I stepped up into the back of a military jeep in downtown Sarajevo for the twenty minute drive to a military base near the airport. My mission: teach English to sixteen military police hailing from an EU country who were classified as beginners. My tools: New Headway Beginners’ textbooks and a few board pens.
Luckily, I was not alone for the ride.
Christine, a British teacher in her fifties, sat opposite me. The jeep veered around no less than eight speed bumps (or “sleeping police” as the school director called them) as we approached the booth. We turned over our ID cards and continued into the building. The first sign that caught my attention said “No weapons past this point” which was reassuring…in one sense. In the lobby I was faced with four framed photos of military police, one of them wearing what I would call a ski mask and pointing a long gun at the photographer.
Would I be able to learn their names and faces if they all came to class wearing the same uniform? Would they be willing to listen to a female teacher ten to twenty years younger than many of them? Would they, as military police, be put off by the games and activities that are a normal part of beginner English classes? These were my thoughts as I waited for my students to fill the empty classroom.
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To my great relief, my students were cheerful and enthusiastic and had in fact left their weapons at home. They had probably signed up for English classes as a way to pass the time; they weren’t allowed off base more than one day a month. In our first class, we practiced questions, and one of the higher ranking officers asked me for my phone number. We all laughed. Later I turned my back and one man put a plastic bag over another man’s head. I made him take it off. On the break at 9 o’clock, they invited me to the pizzeria for espresso. I agreed.
Our class was not without challenges. They brought dictionaries to class that were four inches thick — more than beginners need. They had textbooks but the management wanted to reuse them, so the students couldn’t write in them. They were often absent or late — but they had good excuses: My helicopter just landed. I arrested a war criminal.
But in the end, it was a success. They made progress in English. They enjoyed themselves in class. Games like hangman and battleship and board races were a big hit. They were happy to have a female teacher. I learned their names without issue. A year earlier, I wouldn’t have believed I could walk into a classroom on a military base and teach sixteen military police beginner English, and while I will not likely find myself in a position to teach “military English” again, the confidence I gained from being able to do it once is something that will stay with me in the future.