Feb 28, 2007

You Know Who's Awesome? Harrison Ford. He's So Cool.

When I think of the "I'm making it up as I go along," I think of Harrison Ford. I can't remember if he was Han Solo when he said it, or if he was Indiana Jones, but that doesn't really matter. He said it- and he was all swaggery, badass, and ultimately successful when he did it. Sure, he might have said "uh" awkwardly into that microphone a few times, but even his "uhs" were awesome. And he might have been afraid of snakes, but that was mostly for contrast with all the big stuff he wasn't afraid of.
Be it stormtroopers, death stars, nazis, or Gary Oldman taking over his plane, the meta-character that is the idea of Harrison Ford could kick all of their asses in an easy, improvisational way, and then make out with Princess Leia later. He got banged up a bit, but even that was awesome- like a truck could drag him through the dirt and it would not stop him. He was just that awesome.
I have no special certification to teach English- I am most certainly "making it up as I go along." And, since part of me will always be a wide-eyed adolescent who wants to be Han Solo, having to pull cool stuff out of the aether always brings such a figure to mind.
I have a college degree and am a native speaker, such is the extent of my English expertise, and the extent of my company's requirments for this job. There is also a test and an interview process, but neither were all that challenging. So, when I first got here (and really, still) I was making up the teaching thing as I went along. Sure, I got pointers and some odd bits of training- but for the most part it was a very seat-of-the-pants affair. I hope my students didn't notice, but since that vast majority of them are what could be called "smart cookies," it would have been highly improbable to not notice my initial foibles.
Anyway, a bit of an autobiographical divergence...
My father is a teacher. He teaches literature, language, and American history to middle schoolers, and I have to admit that it's more than a little weird to have a job that's somewhat similar to my father's. Prior to his regular teaching gig, he taught English to Latino kids in Texas, a situation which I think oddly mirrors my own (though I'm not planning on making this a career).
My father, though, is good at what he does. Any sort of pere/fils issues that I've got with him aside, I've never heard anything from anyone (teacher or student) say that he was anything other than an excellent teacher. I've seen him in action a dozen or so times, and went to high school with plenty of his former students. Hell, even the students who didn't like him (and there are many) conceded that he's a great teacher. He's difficult to deal with, they say; he challenges his students, they say. But, they always, always add that he teaches well, that students leave his clas knowing more about the world than they used to. Event the former students who described him as an "asshole," "prick" or "dick" admitted as much, and I think that says a lot.
I do realize that the whole "going on a journey and comparing oneself to one's father" edges painfully close to Robert Bly territory, so I'm going to back off a bit from this topic before I develop the urge to chant wildly whilst nakedly beating bongo drums in celebration of masculine archetypes. No one wants that- least of all me. But, knowledge of my father's occupation does color my own experience as a teacher. A novice, untrained, making-it-up-he-goes-along teacher.
At this point, four months, I'm actually a fairly good teacher. I can get students to understand things, and I've found out how to communicate with very low level speakers. By no means can I claim Harrison Ford-ian levels of improvisational awesome, but my students like me, they learn, they sign up for more classes (much to my manager's delight) and stuff works. I've found out how to be smart and fun, even if I had to make it up as I went along.
I still can't help but feel that the first two months or so I was here, my students were getting royally ripped off. I didn't know what I was doing, I didn't know how to be a teacher, and I had no idea what worked and what didn't. I'd had a little bit of training before I left, but a controlled environment is nothing like an actual classroom where people expect to learn from you. Most teachers (such as my father) go to school for quite some time to learn how to do this.
Now, I feel like I've succeeded because I'm a pretty smart guy, but I'm not the only one in this industry. There are lots and lots of people here in Japan who work for eikaiwas, and I've met several of them. Many of them are awesome, and many of them are dumb as boxes of hair.
"Dear God- you teach English?" has been my reaction on more than one occasion. These people, it seems, couldn't make up anything as they went along. Maybe they magically become awesome speakers when they put on a suit and enter a classroom. Or maybe their students pay tons of money to listen to a calvacade of "ums" and "uhs" mumbling. One person did say "I just sort of talk at them," and my predecessor just chatted with his students (oftentimes in Japanese) rather than teaching real classes.
So, I wonder how many people are still gasping in this job- with classes that are the roughly the equivalent of Han Solo saying "Fine, we're all fine," on the Death Star. Classes where they utterly can't make it up as they go. Classes where Indy just gets shot instead of finding the Ark.
Probably a lot.
I pity their students.


Sydney said...

Wow, today's Qwantz is totally in sync with your vibe! I think you're totally right, that Harrison Ford does play a metacharacter (either by choice or by talent ::said like Calculon from Futurama::) and that it is the essence of savoir faire. In the same way that Superman represents hope that we can overcome any evil, any obstacle if we're just willing to look inside ourselves and find the strength to be really, truly good, I think Han/Indy represents the hope that we can overcome those same challenges (and some that are more ambiguous on the good/bad scale) by looking inside ourselves and finding the strength to be really, truly cool. That coolness under fire, with love-interests, in the face of overwhelming odds, says something about your character. Superman didn't have to be cool; he had laser eyes and super alien strength and could fly. But for us mere mortals, Han/Indy/Meta-Harrison represents an avenue into the kind of inner calm it takes to be a hero. As a girl, even I wanted to be Han Solo because his cool transcended gender distinctions.

So good for you, harnessing your inner Meta-Harrison! You'll need it, because it is my experience that in every field, in every possible work environment, the boxes of hair out number those of us making a real effort by about two to one, if not more.

Also, here is a question: If Meta-Harrison Ford represents the inner cool for which we all strive, what does Ferris Bueller represent? He has a similar savoir faire thing going on, being audacious and getting away with it, bringing his less confident friends along for the ride, being totally existential at all times and yet somehow connected to the probably future ("you're only young once!") and the definite past ("Cameron has always worried too much!").

SonicLlama said...

Wow, that's a great thought. You're totally right in that Ford is to coolness what Superman is to hope. I wasn't even thinking about Qwantz when I wrote that this morning, but you're right- the similarities are there.
Ferris Bueller, huh? Part of me wants to say that he grows up and becomes Han/Indy. Another part of me wants to say that he's Han/Indy's younger brother- since he's younger he's more of a troublemaker, but he nevertheless is inspired by his big bro. Still another part of me says that he is Han/Indy, but in a puckish mood. He's probably all those things, really.
Oh my god. It's like we're discussing some modern, mythical, archetype pantheon. I really have stepped into Robert Bly territory. Yeesh. Oh well...
Harrison Ford may be cool and awesome in the face of danger, but Ferris Bueller is cool and awesome in the face of authority. When he pulls off some stunt like getting his girlfriend out of class, that's the Ferris Bueller version of Indy just shooting the guy with the sword.
Now, if we wanted to get really pretentious we could just say that they are two facets of the grand trickster archetype- heroes who think on their feet and use their wit and charm to win the day. But that line of thinking leads to pretentious wankery, right?

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

some students do get royally ripped off. some teachers are crap. but it doesn't have so much to do with the seat of the pants approach or not, I find. I think some of my best lessons were completely off the seat of my pants (there were extenuating circumstances that prevented more than 3 min preparation). That was fine. I know how to make businessmen smile (want to talk about sexist yet?) and by this time the basics of how to really teach language (presentation, practice, production) are so ingrained that I think I sometime structure my conversations like this.

what makes a bad teacher is someone who talks too much and doesn't use correct English. The teacher who said to a stundent, "Now make sentance" I nearly flew into a rage and killed him. For the teacher who spent 10 minutes talking about his weekend while his students were bored, I prayed he would kidnapped by the kakuza and sold into white slavery.