Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

I don’t feel like an English teacher anymore

Probably because I’m teaching other things, such as project management and communication, in addition to English.

It was my choice to teach something else, for various reasons, number one being the pandemic. When I was offered last June the position of Head of Department, I took it, even though it meant I would have to teach project management and communication. It’s a tenure, you guys! A tenure, after only a year at this college! It was an incredible opportunity, and I don’t regret taking it. We bought a house a few weeks later and it felt great.

Did I feel comfortable teaching something else than English? Nope. I trained to become an English teacher for YEARS, and I had to improvise a bit. It’s damn stressful though.

Is it great to manage teachers? Yes. I love this, even though the pandemic and the fact that we are teaching online is not really helping me. I feel like I am mostly a manager though, and not a teacher, much to my dismay. I am not whining here, let’s be clear, I knew what could happen. It’s a great experience nonetheless, and I am grateful for it.

But I’ll admit it, loud and clear, I miss teaching English. But the way I have been teaching English for a few years now, ever since my BEET time, well, I can’t have it now. Not for quite some time. I bet you’re like, what on earth is she talking about? Is there another catastrophe I haven’t heard about?

The truth is, the pandemic hit us bad. It’s even worse for students, which mean that they are nowhere near the level they are supposed to have when they arrive in college. I teach numerous freshman years, with several majors (in France, you choose your major right away) such as business, management and, of course, real estate management. And NONE of them have the required level. For the record, students are supposed to be B1/B1+ when they enter college, which is already not amazing for people who spent the past eight years learning English (I know I’m harsh but whatever). They are supposed to reach a B2 level by the end of their second year. HAHAHAHAHA.

In reality, most of my students, this year, are A1+. Not A2. I have precisely, out of 200 students, 9 of them who have a level above B1. One is C2, two are C1. Which means that I literally cannot do my job properly, because what’s intended for them is out of their reach. I can’t teach the way I’m supposed to teach because they don’t get any of it (and I mean it, any. I had to teach some of them the present simple and how to count up to twenty). I can’t give the input they need, because the level is so low I basically had to transform myself into a kindergarten teacher to avoid losing their interest. I feel like a babysitter most of the time, and it’s NOT what I thought it could be when I decided to be a college teacher. It’s not the students’ fault here, tbh. I blame the pandemic, I blame the French education system which is freakin messed up.

So, yeah, this year, I don’t feel like an English teacher, and man, I miss it.

This is not the end

It was, for a short period of time, the end of my website, much to my dismay. But I won’t bore you with technical problems, I swear. I have way too much to write about to elaborate on this precise point.

COVID-19 changed, probably forever, the way we are teaching. All of the sudden, we had to teach online, we had to adjust our methods, we had to assess differently, and we mostly felt lost. I felt lost. All I could think about was coming back to a real, physical, classroom. In the meantime, the ELT world had changed, and not for the best.

We live in a world where education is seen as a service, and most students, now, see themselves as clients. What happened, the past few months, only reinforce their positions. Competition is out there, offering a better price, offering better results, even though it’s a blatant lie, it’s what the client wants to hear. I am technically not a part of the ELT world anymore though: last June, I was offered a position of Head of Department, and I took it. Strangely enough, not being a freelance English trainer was more comforting.

My heart still belongs to English teaching, I am currently working on my MA dissertation, but let’s be honest, stressing out about invoices; about companies who just used me as an accessory; about students who were just looking for a better deal; I just couldn’t handle it. I still teach English, at my college, that’s like 80% of my activity, but the context is different, there is a state degree they have to take at the end, there is a curriculum to follow, and well, students are not supposed to be clients. They still tend to be, though. (I also teach Communication and Project management, and they tend to react the same way, so it’s not an English-related problem).

The past few months proved me that the entire world of education must change, if it wants to survive. It’s clear that by agreeing, even if it’s unconsciously, that it’s the new normal, that education can be treated as any other type of structure, will only doom the entire sector. And teachers will never gain respect again. I can’t believe I am writing about respecting teachers right now, but also I couldn’t believe, just ten days ago, that a teacher could lose his damn head in the middle of a French street, but here we are.

I have put a lot of things in perspective these past few weeks. I am not sure I’ll continue with my DELTA anymore (I am supposed to take LSA4 again one day), because let’s be honest, this way of teaching, of thinking, it’s just not relevant to my situation. I still want to love my job, but I want to be able to do it safely. And it’s not guaranteed anymore, because it’s not taken seriously. We can thank some governments for blaming teachers, for accusing them of being lazy, for hiring people with no qualifications whatsoever, for literally saying that anybody could be a teacher. For other things as well, but this is a blogpost, not an essay.

I told you I had a lot to write about. And now that I’m back, I have no intention to let things slide away.

The future of English lies with non-native speakers.

Sorry not sorry. I know I am adding wood to the fire.

I find it pretty offensive to still read, in 2020, listed as a requirement for a TEFL job, right under the qualifications, “native speaker.”

Let me rephrase it. What I find deeply offensive is to consider that a passport, from a very specific country, is enough to offer someone a job. Do you realize how insane this situation is? People work for months, years, to become teachers only to hear “sorry we only hire native speakers”, most of the time said with a smirk.

And let’s be honest, when we hear “native speakers” you can be sure it implies “white.” The perfect ESL teacher, according to job ads, is white and is coming from 6 countries, because as we all know, only 6 countries in the entire world can speak English properly. And the problem is, a lot of people are actually okay with this. I can give hundreds of stories of white native speakers who decided to teach English to travel and came back home, happy to share travel stories and pics.

I am a white EFL teacher, and I know I got at least two jobs because the recruiter had no idea that I was a NNS. Did I say anything to make him change his mind? No. The most recent one realized that I was French only when I gave him my passport in order to prepare the contract, two days before the start of the semester. He never, ever mentioned the fact that he wanted a NS during our interview, but we had it over Skype in July 2018, when I was studying at Yale. He thought I was a damn NS, and I said NOTHING. Does it make me an accomplice of this whole scheme? Yes. Would I have had the job if I had mentioned my passport? No.

Since this interview, a lot of things changed. I now only present English as an International language, and myself as an English as a Foreign language teacher. I teach in France, I hold a French passport, my dad is actually Italian, I grew up with two cultures which are not English or American, why should I pretend that I arrived five minutes ago with my backpack? This cliché continues only because we allow it: if people were responsible enough not to answer to these jobs ads which require native speakers, they would have dried out. It’s easier said than done, I am aware.

As teachers, what can we do? We can start by shutting down the “I can’t believe you speak so well English!” and the “are you sure you’re not American?” (I have heard these ones quite a lot) in the teachers’ lounge. We can emphasize to our students that English is a global language, and that they will probably only speak English to another non-native speaker (80% of English interaction are between NNS – Crystal, 2018). We can explain to our students that English as a Second Language or a Foreign Language is not used the same way than as a Native Language. We can use a course book which is “NNS friendly”. And of course, we can refuse to apply to jobs who ask specifically for native speakers, even if you are indeed a NS.

As human beings, what can we do? We can start by, outside the classroom, praising people who are trying to speak the language instead of mocking them (I am not implying that a lot of you do that, but I have seen people mocking others). We can start seeing the beauty of knowledge instead of monetizing it. We can start by praising teachers instead of saying that everybody can do “that.” Not everybody can be passionate about teaching, like not everybody cannot be into accounting. We can start by acknowledging that being a teacher is a real, serious job, and that you don’t fail if you decide to make education your future.

I turned my back on a very promising career in real estate management to embrace one in ELT, and despite everything, the racism, the poor conditions, the shitty salary, I wouldn’t go back.

Bibliography:

Crystal, D. (2018) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: CUP

Students are not clients

I mean, in some sense, we can say that they are indeed clients, as most of them are paying to be in language classroom. I have been working for three years now in ELT, so I am still a baby teacher with a lot to learn, but here is something I would like to highlight: when it comes to education, there shouldn’t be a notion of clientele whatsoever.

Let me explain why I am ranting about this precise topic right here, right now. My college students had to take a written exam today (technically a mock exam), and one of them decided to email me right after, to tell me that it was incredibly difficult. It was not, I had used a past paper, I didn’t overcomplicate the matter, and it was totally manageable for a student who had worked correctly this year. But this precise student hadn’t, and sent me another email, five seconds after the first one, asking me how she was supposed to know all these things?!?

I did NOT send an email like “Gee, IDK, work a bit, for a change?”. I really wanted to, but I just sent her an official document which stated the level of the exam. But she is not the only one reacting this way, as a client: she is barely listening in class, she never opens her mouth and never does any homework BUT she expects some results, and good grades.

The reason is fairly simple: education as been seen as an industry like any other else for so long that our students truly believe that it is indeed one. Let me hear, loud and clear, education is NOT an industry. We can’t promise any precise success early on, we can’t sign a contract based on results. As teachers, we do our best to educate, to adapt, to overcome difficulties, but we CAN’T just implement our knowledge in our students’ skulls. We can’t say on September 1st that an A1 student will be B1 on March 23rd, because we can’t promise these things.

The problem, when you see education as a real industry, is that you start to see the finances behind it, the wheels of rentability, and the clients’ satisfactory rate. We can’t use these tools in education. Our students are sitting in a classroom, normally, because they want to learn English (or they are being forced to learn English, let’s be honest). Their motivations can be various (to get a better job, to pass an exam, to live in another country, whatever, all are valid) but they are here to LEARN, not to CONSUME. We cannot put knowledge in a can.

Another problem, when you think of education as an industry, is the quality. I have seen like a gazillion of ads saying “teacher wanted” with literally no requirements; except being a native speaker (when it comes to languages) or to hold a degree (any type of degree would be just fine, thank you very much). I told people, years ago, that I was studying to become a teacher, and most of the time, the reaction was the same “do you really have to study to teach? I mean, it’s not that hard. “

Not so long ago, being a teacher meant something. It still does, to me at least, and to a lot of people. I never regretted my choice to leave the real estate industry behind me; it was crooked, it was unhealthy, it was all about the money. But I was a bit naive when I started, and I hadn’t realized that education, not only ELT, had became an industry. We want our students to succeed, we want to give good grades at exams, but we won’t just because we are told to do so. Education still means something, at some point. And giving out good grades and exams, it’s just devaluating it. I am not saying it that we have to be harsh, and severe, for the sake of it, that’s actually the opposite. We have to find back our place, as educators. And Education, with a big “E”, must remain out of the business world.

A collaboration: impostor syndrome (native vs non native edition)

Impostor syndrome, you’ve heard of it right? You must have done. It’s all people talk about these days. Instead of just feeling a little bit down, or worrying slightly, people have been suffering from impostor syndrome.

However, it’s not a new thing. Impostor syndrome has been around since the beginning but is becoming more understood, and more prominent, amongst teachers. Here, we’re going to share our experiences to give you a little more insight into how it can happen so easily.

Helene:

Obviously, it’s not about being the best teacher. It’s about this feeling of being a fraud, as an EFL teacher. Native and non native teachers tend to react completely differently towards the language, and teach it differently as well. We do have our favorite topics to teach, a specific detail of language we enjoy, and perhaps others we just loathe.

As a non-native teacher myself, I hate, with every cell of my body, teaching pronunciation. Not only did I have a hard time learning it by myself (I just don’t hear the difference, despite being able to pronounce perfectly), but explaining it to someone else, who already has trouble with it, seems an impossible challenge. I am not ashamed of my pronunciation, far from it, but explaining it is another matter. And every time a student asks for clarification, I always feel like the earth is going to swallow me whole.

While I was completing my CELTA, I realised that I felt particularly at ease teaching grammar, because of the way I learned it, as a non-native speaker. Every rule was carefully laid out and it was the opposite of a natural learning, which means that I can explain a single detail for hours . I enjoy teaching grammar, it just makes sense to me, and as a result, I have realised that my students feel quite relaxed towards grammar.

Claire here, on the other hand, I felt absolutely awful teaching grammar during my CELTA and I can clearly remember not being able to answer even the most simple of questions. Questions that I look back now and see how completely easy they were. Honestly, I think because I started off being so scared of grammar, that the feeling hasn’t changed at all. So, if anyone has any tips on overcoming a fear of grammar – send them my way!

It’s hard for a NNS to teach English: ads are requesting NS 99% of the time, schools prefer to hire NS for numerous reasons (number one being ‘having the good accent’ like there is only one good accent – the simple fact that someone wrote that sentence is driving me crazy), students tend to ask the infamous question “where are you from?” like it’s normal to question your teacher’s place of birth. Everything is made to make you feel like you shouldn’t be here. I have been teaching for three years now (three years and one week, to be precise) and every month, I have had this crushing feeling that I am not good enough for this. That I have no legitimacy. That I should forget about it and resume my old boring job in real estate.

Am I afraid to make mistakes while talking in English? Of course, but I know, and that’s not bragging, I swear, that my English is better than my French. I make TONS of mistakes in French, way more than in English. Everybody makes mistakes, and it’s perfectly healthy. Most learners are afraid to make mistakes because they tend to believe that English speakers are flawless and will never ever make mistakes. Spoiler alert: it’s just human. Making mistakes is a natural part of learning, and believing that Native Speakers are just immune to it is not helping. 

Do I feel offended when I see ads requesting native speakers? Yes, and I will never stop feeling that way. I have been fighting inequalities for years now, and I am nowhere near ready to stop. But will I stop teaching because of this? Nope, not a chance. It took me a while to realise what I was made of, and what I was good at. The industry might be crooked, but I want to believe it’s changing.

Me again! As someone who has worked alongside many non-native speakers, Helene being the absolute best, of course. I find these adverts ridiculous. I think governments should not be limiting work-visas to ‘native speakers’ only and neither should schools enforce it. I can understand that schools want the best teachers, but that certainly doesn’t mean that native speakers are the only people who are capable. In fact, I have met plenty of non native speakers who can teach far more effectively that native speakers because;

Firstly, they have the passion to have learned English so fluently and secondly, they have learned English to a far higher level than many English people have, as we don’t get taught grammar at school or even University – so how can we be the experts on something we’ve never been taught?! “That’s just the way it is” is not an appropriate answer when explaining a grammar rule to a language student, for the most part, anyway!

Do I feel good enough after three years? A little tiny bit, because well, it’s been three years, because of my students, mostly. I still feel like a fraud though, because the industry of EFL is making me this way, and because I probably need therapy to overcome my constant anxiety. I guess that I will always feel a bit lousy about pronunciation, mostly because I purely don’t like it, and it’s not about to change anytime soon.

Claire:

It’s become obvious in recent months that impostor syndrome can affect all of us, especially teachers, regardless of our first language, our teacher training routes and the type of students we have. As a native speaker, and a relatively new teacher, I feel the burden of impostor syndrome nearly every day, although admittedly not as strongly as I used to. I completed the CELTA at one of the top training centres in the country, I have now worked for 3 top-100 schools in the UK and this is something I’m immensely proud of. Through working at these schools I have been able to develop my teaching skills, my knowledge of the language, and my confidence levels. (Honestly, I don’t even want to know what my CELTA trainers and colleagues must have thought of me the first time I ‘taught’ a lesson. I cringe just remembering those first 15 minutes).

Even now, teaching up against teachers with 10+ years experience, published authors or experts in grammar always sends me into a frenzy because my knowledge in that area is weaker than in others. I worry that I’m not the right person to be teaching grammar, or that my students won’t believe in me, even though I’ve gained more knowledge, and confidence, as each month passes. This is still an area I need to strengthen. 

On the other hand, I love teaching vocabulary. I love introducing students to synonyms, alternative phrases and ways to improve their daily conversations. I thrive during these types of classes. I’m able to answer all sorts of vocabulary questions, rephrasing, paraphrasing and so on, but if someone throws in a grammar question I might end up feeling a little bit flustered. One thing I have mastered is the perfect tenses. And man, does that feel good!

Helene here! Vocabulary was so hard for me at the beginning, mostly because I am teaching monolingual speakers (French), who are virtually using me as a human translator. Being asked, all of the sudden, to translate a specific word is not a walk in the park, even if you have an amazing level of English. I used to be ashamed to check, but now, I am actually telling them that I have to check – even though I am sometimes just checking to reassure myself more than anything else: I am turning this moment into a teaching one. It’s incredibly important to show our students that we are NOT machines, that we don’t have superpowers, and that it’s okay not to remember every damn word in the dictionary.

So when did I get to the stage of feeling confident? I suppose after a month of teaching, I realised I could relate well to my students and make lessons enjoyable, even if I didn’t know everything! Three years on, I’m feeling more confident about teaching overall, and I believe that I am able to make a solid impact on my students. I’m able to admit when I don’t know something, and although doing so makes me feel awful, I’m able to do it because I know that I’m human. We cannot know everything.

Since the beginning of 2020, I have been asked to take part in numerous research interviews, trial lessons, and other projects. Whilst I’m massively honoured and excited to be a part of all of these things, I am completely baffled that people have approached me. ME! Why me? I’m not a DELTA survivor, I’m not a CELTA trainer. I’m just me! During the two interviews I’ve been a part of this year, I knew exactly what the research was for and I knew what I wanted to say, but when I actually spoke my words came out as complete gibberish and I felt so stupid. I taught trial lessons on grammar I completely did not understand, yet somehow pulled it off. I’ve been asked to write pieces that I absolutely do not feel qualified to do.

Helene again! I was asked to participate at a conference in Qatar last year. The university flew me over, alongside my husband, and I had the opportunity to meet Claire Kramsch, who is literally my hero when it comes to EFL. When I grow up, I want to be Claire Kramsch.  You can imagine how thrilled I was to meet her, to sit next to her at a plenary, and to discuss  my research with her, which is based on her own. I mean, I tried to discuss my research, as it was mostly me stammering and her trying to follow what the hell I was trying to utter.

These kinds of projects make me undermine myself more than ever, and despite telling myself this was my ‘yes’ year, I feel as if I’m trying to take on more than I can handle.They are projects I would love to work on, but impostor syndrome is telling me that I’m under-qualified or not skilled enough to do them. Tempting me to reject the project. Why? Why can’t I say yes?

*Runs over to Twitter for support*.

Okay, I’ve got this.

So, why did we write this post together? Because, in case you don’t know us together, we are the best of friends! We met on our CELTA course 3 years ago and have barely stopped talking since. We’ve had sleepovers, days out, meet-ups, sent thousands of texts, spent hours and hours FaceTiming, Zoom-ing and any other possible way of keeping in touch. But we both teach, we both blog, and we both like to put the world to rights. So, we decided to collaborate on something we both experience and feel is important to share with the world. And, from two very different points of view.

I, as a native English speaker, haven’t faced much discrimination as a teacher, but I know that Helene, and many other non-natives have. I’m appalled by this, but as I haven’t experienced it I don’t feel as if it is my ‘duty’ to write about it. I can, however, write about the ways in which impostor syndrome has impacted me and hope that by reading this, some of you may not feel so alone.

How are we working to overcome some of these feelings?*

Self-talk – tell yourself that you are worthy of your job, that you were hired because you displayed certain qualities

Self- love – believe in yourself. Don’t be negative (being realistic is okay!), don’t put yourself down. Show yourself as much kindness and support as you would your best friend. 

‘Fake it til you make it’ – some people completely disagree with this way of combating impostor syndrome, but for others it works perfectly. If you keep telling yourself you can do something, maybe you will. Tell yourself you are brave and strong and intelligent. You will start to believe it, and the more you believe it the more you will act accordingly.

Be honest with yourself and those around you – we are not, unfortunately, super-humans, nor robots. We can’t do everything and we can’t not have feelings. Which is why impostor syndrome is such a big issue these days. We feel too much, we worry too much and we get scared easily.

Don’t do something that makes you feel uncomfortable. Worried? That’s okay. That’s you pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Scared? Really uncomfortable? No. At that point you need to evaluate what you’re doing or being asked to do and seriously consider what’s at stake and why you’re uncomfortable with it. Because if it is something that you are genuinely unable to do, what’s the point in doing it? If you can do something with a little difficulty, that’s okay. The best lives don’t come easy to us!

*These tips may not work for you, or others, but we wanted to share what is working for us.

Claire wrote about impostor syndrome back in January, which you can read here and this blog also follows up on my latest blog post which you can read here.We hope you’ve enjoyed our collaboration and would love to know what you think – so please feel free to leave a comment or connect with us on Twitter – Claire and Helene.

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