Summer (School) Madness: working as a summer course director

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

I was just settling down to a well-earned siesta when “John – teléfono!” shouted my flatmate Javi.  “Hi, it’s Neil – we’re opening a new summer school and we’d like you to be the centre manager.”

My initial thought was that he’d called the wrong John – could I really run a summer school? Well, evidently Neil was either mad or desperate enough – or even a bit of both – to think I could. The job sounded pretty straightforward – it would include the hiring (and firing) of the teachers, organising the timetable, level-testing and, more importantly, making sure that 450 Euroteens didn’t trash the University of Portsmouth (whose premises the school had rented for the summer holidays).  So, without giving him a chance to change his mind (and just in case he had called the wrong John) I eagerly accepted, even though memories of being thrown off a moving bus by overly-patriotic French students the previous year still haunted me …

John Harrop shared his experience working as a summer course director in Portsmouth, England
The Spinnaker Tower has the largest glass floor in Europe (!)

Three months later, after passing on all my private classes to Jane, and having far too many going-away drinks in Madrid, I packed my bags and headed to Portsmouth. I took an immediate liking to the city: it’s not the UK’s most picturesque town, but it’s on the south coast, it has a temperate climate and the people are friendly. Generations of people there have worked in the Navy or the shipyards, and it’s home to 70% of the Royal Navy’s ships.  Over the centuries the docks have affected the look and feel of the place – it’s as if an industrial northern city had been picked up lock, stock and barrel and transported to the genteel south coast. Only here would a city name one of its main thoroughfares ‘The Hard’!

My first job was to contract the teachers, which was easier than I’d imagined as there were so many university students looking for a summer job that wasn’t just washing dishes. But organising some form of teacher training was more difficult: even though I had almost a year’s teaching under my belt, I found that a workshop demonstrating all my best ideas still didn’t last more more than a couple of hours. So after a thirst-inducing round of ‘Fruit Salad’, I made the executive decision that the afternoon would be better spent on a team-building exercise consisting of beer and a pub-lunch in the exotic-sounding Spice Island Inn.

The following day, my first task was to ‘meet and greet’ the students off the coach and introduce them to their host families.  I arrived at the car-park where the meeting was to take place only to discover that it was a brownfield site: a factory had recently been demolished, providing the only place near the city-centre where the host-families’ cars could park for free and where there was room for coaches to pull up. The host-families started to arrive in an assortment of vehicles, from battered old bangers to much flashier models.

The families – a lot of them tattooed (both the men and the women) – were a bit scary to look at, but all were friendly and warm.  While we stood around and chatted – mainly about how difficult it was to feed students on the few meagre pounds a day they were paid, I wondered how the students were going to react to their not-altogether conventional hosts.  Suddenly, before I could give it any more thought, a coach rounded the corner, erratically jerked and bumped its way across the potholed improvised carpark, and came to a sudden halt with a hiss of brakes.

ESL summer course director John Harrop had a lovely time in Portsmouth, England
Another sunny day in Portsmouth

As if on cue, it started to rain – not a downpour, but a fine drizzle – making everything look like it was covered in dew and making the situation even more surreal than it already was.  The coach contained a group of Italians who’d arrived from Milan via London Gatwick airport.  The door opened with a swish and I jumped on board and, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, greeted them with “Welcome to Portsmouth. My name’s John and I’m the course director. The first thing we’re going to do is assign you to your host-families.”

52 designer-clad teenagers pushed their faces up to the windows to get a glimpse of their possible hosts as I called the first family over to the coach. A 2-metre tall man with a scar on his nose led the way, followed by his wife, a cigarette dangling from her lip. To top it all, their 7-year-old daughter had a pitbull in tow.  The students went deathly quiet as I looked at my clipboard to find the corresponding student. Each one of them seemed to be silently praying I wasn’t going to call out their name – one girl even crossed herself! “Giovanni Trassi” I called out, and as the rest of the students let out palpable sighs of relief, Giovanni slowly shuffled up the bus to encouraging shouts of “Buona fortuna!” (“Good Luck!”) and what can only have been the equivalent of “Rather you than me, mate!”.  He went down the steps and pushed a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil into the tattooed hands of his host-family dad: “Thees eez for you”. The man looked at the bottle as if he’d been handed a dog-turd, probably disappointed it wasn’t a bottle of Chianti.

John met an interesting group of students during his time teaching English and working as a summer course director in England
I didn’t lose any of these!

We all watched as Giovanni, dragging his oversized Gucci suitcase behind him, reluctantly got into the back of their white van along with the scary dog.  “See you at school tomorrow!”, I shouted with false cheeriness.  “It’ll be character-building”, I told myself unconvincingly, as the van bumped its way across the carpark with Giovanni looking desperately out of the back window. I looked at my clipboard … 8 more coachloads to go … it was going to be a long day!

Thankfully, the next six weeks were relatively trouble-free. The students and the families got on famously, apart from one over-zealous host-mother who, on finding a beedi (an Indian cigarette) in the student’s bedroom, called the drugs squad … and a rather original complaint from a host-family whose Italian student had managed to wreck their kettle by trying to cook spaghetti in it!  In hindsight, this lack of major problems was really down to the teachers, who went above and beyond the call of duty.  Probably the most difficult thing I had to do was to fire one teacher who just couldn’t handle groups of teenagers full of raging hormones.

The Portsmouth beach is a great travel and teaching destination over the summer
The “beach” in all its glory

Well, like all good things, the course came to an end.  My final job was to go back to the car-park to make sure all the students got onto the correct coaches to take them to the airport.  This time it was sunny, and there was a party-like atmosphere as students of various nationalities had arrived early to wave off their newly-made friends.

A battered white van rolled up and out jumped Giovanni with the frolicking pitbull (who couldn’t stop jumping up and down and licking him), followed by his host family, all sorry to see him go.  A round of tearful hugs showed the feeling was mutual.  As Giovanni boarded the bus, his host-family dad shouted: “I

ESL summer course director John Harrop taught students from various cultural backgrounds in England
A “Victory” for cross-cultural relations

almost forgot …!”, rushed up to him, and pressed a miniature model of Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory, into Giovanni’s hand.

The skinny on being a course-director in a summer school:

What will I get paid?
Varies wildly depending on the centre, and also if it’s residential or not – in the UK you’re looking at between £400-600 a week and in the US $600-800 with full room and board.

Wow, that’s good money – how many hours a week will I have to work?
This is something you have to be a bit careful about. In non-residential schools, it will usually be from 9.00-16.00 and you’ll need to keep your phone on 24/7, in case of emergency. The difficulty is with residential schools, as they can be notoriously vague about the number of hours you’re expected to work. This is partly due to the nature of the job (you don’t how long you’re going to spend dealing with the drugs squad and replacing broken kettles). So it’s something that you should clarify with the school, i.e. Are there systems in place to give you time off? You’ll need to do the maths before committing so you won’t find yourself earning less than minimum wage. Residential camps often meaning “living” the job as you’ve never done before, but you need to pace yourself. Remember, you will be responsible for the welfare of lots of young people, in some cases hundreds, and you should be on the ball so that you make the best decisions.

Can I do this with with my CELTA?
Ideally you should have a DELTA, so that you have the academic skills to design the syllabus, organise level-testing and do any in-house training. Plus as well as formal qualifications, you’ll need to have great people skills, infinite patience and heaps of energy – and be incredibly well-organised!!

Have a look at Teaching House’s Delta offerings here They also run the face-to-face module two in both London and New York.

OK, you’ve whetted my appetite – I’m ready for the challenge, where can I apply?
Well where else but TH’s sister summer schools with SolCamps in Canada, the UK, Australia and the USA? If you think you’ve got what it takes, apply here for work now

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