Most public-school English Language teachers in Greece come from the private sector prior to being substitute or appointed teachers, just like me. When I go back to these first days of change, the inevitable comparison between where I had been and where I eventually found myself in is still so vivid in my mind! By the first week, the mental list of pros and cons between the two sectors had been formed just to help me realize the restrictions to be considered and the adaptations to be employed in my new teaching context. Would you like to know about the drawback that was on top of the list of negative aspects, the one that kept flashing in my head like an old-fashioned neon sign? Well, you’ve probably guessed right: it was the sad fact that I did not have my own classroom anymore!
What does it really mean not to have your own English classroom in a Greek public primary school? That’s a question with a long answer actually, an answer sadly familiar to most of my Greek colleagues to a question that is normally never (even thought of being) asked to a European or American one.
First of all, if you work for a school that does not have a separate English classroom, carrying stuff becomes your … trademark! For an ordinary lesson that does not require a lot of teaching aids, you normally carry a CD player and a CD or a laptop with speakers for the necessary audio files (as this equipment is not always present in every classroom in most schools), the learners’ notebooks and/or worksheets, as well as your course book and activity book copies that you never leave in any classroom, because you need them to prepare the lesson and you do not want to tempt your learners with materials that contain all the answers to all the tasks, conveniently ‘served’ on a bookcase shelf! If you are the kind of teacher that uses a variety of instructional materials, however, you may find yourself needing extra hands (and extra strength!) for the flashcards, the projector, the class mascot, a ball, a big cardboard dice and the photocopied worksheets that you intend to use during the lesson. Your extra hands are normally very willing to help, are more than the ones you need and actually belong to your learners who are not supposed to be spending their break helping you carry the necessary materials for the lesson and are kindly asked to help as soon as the bell rings – which usually occurs right after you have devoted your break to collect everything in one place at the teachers’ office! And that is, of course, only if you, the teacher, are not busy treating a wound, mediating a conflict, going to the bathroom, having something to eat, arranging a cross-curricular approach with a colleague, photocopying handouts or supervising the learners during the break! Because, if you are busy with any of these or other tasks, you inevitably limit your teaching to the main aids mentioned earlier, wrongfully feeling inadequate and guilty for not being able to offer your learners the best you can or would like to have offered.
Aside from being the teacher who always carries stuff, you often find yourself in a classroom where the learners’ seating arrangement is by no means convenient to the collaborative, communicative approach you mean to employ and exploit in your lessons. Most all-subject teachers in Greek public schools are usually fond of the Π-shaped seating arrangement, or the more traditional one, with the learners sitting in pairs in two or three rows of desks. So, what do you do in this case?
- Do you move everything wasting some valuable teaching and learning time, making a lot of noise and arousing conflicts as to who is going to be with whom in the same group?
Yes, you do (at least I do), you rarely do, with a lot of preparation during the break, in cases you want to rock the boat, or when you really have to exploit the benefits of group work!
- Do you settle for the pre-determined seating arrangement and adjust your teaching accordingly?
Yes, you do (at least I do), on an almost daily basis, in most of the classrooms you teach in, trying to compromise with pre-determined and sometimes inconvenient level-wise pairs of learners.
Having discussed this issue with many colleagues, the pre-determined by the all-subjects teacher seating arrangement is a considerable challenge for all of the foreign language teachers who subscribe to the benefits of group work, as group-seating arrangement appears to be the least preferred one in most schools. Based on these discussions, rearranging the furniture and moving it all back at the end of the lesson seems to rarely occur mainly in the ground-floor classrooms of Greek public schools.
One of the most daunting drawbacks of moving around the school rooms every teaching hour is the fact that, most of the times, language teachers appear to feel more like a guest, rather than a classroom-mate in each room. Being allowed to use supplies (the stapler, paper clips, whiteboard markers, etc.), a part of the notice board or the wall, a part of a bookcase shelf or even the teacher’s desk (!) are unfortunately not taken for granted in all teaching contexts! We have all heard of (or even experienced) instances where the teacher’s desk is uninvitingly full of coursebooks, students’ notebooks and photocopies, the drawers are occupied and so are the classroom notice boards and the sharing of supplies that are actually bought by the school triggers arguments and ice-cold smiles between colleagues. Although fortunately this is not always the case in the majority of the classrooms, public-school English-Language teachers in Greece normally carry the most sizeable, yet elegant (!) handbags or backpacks in an attempt to be prepared for any case! For years, my colleagues and I have carried or been carrying a pencil case full of pens, pencils, erasers and sharpeners, a pencil case full of whiteboard markers, a stapler, a double-hole puncher, paper and scotch tape, paper tissues, wet wipes and stickers – among other non-school related items!
Bearing all these and maybe some extra, more trivial challenges in mind, not having your own classroom is quite demanding, especially if you are required to do this in more than one schools, as is normally the case with most Greek EFL teachers in public schools. This year I am one of the lucky ones to be able to use an English classroom, but, after many years of personal experience and exchanges of opinions with colleagues, it seems that working conditions can improve considerably with good communication with the colleagues, willingness from all sides to compromise and lots of planning! Challenges help us grow, make us strong and trigger creativity and motivation, therefore, not having our own classroom is just another hard challenge out there that keeps us on our toes!