didn’t really go for the jugular. Cameron had the air of someone going through the motions, not caring any more.

Kay Burley gazed at Cameron adoringly. I had never come across her before as I don’t watch Sky news. I liked her pink dress. I didn’t like anything else about her. She seemed a bit dim and biased against Milliband.

Milliband did well. Paxman decided to go for the personal insults. This is the level of British politics. Ed handled it well. Yes he is geeky. Most intelligent people are. It’s no big deal. He seemed to genuinely care about Britain and its people. He even managed some passion with the “Hell yes, I’m tough enough” retort. I liked him. He’s no Winston Churchill but our leaders these days seem to lack gravitas across the board. When it came to audience questions Burly started chipping in from the side in a way she didn’t with Cameron. Obvious bias again. The same old questions recycled over and over – socialism, his brother…yawn.

So I was entertained and almost enthused. Ed has 98% of the media stacked against him but he is a battler. Go Ed! You’re tough enough.

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Bad experience at work No 2348

Before Christmas I made the crazy decision that I would work in a bookshop over the festive period. I am sure many writers before me have imagined that working among dusty tomes would be the ideal day job to accompany their fevered evenings perfecting their craft. I was one of these ridiculous people.

My idea of a good bookshop is something like Shakespeare and Co in Paris. The owner would be a mild eccentric, the customers would be fascinating literati sort of like Samuel Beckett and Dorothy Parker, the books would be stacked higgledy piggledy in no apparent order. You could spend hours browsing and not buy anything.Candles would burn as the only source of light and owls would peep from the rafters. I am aware this kind of bookshop doesn’t really exist outside the pages of Harry Potter but I like my fantasies.

In my small, affluent, dull town no such bookshop exists. I signed up for a temporary contract with Waterstone’s. Waterstone’s is not really a bookshop. It is a vast aircraft hangar containing bestsellers and assorted tat that you find in Poundland except it is more than a pound.

The experience was bizarre from the start. I was shown round by some elderly chap who had worked there for eighteen years. He was the guru of the children’s section. Assorted middle class women in velvet hats with more money than sense would come in at two minute intervals and ask his sage advice on which book to buy for their spoilt children who were ‘reluctant readers’. He blithely extolled the virtues of the latest children’s blockbuster and they hung on his every word, fascinated. He was like a children’s book Svengali, reminiscent of the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He left two weeks before Christmas and the ample burghers were distraught. Nobody else could possibly ever live up to his genius. He had chosen the correct book for Tarquin’s Christmas stocking every year since anybody could remember.

In fact everybody who was anybody had left Waterstone’s. I think the technical term is a high staff turnover. I would soon be one of them.

I was dumped on the till and trained by my co-workers. All the other temps were young, thrusting, unemployed graduates. They were all better than me due to their vast experience of shitty minimum wage jobs. I had only ever been a teacher and failed writer. What did I know? The till was incredibly complicated with all these endless buttons and screens with multifarious functions that people who had worked there for ten years didn’t understand. It took me ages to get the hang of it. In fact I didn’t ever get the hang of it. I think I must be quite dippy though this trait had never properly come out in teaching. Perhaps everyone else in that profession was as dippy as me. I have no idea. One day I completely broke the system trying to help an elderly lady who wanted to pay with a combination of cash, credit card, points and out of date vouchers.

There was an antiquated stock search system which looked like an Atari video game. One was supposed to check if books were in stock using it. It was actually easier to just go and look at the shelf. Customers would sweep in and say things like: “I am looking for a book by Rudolph Vierbizhki from the 1930s.”
Me: “Do you have a title?”
Customer: “No. I thought you would know it. I mean what sort of a bookshop is this? It’s something about Adolf Hitler living as a woman in Argentina and having thirteen children. You know the one.”
Me: “How are you spelling the author’s name?”
Customer: “How the hell do I know?”
I enter an approximation of the spelling into the system. No stock. No stock at the wholesaler. I might not have the name right.
I sneakily enter the details into Amazon. Everybody does this. It is Waterstone’s policy because their system is so crap. Oh Amazon. The perfection of the website! The user friendly interface! The ability to guess what I really mean from my bad spelling! It is like book nirvana. And the prices are cheap! Amazon has three hundred copies for £1.50.
Armed with the correct spelling I re-enter the details into the Waterstone’s search. No stock. There is a copy in Dundee for £35.99. There is a way of transferring it which I don’t know. I tell the customer we don’t have it. I feel like saying why don’t you just buy it on Amazon as it’s cheaper and easier. The customer leaves in a huff.

I then serve a nice gentleman in tweed who buys himself a Greek tragedy as a Christmas present to himself from the dog. He is jolly and doesn’t moan. This is the sort of customer I like. He tells me I am beautiful. I like him even more. This is the high spot of the day.

All of this would have been fine if it hadn’t been for the awful staff. They were half middle aged women who had been abandoned by their husbands for floozies half their age. They were bitter and twisted at having to work in Waterstone’s for five pounds an hour. The other half were young. stupid and bitchy. They knew nothing about books. They all hated me and had a campaign of passive aggression against me. I always think it is the people who make a work place not the job itself. They were horrible people. The temps were the only decent people in the place but they got blamed for everything that went wrong by the fat supervisor when in fact it was mostly the permanent staff who cocked everything up. I was in what is known in psychology as the out-group. In the Middle Ages I would have been stoned to death in the town square.

Another thing that I hated was the sub zero temperature. The double doors were kept wide open and nobody knew how to switch on the door heater. Even the customers felt sorry for us. One day I turned up in my fleece I hadn’t worn since living in the Highlands and a fake fur snood. I got some funny looks but at least I was warm.
When it was busy you missed your breaks. It was tiring, repetitive and boring.

On my first day some poisonous queen turned up who was some kind of over-manager sent from head office to sort us out. He made me climb a step ladder and pile the extra book stock in weird pyramids on top of the shelves where nobody could reach them. As I descended the step ladder hours later covered in dust and cobwebs he told me he had decided that was a silly idea and could I take them all down again.

I was asked if I was interested in “hours” after Christmas. I said no. The temperature dropped from sub-zero to Baltic.

On Christmas Eve the manager and sundry under-managers (obergruppenfuhren) left early mid-afternoon. The temps were left to hold the fort with the girl from the cafe in charge who seemed to think she was the lynch pin of the whole establishment. At half five, my finish time, I logged off from the till, tossed my dirty work issue fleece into the basket and disappeared into the night. Home to my husband who has not yet abandoned me, my cat and my warm house and my almost ruined Christmas.

So what have I learned from this as Carrie from Sex in the City would say. I am not cut out for retail. Waterstone’s treats their employees like shit. Women are bitchy. The British public are quite ignorant and have no idea how a bookshop works. The place they are looking for is called a library but there aren’t any left as they keep voting Tory!

My bad experience on the CELTA course

I seem to be collecting bad experiences lately. Here is the latest. I signed up for a CELTA course. This is a four week intensive course to gain a certificate in teaching English to Adults.

I have lots of experience in teaching but it has been primary and then English in the private sector. I thought I would be able to manage it. I researched thoroughly. Well, I read some blogs. Most seem to be written by enthusiastic types who said it was stressful but rewarding and well worth it. I phoned around and signed up for a course at a private adult language college in Cambridge. I went for the interview which was fairly straight forward. The premises were swish, the interviewer was nice. It all seemed professional and fine. I submitted my pre-course task and read grammar books and the Bible of TEFL, Learning Teaching by Jim Scrivener. I was quite enjoying it all. I had a new sense of purpose and I was looking forward to teaching again, loving the idea of teaching motivated adults.

The alarm bells should have started ringing when I got the bill for the course before my acceptance letter. This was a money making exercise.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned about the intensity of the course. Every blog I read said this. The day was from 915 until 545 pm. There were “lectures” all day and then teaching practice at the end of the day with an hour break for lunch and two coffee breaks. There were four assignments to do which took up most of every evening and long lesson plans to compose. So there was no free time and no time to absorb the information. However, I was managing it and this wasn’t really the problem.

The first major problem was the teaching practice at the end of the day when I was tired from a long day of study. This just seemed insane to me. To teach at one’s best it would have to be first thing in the morning.
I was exhausted by the time my slot arrived. There was no way I could do my best. The tutor sat with a laptop writing up your feedback during the lesson. You were also observed by the rest of your teaching group and a trainee tutor. Seven people were watching the lesson. Never in all my years as a state teacher have so many people been allowed to observe at the same time.

The day after you taught there was a feedback session where trainees were encouraged to slag each other off. There seemed little emphasis on the positive and the tutor did not discourage people from making extremely negative, personal comments. Then the tutor would weigh in. This was the most dispiriting way to train teachers I have ever encountered and there was certainly nothing like it on my PGCE. I was stunned by the unprofessionalism of the comments. I have been observed by OFSTED and usually found to be of a good standard. This is no mean feat so I was taken aback at the truly brutal negativity in the feedback. Apparently now I couldn’t even stand in the right place during a lesson. My colleagues’ lessons were in the main dire but I was polite about them. I really couldn’t bring myself to join in the slagfest. It’s just not me.I sucked it up and realised that teaching English as a foreign language is different to the teaching I had been used to. I determined to listen to the points made and to try my best to pass the course. In fact, I felt the more I tried to teach in the CELTA way the worse my lessons got.

The first tutor was bland but pleasant enough and I had managed to get through the first week with her giving me a reasonable balance of good and bad points. I had plenty to work on but I was doing ok. My main bugbear was being ordered to smile. In normal life I am a laughing, jokey sort of person. In stressful situations I am not and I find it hard to smile to order. The over-emphasis on this aspect of myself hurt me and made me more nervous than ever. It is the sort of comment that would be considered unprofessional if an OFSTED inspector made it.

Things were about to get worse. In the second week we changed tutors and I was given the rotund Emi. Emi was constantly announcing that she had a CELTA, A DELTA (don’t ask) and an MA as if to convince herself that her credentials made her up to the job. She seemed to take an instant dislike to me. The first lesson was passed as to standard but she savaged me in the group feedback with many negatives. Apparently it is wrong in TEFL teaching to say good or to praise your students. It is also wrong to “do too much”. I still don’t know what this actually means.

After her observation of the second lesson she decided we needed individual feedback. She had me in a room along for fifteen minutes and good God did she put the boot in. I was told I was “school marmy”, I went into “teacher mode” (I don’t know what this is), I had bad rapport, I was patronising, I treated the students like children, I spent too long explaining the grammar, I hadn’t allowed enough time to practise… on and on and on. In spite of this avalanche of criticism she passed the lesson as to standard. If it was that bad why had she done this? She should have failed me. I realise in the cold light of day that she did this so that nobody else would have to scrutinise why she failed me. She was taking the opportunity to bully me for her own pleasure. She asked me at one point if I liked teaching. She said I shouldn’t have been allowed on the course as my knowledge of grammar wasn’t good enough. She asked me if I had spent any time around foreign learners. It was all designed to destroy me. There were no witnesses. Every positive point made by the previous tutor was now a negative. I had not done anything right. The most bizarre statement was that according to Emi, TEFL teachers fall into two types: one type does TEFL to travel the world, shag (sic) women and drink beer. The other type is like Emi. I don’t think you are like that Lynn she patronised. Er no. I am forty seven. I would quite like to travel the world, I have never knowingly shagged a woman but I have had the odd beer. I am not like Emi. I am very proud of this aspect of myself. She finished the session by telling me to go and re-read all the grammar books in the library even though she knew there was not time in the schedule to do this.

I saw out the day and went home. I wrote up my second assignment. I tried to plan my next lesson. I re-read the written feedback on my plan and burst into tears. I couldn’t find a single positive to work with. I was told in the first week I had good rapport. Now this was a target to achieve. How could this be the case? In a fog of exhaustion and stress I decided to give up.

I phoned the centre the next day and withdrew. I had wasted £1,500 on the course. For the next week I felt nauseous and ill. I couldn’t sleep and I had night sweats.

I have no idea what I will do now. I have no idea whether I am, as Emi said, the worst teacher in the world. I may have the wrong style for adults. To change this, after twenty years ingrained experience, will be a long road. Part of me want to still TEFL: go out unqualified, learn the ropes on the job, write teach and travel, Hemingwaying my way around the world. Part of me thinks I should accept the criticism and knock teaching on the head.

The CELTA is intensive and stressful but without the bullying I think I would have got through and survived. I am annoyed at myself for being so weak but there was no way I could carry on.

I would say that the course as a whole is a bit Mickey Mouse. The methodologies are out of date, stuck in the eighties and there are very rigid ways of teaching things which I found didn’t work and took too long. The lectures were tiresome in that they were always conducted like lessons with lots of games and partner work where you had to behave like a language student. Many of the activities were incredibly childish considering it was a course for adults. There was no time to process new information and apply it to your lessons so it just kind of washed over you in a fog. At one point my activity partner turned to me and said, “I am too tired to talk.” I concurred. CELTA is like a four week boot camp, brainwashing into a certain way of teaching. It is bizarre. I learned some new things but not very much. Many of the techniques I had covered before many times. The teaching points one had to follow for the lessons were overly prescriptive and heavily reliant on a very boring textbook. There was absolutely no room for creativity whatsoever. This is a system to produce teaching robots.

I studied for the CELTA at the Bell Educational Trust in Cambridge. The tutors were Lynsey and Emi.I would not recommend it unless you are a blue eyed new graduate willing to soak up information uncritically.