Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Why I am taking a step back

2020 is going to be different. I am not saying that because it’s January, or anything like that, it’s not a resolution. It’s simply a fact: this year is going to be very different.

Before you actually start reading, you must consider that these opinions are mine, and that I am not criticizing anybody.

You may remember that I only started within the ELT field three years ago. I started online with the TKT, then I did a French degree in education, which allowed me to work in a bilingual primary school. We all know I didn’t get the job after because I was not native (this is not an assumption, the management explicitly told me so) and I continued, with a CELTA. I started to get involved in TESOL association, to read a lot about Second Language Acquisition, about methodologies… Which led me to start a MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL. In other words, I am still a baby teacher, a rookie.

I admit that my first year of MA was quite disappointing: a lot of theories, not enough cases, and I guess I had another vision of it. Nonetheless, I am quite happy I am doing it (I just finished another Module) despite some setbacks. Alongside my MA, I started my Delta, and well, I have written a lot on this topic already. Saying that Delta didn’t go as planned is the understatement of the year, but it made me realize that my priorities were not straight.

But the thing is, I worked non-stop for the past three years. I went to conferences, I met people, I did some research, I didn’t stop reading and I worked on several projects. I wanted to develop some CPD workshops in Lyon, France, where I have been living. I wanted to develop my academic research, despite not feeling academic myself, because I wanted to show that I was a good teacher. And I wanted other teachers to become more aware of their environment, to create interesting sessions.

Boy, I was a bit presumptuous. CPD workshops are a great idea in theory, but after organizing two workshops with an attendance close to zero, I just decided to spend my Saturdays elsewhere. Attending conferences are great, but expensive, let’s be honest, and is it really interesting and relatable? And if I spent a great deal working on some research, it was not always related to my context, nor my students. I won’t say it was a waste of time, but I could have used this time differently.

I have been teaching in a local college for five months now, and it’s probably the best gig I had so far. The students’ general level is quite low, but the degrees they are studying for is interesting. It’s not 100% academic, which is fine by me, because I am not 100% academic. I seemed to forget that before being a teacher, I graduated with a BA in management, another BA in business and worked six years in real estate. It’s a real added value that I didn’t really use properly, obsessed over the fact that my passport was less important than my degrees. So, when this local college asked me if I were interested by teaching something else than English, I said yes.

Teaching English is, and will always be, what I prefer to do. I love this language way more than I could actually explain it. But I also live in a country which doesn’t fully appreciate other languages, in which teachers are not being recognized, in which native speakerism is all over the place. My MA is not going to change that. If I ever get tenure in that college, or in another school, that won’t be because of it, as the national education system doesn’t accept it. If I ever finish DELTA one day, once again, it will be for me.

I feel better writing these words, almost liberated. I put so much pressure on myself for so long that it feels amazing just to say “I am doing this for myself”. Working in ELT is not easy, it can actually be quite vile and I won’t apologize because I have decided to step back from the whole academic world. What really matters here is the person I am in front of my students, and the quality of my work, not if I transcribed correctly in an presentation.

Writing here is still very important to me, and despite being non-academic, I’ll continue to do so. I still have things to say, even though I am not a part of any TESOL or IATEFL association anymore.

What I’ve read in 2019

Last year, I had quite a long list of resolutions, mostly professionals, but as you may know, it didn’t turn up the way it was supposed to be. In other words, I am going to take a break from the whole Delta mess after trying LSA4 another time. I’m not ready for Module 1 just yet, maybe I’ll never be, and it’s okay. Today I’m not writing about Delta or MA or even about my job.

Today is about another resolution I took: trying to read as much as possible. Here is the list of all the books/short stories I read in 2019 and some of my impressions. So yeah, it’s a long article today, sorry.

January

I love Dick – Chris Krauss (didn’t like it, tbh) / Becoming – Michelle Obama / Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime – Oscar Wilde (LOVED IT) / The portrait of Mr W.H. – Oscar Wilde (I have the entire collection I must admit) / High Fidelity – Nick Hornby (I preferred Funny Girl from the same writer) / The rules of attraction – Bret Easton Ellis (it was actually the second time reading it)

February

I never knew that about..the royal family – Christopher Winn (I read the whole series to be fair) / The wicked wit of Princess Margaret – Karen Dolby (I have to admit that I chuckled more than one time)

March

Victoria Revealed (500 facts about the queen) – Deirdre Murphy (I visited the Victoria exhibition at Kensington Palace so of course I bought the book) / La Saint courtisane – Oscar Wilde / The picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde / La Sirenetta (the Little Mermaid, in Italian, yeah, I had to start somewhere)

April

A .45 to pay the rent – Charles Bukowski (that was a refreshing change from Oscar Wilde!) / Doing time with public enemy number one – Charles Bukowski / Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson/ William III and Mary II – Jonathan Keates (I love this collection, from Penguin, short, yet complete) / Elizabeth revealed : 500 facts about the queen – Lucinda Hawkley (blame The Crown on that one)/ Playboy – Constance Debré (a book in French! It happens sometimes, and this one is amazing.)

May

The Prodigal tongue – Lynne Murphy (bought it at the Harvard bookstore, which is always a nice memory) / the Great zen wedding – Charles Bukowski/ Reunion – Charles Bukowski / The Hollow Crown – Dan Jones

June

White – Bret Easton Ellis (read it in three days) / The wicked wit of Prince Philip – Karen Dolby (gift from my mom, but didn’t like it, not remotely funny)/ Goodbye Watson – Charles Bukowski / Il Re Leone (yes, the Lion King in Italian!)/ Matilda – Road Dahl (with my students, tbh)

July

I shot a man in Reno – Charles Bukowski / Wife-wooing – John Updike / My thoughts exactly – Lily Allen (which was quite entertaining) / Henry VIII – John Goy (same wonderful Penguin collection)

August

The handmaid’s tale – Margaret Atwood (the BEST book I have read in 2019, period. Read it in two days.) / Mary I – John Edwards / The White Album – Joan Didion (didn’t like it) / Edward VIII – Piers Brendon / 99 glimpses of Princess Margaret – Craig Brown (I took a LOT of planes in August)/ Buffy: high school is hell (comic book)

September

The Etymologicon – Mark Forsyth (incredibly interesting) / The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (couldn’t stop it, read it in four days) / the wicked wit of Queen Elizabeth II – Karen Dolby (also from my mom, but that one was funnier at least.) /American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis (can you spell “masterpiece”?)

October

And then they were none – Agatha Christie (last time I read it I was eleven, and it’s still as good as then)/ La regina del ghiaccio (Frozen, but in Italian. Baby steps, guys, baby steps!)/ US History for dummies (this is not a joke, as I have an “Introduction to culture and history class”) / The Crimes of Grindelwald – JK Rowling (definitely the worst thing she has ever written)

November

Rebecca – Daphné du Maurier (I would like to thank forever the student who gave me that book. I forced myself to read only one chapter a day so I could appreciate fully the story!) / The story of English – David Crystal (this is technically a book about English, but in a funny way and not related to my MA) / A rainbow in the cloud – Maya Angelou (aka the most incredible author ever. It should be mandatory to study her art.)

December

The adventure of English – Melvyn Bragg (also about the English language, but in a nice, entertaining way) / Elizabeth I – Helen Castor / American Boy – Helene Combe of Glencoe (well, okay, I may have also written that one)

I hope you survived through this incredibly long article, which was not meant to make you snore, I swear. I didn’t include the numerous books I read for my MA and Delta module 2. If I have to suggest only one book for you to read, it would be The Handmaid’s tale by Margaret Atwood. I couldn’t let it down, and I felt terrible once it was finished. I haven’t purchased the sequel for now, because I don’t have the time to read for now, and I want to have all the time in the world for this one.

Teaching French learners

This term has been quite hard. I did not write here for quite a while, mostly because I can’t find the time to do so. I miss writing here, I believe it helped me for a long time but lately, it seems like the universe is just messing with me. The term is almost over, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.

As mentioned previously, I teach a few classes in college, mostly people who are studying marketing or management. Obviously, English will be an important part of their future jobs, even if they don’t move abroad. But I am afraid some of my students are reluctant.

Teaching in France is quite a challenge: England and France were enemies for centuries, the French language invaded (and almost killed) the English language (the only thing stronger than the French language was the Death Plague) and it’s been said, for decades now, that French people suck at English. That’s pretty much what my students say to me, every lesson: “in France, we suck at languages”. Like if it were some sort of cultural thing.

The whole concept of bilingualism is a problem in France: I’ll write another article about it (I am preparing it now). But purely psychologically speaking, if you start something by saying “I will suck at it”, you can be sure that you won’t succeed. A lot of my students (maybe half of them) are convinced that they can’t learn a foreign language, and specifically, English, because they are French.

Being French is not only about eating croissant, admiring the Eiffel Tower and wearing a different beret each day. It is indeed an important country, with a great cultural impact, and an enormous history. The French language is fiercely protected, after all, the Académie Française has been around since 1635. But it also means that learning a foreign language is threatening this identity.

During the eighties, the French president Mitterand said that it was perfectly useless to speak English, and promoted the German language instead. Unfortunately for him, we now talk of English as an International language, and not German as an IL. The national education system is not promoting languages learning (this article is dedicated to my middle school headteacher who told my mother that knowing languages was “not important, and it will never be.”) Efforts are not being made. Classes are overcrowded. The snake eats its own tail.

Can we talk about ethnocentrism? Maybe a little bit. Are the French alone in this situation? I highly doubt it. Is it going to change anytime soon? English is an International Language, but not in France, obviously. We have a long way ahead of us.

What went wrong … Delta module 2 edition

If you have been following me on Twitter, you are aware now that I have been referred on Delta Module 2 and that I didn’t take it gracefully AT ALL. Let’s start with the obvious: clearly, I have overestimated myself, and underestimate the amount of work I would have to do.

I started my MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL in September 2018, eager to learn more and I was quickly disappointed: too general, not enough practice, I felt like I had made a huge mistake.

I also had a lot of work back in the day and one of the training center I worked for was starting to piss me off. By January, I was done with them for real, but it caused a lot of stress to work for people who around zero consideration for their employees. Also, I had eye surgery, which went pretty bad, which means that I almost completely lost my right eye (it was scratched pretty seriously during the surgery).

So, the first semester of my MA wasn’t the best one, but I passed anyway. I started the second one with more motivation, and it was, indeed, extremely interesting. I still missed the practical aspect of it, so I applied to do a Delta at ITTC, and if you have followed my blog, you know what happened there.

I came back to France in September 2019 with new students, new challenges, but also, a goal in mind: sitting for the Module 1 of Delta in December. But clearly, I needed a tutor to make me study, and it was too late for the December session: I decided to reschedule for June then. I got sick, endometriosis was kicking my ass, and I started the second year of my MA a week late. And then, I got it: the email which said that I had been referred.

Was I surprised? Yes.

Was I upset? Hell, yes. I am still upset, to be honest.

Was I close to stop everything? No. No way.

Despite having to do LSA4 again (grammar), my portfolio got accepted, which means that the rest of my work was okay. I didn’t mean that I was not a good teacher nonetheless.

I started to think about the reasons I had to want so badly a Delta and a MA, I mean, my job wasn’t being threatened or something like that. Nobody had forced me, and I teach in companies and local private universities, after all. But I knew, deep down, what had motivated me. I am nonnative speaker, who realized at 26 years old that she wanted to teach. I started “late” (I passed my TKT at 28 years old, then continued with a CELTA), I knew I was starting with a handicap, being a NNS, and I wanted to make up for the years I had lost. But were they really a loss?

After all, I do teach Business English and ESP, not Academic English, which means that my professional experience also matters. And the fact that I am turning 31 pretty soon is not that late (in France, it’s still quite unusual to go back to college), I can still complete my MA and finish my Delta.

So, I am trying again LSA4. I’m doing research on native speakers for my “World Englishes” module, and the due date for this paper is the 24th of January. I like that topic, I should start writing pretty soon, but I am not completely done with the research part yet. It didn’t completely break me to know that I was referred, but it certainly wasn’t expected. It made me realize the amount of pressure I had put upon myself, and that it was not the end of the world to delay Delta after all.

No, I am not a native speaker

But English is my first language nonetheless. I read in English all the time, probably a lot more than most people; I speak in English every day; I watch documentaries, movies, information channels, pretty much everything actually in English; hell, I even text/tweet/Instagram in English.

Yet, today once again, someone was surprised when I said that my ultimate goal was to train teachers of English as a Second Language. Her reaction was actually quite extraordinary: “but you have to have a high level of English to do so!” That person being my dentist, I cannot exactly qualify her of being stupid so I answered that I was indeed bilingual.

“Yes,” she continued, “but are you originally from England, or another English speaking country?” I would love to explain to her that I don’t know half of my biological details but as I couldn’t (TMI already) I just said that since she wasn’t from the land of the Tooth Fairy but could manage to be a dentist, I would be just fine being an English teacher and teacher trainer despite having a French passport.

The year is 2019: we know that English is an International Language, we know that most conversations in English are between two non-natives, we know that bilingualism is real yet, when it comes to English, it seems necessary to prove that we are somehow related to an English speaking country.

An educated person once told me that I was good at English because my ancestors were probably from an English speaking country. As I am not exactly motivated to do a DNA test to prove these people wrong, I am just gonna say that I probably have Celtic origins, but I highly doubt it matters.

The thing is I am white, (fake) blond, tall woman. I am lucky if I compare myself to others, who every day have to face discrimination just because of their skin color (and it’s only one example). I face discrimination because I am not a native speaker, but hell, I can clap back as much as stupid people can ask dumb questions.

English is my first language, and I am proud of say so. My native language remains French, but I prefer to express myself in English, and now this is not something recent: I am sure I can dig up an old diary of mine from 2003 already in English. I chose to teach English because I love it, and honestly, I would be the worst French teacher ever. Literally, you should run away if you enter in a French as a Second Language class and see me.

So yeah, English is my first language, French is my native one, and I have to work twice as hard to make people understand that I am competent. I have nice certificates upon my walls, from Yale University, Cambridge University, and they are not only here to decorate, and I am far from being the only one who has to demonstrate her ability when she explains what she does for a living.

For the record, a lot of writers who are considered genius, such as Joseph Conrad or Jack Kerouac, had another native tongue than English. For some reasons, I highly doubt that it is impacting the book sales nowadays.

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