Helene Combe

English Trainer

A little more about the upcoming Lyon TESOL workshop!

Last September, I became the new Lyon region coordinator of TESOL France. I have been teaching for two years full time now, and I was lucky enough to meet really early on members of TESOL France (my former teacher at the University of Grenoble was then president) who really showed me how important these teachers’ associations could be.

Let’s be honest, in France, being an English teacher mostly means that you work for the national education system. Private English teachers are not exactly well-considered, and most of the time, you have to show your passport before getting a job interview (things are actually changing, so let’s keep our fingers crossed).

Next month, on the 9th of March, there will be the first workshop of the year. It will be held in a local school, as the manager is kind enough to lend us a room. The title is Working abroad: From brain drain to brain gain and it will be presented by Aymen Elsheikh, PhD, from Texas A&M University at Qatar.

Aymen himself wrote a few words about this workshop:

Due to globalization and the spread of English as the international language of economy and business, an increasing number of expatriate teachers (those who live and work outside of their home countries) of English are found today around the world. As global patterns of migration and human mobility are increasing, it is imperative to examine and reflect on the lives of teachers in these global contexts if we are to understand the diversity of the teaching and learning processes. In this workshop, I reflect on my own experience as an expatriate teacher from the Periphery (i.e., Sudan) and how the experience has been transformed from “brain drain to a brain gain”. In so doing, I also share findings of an ongoing study which examines the collaboration practices between expatriate English language teachers and teachers from their home countries through involvement in different professional development activities. Throughout the workshop, the participants will be invited to share and reflect on their own experiences as expatriate teachers. The workshop will conclude with discussing challenges and opportunities which result from living and teaching abroad.

I know I will sound stupid and childish, but I am so excited to organize such a workshop!

Why do we need to teach about culture?

If you are following this little website for a moment, you might have realized by now that I have something for culture. I wrote a previous article about how to teach culture through art, a point that I will develop soon during a poster presentation at the LAIC. But what is really culture? Why do we care about culture when our job is teaching a language? Why do we care about something else than grammar and functions?

(Yes, I know the last one is cliché. But it was actually a genuine question from a student last week.)

Culture and language are tightly linked: we wouldn’t have intercultural management books and classes otherwise. When it comes to the English language classroom, we will mention the folklore (Halloween, Guy Fawkes’ Day), the famous writers (So, Shakespeare 99% of the time, the last 1% being devoted to Oscar Wilde or even sometimes, Jane Austen!) maybe the culinary habits (marmite!).

But talking about gender roles, body language, work ethic ?

Knowing more about culture helps to understand the language. It will be foolish to assume that we all need to speak about Queen Victoria from now on (only to mention that she was a non-native speaker and that nobody gave her hell for that, at least in public) or about the British civilization only. English doesn’t belong to England, or to the UK in general anymore. What kind of English our learners needs to know?

That would be an interesting first question. In which context do you, dear learner, use English? The answer will shape the rest. As teachers, we can guide the student towards his/her path, but at the end, the student will need to be autonomous.

It will be gullible to think that all learners will need the same elements. The reasons learners are enrolling to English classes are wide, and I guess only one-to-one classes are possible to reach that goal. Unfortunately, not everybody likes that (I, for one, hate it) or can do it anyway. So, what can we teach nonetheless? We can involve the students, by making them choose a specific point, like beliefs and values. By doing so, we are making them autonomous, which is the ultimate goal, after all.

It’s not rocket science, but…

But ELT is crooked and needs to change ASAP (in France, at least).

This afternoon, I had a 90 minutes conversation class with C., a 18 y/o that I have been tutoring for the past two years. We started at the end of her sophomore year (she was then an A1 level) and we continued during her junior and senior years. She is incredibly motivated and keen, and she is now in her first year of business school here in France. She passed the First last year (she scored 172!).

No, being A1 at 15 is not normal in France, when you are supposed to start learning English at 11 years old (at the very least, it’s now before 8 in general). But when you speak roughly 5 minutes a year, because you have 30 other students in the classroom and only 2 hours a week of English lessons, you can’t expect miracles.

She was irritated at first, which was very unusual coming from her. After a few minutes, she finally exploded: she was angry at her English teacher at school because all they were doing was TOEIC prep. Here she was, in an allegedly international business school, and all the school cared about was TOEIC. No conversation, no interaction, the students are behind screens and the teacher is being paid to sit on a chair. (I don’t blame the teacher here, let’s be clear. I blame the system.)

I have been teaching in France for two years now, as a private teacher. I refused to join the National Education system because it’s a freakin joke. Teachers are not considered, the people who are conceiving the syllabuses clearly never met a teenager and they have no idea of what school is like in the 21st century. In France, the National Education system is falling apart, but the real victims here are the students.

A year ago, the Prime Minister announced that every student should have an English degree by the time they graduate high school (TOEIC, TOEFL, First, IELTS, whatever…) My guess is that now every damn school will prepare for TOEIC, since it’s the most important English exam here. I really wonder why, because it’s not testing Speaking (so it’s cheaper?). IELTS or Cambridge Certificate are way better, and useful internationally, but no, TOEIC it is.

The thing is: these students are having only a few hours a week of English for years, in a crowded classroom (which is not very useful, let’s be honest), they barely talk, then they take a wonderful little MCQ test, and then it’s over. No wonder adults are now seeking for English training. Maybe it’s time for France to realize that English is a language, which must be SPOKEN.

Maybe it’s time to realize that it doesn’t matter to know by heart every damn irregular verb (it’s okay to make mistakes!) but it matters to be understandable while talking.

Maybe it’s time to realize that we cannot teach accents, but pronunciation (so they can be understandable!)

Maybe it’s time to change, period.

Are you a “real” teacher, or are you an ELT teacher?

A few days ago, I attended a charity event in France. I talked with the people around me while waiting for it to begin, and some guy overheard that I had worked for years in real estate (you may remember that I studied management before switching to teaching). He came to talk to me later on, and asked me if I needed a job. I said, quite surprised, “no, thank you, I already have one. I am an English teacher.”

His answer baffled me: “I mean, don’t you want a real job?”

I have realized that we we live in a world in which selling  fit tea and watches on Instagram is a real job, but teaching a language is not.

The day right after, I saw on Instagram a poll which was asking why people were teaching ELT. The suggestions were: to travel, to save money, to improve the CV and others.  I guess I don’t know how to get rich out of teaching, because last time I checked, teaching was not the best way to become a millionaire.

The truth is: we are suffering from a bad reputation. Backpack teachers are the worst publicity we could ever dream of. Let’s be honest, it’s easy to become an English teacher, you just have to do an online certification and BAM! Becoming a real, good English teacher is another deal. It takes a long time, and it costs a lot as well (even if you do it online). Schools, sometimes, don’t even care, and just hire someone because the passport is appropriate.

Being a teacher used to mean something, but now that money is more important than everything (included our own planet), education doesn’t matter.  Someone asked me if I am also teaching Italian, since I am petitioning to obtain the dual citizenship. Why would I teach Italian? My level is B1! The fact that my family comes from Italy doesn’t make me an expert.

There is something I want to say to the man who told me that teaching wasn’t a real job. Don’t feel sorry for me, mister. You may think your situation is better than mine, because you make more money than I do. But at the end of the day, I am richer than you.


Motivated teachers, motivated students

Are our students motivated because we are motivated, as teachers, or is it the other way around?

Picture this: you planned an entire session, like a debate, and 50% of the students don’t even show up. What are you doing? You switch activities, but this one turns into a fiasco due to their lack of enthusiasm. Will you be over the moon to go back the next day?

Another day, another classroom. You are giving back evaluations, and the GPA is low. Their written level is shameful, and you don’t know who is to blame. You start your class by saying “English is not an option anymore in this world, I know you don’t like it, but…” The reaction is unanimous: “We like English! But we had unmotivated teachers, we didn’t make any effort!”

Do you want to show them what’s a motivated teacher after that speech?

When it comes to motivation, each person is different and as a NNES, there is where my own personal experience kicks in. I learned English not only because I loved the sound of it. I taught myself 3 hours a day because I wanted to watch Buffy the vampire slayer the day after it aired (yes, you can mock me, I am fine with it). It took months, back then, to have the episodes dubbed in French, and I wasn’t patient enough. My students love that story: it shows motivation.

The whole “your GPA is low, you must move your ass” ain’t gonna work, I am afraid. Some students understand the importance of English now (but they don’t understand why they have only 90 minutes class a week, and so do I) but others might think otherwise. Including, and motivating, everybody during an activity can be tough, let’s admit it. Is motivating everybody (not even remotely equally) possible? I have read enough Zoltan Dornyei to know that it would be an utopian dream.

I am far from being an expert on the field. I didn’t write fancy articles; I organized trips to England alongside students. I didn’t present my theories to my colleagues; I spent an entire afternoon helping my students with their cover letters.  All I know is that I love what I do and that I hope that will make a difference.

Last Thursday, one of my weakest student asked me for extra classes. That’s enough for me to keep going.


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