The Power of Prepositions

 No teacher likes to be observed. I still remember my first teaching practices when I was training to be a teacher. It was terrifying, because I’d never done anything remotely like teaching beforehand, and then suddenly had to stand up in front of a group of strangers and help them understand a list of words. This was made even worse by having an experienced teacher observe me, along with three fellow trainees. Being in that position really makes you doubt yourself. Whenever you see them make a note, you think about what you must have just done wrong, and hesitate about what to do next.

I’m lucky that I’ve never had a truly disastrous observed lesson. The worst was in my second ever teaching practice. I was doing a listening exercise, and when I played the CD, I checked on my timing. Two minutes behind. Not even remotely a problem when you’re an experienced teacher, because then you’re not even timing your lesson in that detail. But when you’re a conscientious trainee, with every half-minute accounted for in your lesson plan, it’s quite stressful. How are you ever going to make those two minutes up!? While I was thinking about this, I wasn’t paying such close attention to the recording. During the second playthrough, I heard the familiar beep indicating the end of the recording, stopped the CD, and started eliciting the answers to the questions. All was going well, and I hoped I’d make up some of those two minutes, until about halfway through the questions, when the students suddenly didn’t seem to know any of the answers anymore. What had happened? They’d been doing so well. After no-one answered a very easy question, I said, surprised, No-one knows the answer? Then someone said, You didn’t play it…

I was dumbfounded, and my brain froze. What are they talking about, I didn’t… Oh no…

I remembered that the recording was divided into four sections, and that there was a beep between each section, not just at the end. Distracted, I’d mistaken the second beep for the final one, and skipped half of the recording. I looked at the observer, and she had the same panicked look I must have had. I quickly replayed the recording, got through the questions, and ended up finishing the lesson with a much shorter speaking exercise at the end. All through the rest of the lesson I had a resigned air, convinced that I’d failed. Then I got the feedback at the end, and to my surprise I’d passed, though the observer said it had been a pretty bad mistake, and that it’s important to keep focus during a recording.

Now of course I see that it wasn’t the worst mistake in the world, and I’d give 24-year old me a pass too, because the rest of the lesson was ok, though with a similar warning about keeping focused. Which is why now that I’m more often the observer than than the observed, I’m sensitive to how difficult the situation can be for a teacher. I know that it’s nerve-wracking being observed, and that you’re never really yourself, so I try to minimise the teacher’s stress by being relaxed and cheerful myself. This must have been on my mind recently when I was informing our teachers about the summer observation schedule, and informed them that after their main observation, there would be the possibility for follow-up observations. As I typed that in the orientation presentation, I thought to myself, Couldn’t I also have said there would be the possibility of follow-up observations? I certainly could have, but then, that wouldn’t have been the same thing, would it?

Saying the possibility of follow-up observations would sound vaguely like a warning, like it was something out of my hands that might happen by chance. You might walk into your classroom and find me already there, sat in the corner, clipboard in hand and left leg cockily perched on right. But the possibility for follow-up observations, that’s almost an offer, a service to be provided should the teacher desire it. It’s not an observation wherein you’ll be assessed and suffer some setback if it doesn’t go well. No, it’s a possibility for some constructive feedback and advice to aid your professional development.  And that meaning changes simply by using for instead of of.

These words, for and of, are prepositions, and as I’ve written about before, they’re among the most common words in the English language, but we don’t really think of them. Content words like nouns, verbs, and adjectives are the ones that attract our attention, because they provide our sentences with the core of their meaning. But our communication would be much less fluid without little words like prepositions. For native speakers, they don’t really communicate much information, but they fill little gaps that we need to be filled, or else things will be a little confusing. They give us basic information about time, place, or orientation, which is important to know, but which we don’t need spelled out for us. There’s a big difference between throwing something to someone and throwing something at someone, but we never have to consciously think about whether to use to or at.

Prepositions though, are difficult for learners (and this goes for English speakers learning other European languages too). Most English prepositions have near equivalents in other languages, but we never use them in exactly the same way. We might say I’m going to Spain next week, but a French speaker might say I’m going in Spain next week, because in French you’d say Je vais en Espagne, and en generally equates to in, except of course when dans means in. It’s easy to see how this can be confusing, and prepositions remain confusing even for fairly proficient speakers of English. It can be very frustrating, because even though misusing them rarely causes much confusion, using them correctly is a sign of real fluency. But it’s very hard to get to that stage.

Which is why it’s reassuring that my mind went immediately to the possibility for… I’m glad that I sought the positive option without thinking about it, and it shows how clever our brains are, and how they choose the right words for us, even if we’re not aware of it. Though as I’ve been writing this, I’ve been thinking about the fact that we usually follow the possibility for… with a general noun or a gerund, and not a specific noun, like I used. But even though I’m probably not being exactly correct in using the phrase in the way I did, the more positive sense of using for instead of of justifies bending the rules a little. Because in your native tongue, you can always be a little creative, and there’s always the possibility for bending the rules a little.



13 thoughts on “The Power of Prepositions

  1. I liked this read…emphasizing what we normally take for granted in a language. English isn’t my mother tongue. However, it was my first language in school and I suppose I speak fairly well. But when I try and teach prepositions to my friends from ‘Spain’ and ‘Portugal’, I do observe that they find it hard to understand these subtle differences between their language and English.

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  2. Your student teacher experiences sound a little like my own, 29 years ago. I remember being so nervous having someone watch me teach. After a while, of course, I got over it, and started taking student teachers of my own, who would observe me for the first few days. Then when it was their turn, I would sit in the very back corner to be as unobtrusive as possible!

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