Helene Combe

English Trainer

A few words about our London field trip

I am afraid an essay would be more appropriate to talk about my seniors’ field trip to London last week, but I’ll try to sum up.

We left on Tuesday late afternoon, without any troubles, the flight went smoothly, we arrived right on time at the restaurant. The schedule had been defined weeks in advance:

Day 1 (morning to mid afternoon)  Group A (the extra teacher’s group)  : British museum/ Group B (my group): Madame Tussauds and the Sherlock Holmes museum. Then, both groups were supposed to meet in Camden. That was the plan.

That didn’t exactly happen like that. Due to traffic, Group B arrived one hour late to Baker Street, causing a major delay. The whole “mid afternoon” element was taken extremely seriously by Group A, which means that at 3:03 pm, I received phone calls saying that Group A was waiting for Group B. That was the only bum note of that day.

Day 2 was utterly different, because I realized that I needed to be more structured. Managing kids and managing adults is not that different after all: “be careful when you cross the street” “don’t walk away from the group” “watch your belongings”… It was funnier than the day before, but we couldn’t do everything we had initially planned. We visited Trafalgar, St James’ Park, we wandered around Buckingham Palace and ended up in Westminster, where we ate in a Pret a Manger. We were supposed to go to the Tower of London, but we all went to Kensington Palace instead.

Some of my students decided to finish the day in a pub, and the others (including their beloved teacher, aka me) went to Motown, a musical about the eponymous label. I was especially glad when I realized that one of my students had spent the entire evening talking to a Yorkshire native (without my help)!

Day 3 was more challenging because everybody was tired, everybody had something else in mind and well, that led to some strange situations. That’s how I realized that managing people was definitely harder than what I expected (I used to manage a small team when I was in real estate, not 12!). I even had to yell so loudly in Victoria Rail Station than fifty people looked around, confused: half of my students didn’t listen to my announcement (“our train is platform 14”) and entered in the wrong train (platform 15)! Fortunately, the employees helped us finding them, but it was a close call.

In overall, they enjoyed the experience, I learned a lot (about patience, mostly), and they all asked me to organize another field trip next year!

The truth behind teaching seniors – elementary students’ edition

Most of the time, when I say that I teach seniors, the first question I hear is “why do they learn English?”

They may not need it to work, but they travel, they have family abroad and they pretty much need English as much as everybody else. The only true difference is that they have a different way of life: their focus is not on work anymore, obviously, but that doesn’t mean that they knit and cook meals for their grandchildren every damn day. They have more time to read, to watch movies, to visit and to learn a language.

For some of them, they purely never learned English before: it was not mandatory, back then and now is a whole new world. For others, they had classes in middle school, forty years ago, but they never practiced since.

On the other hand, some had to travel for work and had some training, sometimes quite informal. My first task was to divide the group in two: the beginners (elementary) and the intermediate. Today, I will focus on elementary learners.  Teaching elementary learners is usually a challenge, but imagine teaching people who almost never heard English before, or very quickly while waiting in an airport for example. It is literally impossible, let’s be honest, to teach them only in English: I have to use translanguaging to be perfectly understandable.

Why is translanguaging that important, and why can I find a solution to avoid using the L1? Because they spent their entire lives in French, and all they know is the French grammar and vocabulary. If I don’t draw a parallel, if I don’t adjust, they will be lost in no time. It’s challenging enough to learn a new language, especially when you are a senior, so imagine if the teacher in front of your refuses to speak your language!

You must keep a routine: if you go all over the places, it’s not going to work at all. They need to be structured, clear and visual, if possible. Don’t forget that they probably won’t have a lot of time to study, despite the fact that they are not working, so revising some notions every session will be necessary. Numbers can be quite challenging! I established a routine with them: I draw smileys (a smiling one , a confused one (-_-) and a sad one) and I write adjectives or sentences next to them. We drill them (to get the pronunciation right), then I ask them to use it right away with the infamous question: How are you today?

We worked on the past simple a few weeks ago, but I don’t want them to forget how it’s working, so I ask them to write a few sentences about what they did the day before, or the weekend before, or to summarize a movie they saw. The idea is to make them speak, not write: I want them to be able to communicate with ease, which is incredibly difficult. They don’t feel comfortable talking in English, they are afraid to make mistakes and they are not confident with the pronunciation. I like to use tongue twisters to make them feel better, and they actually love it!

The most difficult part with seniors is grammar, to be honest. They are used to their L1 grammar, and they tend to apply the same rules to English, which is extremely difficult. That means that I have to be patient, to explain for some time and to make them practice a lot. It may sound dull and boring, but it’s necessary, or the errors will be fossilized, which is exactly what I try to avoid. Vocabulary is easier and funnier to practice, with games, mostly!

I enjoy teaching them, even if they can be a little bit undisciplined, and fuzzy, because they truly care, they are really trying and the atmosphere is quite enjoyable to be fair.

We don’t care about teachers anymore

A week ago, I went to Doha, Qatar to participate to a conference (the Liberal Arts International Conference, 7th edition). The conference lasted 3 days and a lot of students volunteered to it, so I was able to talk to a lot of them. I was astonished by several elements:

  • they were motivated to learn, especially another language, they felt it as a necessity
  • they were extremely respectful towards teachers

In France, like in a lot of others countries, being a teacher is not exactly the dream lately. We heard a lot about Milan lately (teachers from the British Council got laid off) and Ireland (teachers woke up one morning jobless), but lately, in France, education, in general, is also taking a step back. Let me explain rapidly what is going on:

  • Elementary schools (primary schools) and middle school (secondary school) are now only one school. Yeah, because you have the same focus and needs when you are 7 and when you are 13, indeed…
  • In high school, only two hours will be devoted to English (same for the second language they are learning, as Spanish or German). TWO HOURS.  May I remind that the average number of students per class is 33? The students would be able to learn more, but that would be a specialization, and that would determine their future, so let’s be clear, they won’t choose it.
  • If the teacher is not here, someone who is NOT qualified will take over. In France, some people are looking after the students (at the canteen, to check if there is disturbance at the library…), and that would be them. I have nothing against them in particular, of course, I had that precise job at some point, but they shouldn’t be teaching. That’s NOT  their jobs.
  • Equality? Which equality? If the high school you are going to is not well ranked, for some reasons (geographical, the options there are not great…) your high school diploma (baccalaureat) will have less value than someone else’s baccalaureat. This precise point makes me wanna puke.

What’s happening though? Let’s save money, here is what’s happening. Money is way more important than education, and creating a gap between public and private schools is not a problem anymore. We don’t care about youth anymore, we don’t care about knowledge, we don’t care about education no more. We care about what it will cost. Educating teachers correctly should be the main priority, but no, let’s put in front of students incompetents, because they did not receive training.

I know it’s quite shocking for a lot of people but guess what? Being a teacher is a real job. It’s not a hobby. Not everybody can do it. Nobody should be able to teach without a degree.  I know that in some countries, being white and having an English/Australian/American/Irish/NZ passport is enough to teach, but sorry buddies, you are NOT teachers. You are a lot of things, but you are not teachers. Being a teacher is not innate, and it’s time to realize that we have to respect teachers, to give them more credit and to promote them way more than what we are doing right now. Without teachers, the world is doomed, sorry to burst the bubble.

Equality is not only a philosophical concept, it’s time to think about it.

TBL in the classroom: retired edition

Following my previous post on teaching retired people, I received a few emails and DM about it. Teaching retired people is not as trendy as teaching young learners, but yet, more and more seniors are learning a foreign language. Today, I want to write a project I started with a B1-B2 class last fall.

What is the project (task)?

This group has a nice dynamic, they have been together ( in the same class)  for the past year, and they all like to travel. Quite naturally, the project was to organize the perfect weekend to London (which is one hour from our city, Lyon, by plane). In groups of 3, they had to create a timetable and activities, helped by some flyers and brochures I was able to provide. They had, then, to convince the other groups that their schedule was better.

How long was the initial task?

Our class is 90 minutes so it took initially two classes to prepare within groups, then to present to the others.

What happened after? 

They voted for the perfect program, class was over but here was the hitch: they were now deeply motivated to organize a real weekend in London. I made a deal with them: if I had two or three helpers, I could organize the whole weekend. They all agreed, and soon enough, I was in front of my travel agency with two of my students.  We found the perfect week to schedule our getaway altogether, they established a budget, and all of them decided which role they would endorse. The travel coordinator, the activity one, the accountant, even a referee! I pretty much had nothing to do at some point!

Not the entire class is participating to the trip: out of 15, only 3 are not coming. This means that we cannot focus entirely on our big project, a lot of work must be prepared at home (excel sheets etc…) I had to find another teacher to help me, as we had to split the group in two (not everybody wanted to do the same thing..)

Follow-up activities?

The fact that we had to split the group made them research the attractions they wanted to do (museums, musicals…) and to present them to the other group.

What’s the teacher’s role?

As I said, at some point, I totally stepped back. Because my students were deeply motivated, I didn’t have much to do, except monitoring or providing ideas when they were a little bit stuck. I only had to lead to structure the schedule, as it was particularly noisy that day!

When is this famous getaway? 

Our plane will take off on the 9th of April, in less than a month. I am stressed like hell, because this is the very first time I am doing such a thing! It’s quite risky, I had to get some help from a legal advisor, but organizing a trip is such an interesting experience, especially with highly motivated students that I am only focusing on the bright side of it!

I teach seniors, and I love it

It was not my plan to teach seniors, quite the opposite. The first plan was to teach, as many young language teachers, Young Learners. You may remember that my first job after my TKT was in a bilingual primary school, as a substitute teacher. I would have loved to stay but that didn’t work out after all (my passport was not the right color). Just a few days after I heard that my application has been turned down, I received a phone call from a local association of retired people.

« We are looking for a qualified trainer, to teach us general English. We have a bunch interested but it may not work long term, we have to give it a try. We need someone who can explain in French and in English.»

That was in July 2017.

In September 2017, 25 students enrolled, and the adventure started.

In September 2018, 95 enrolled.

Teaching seniors is very specific. They don’t need to take an exam, to speak professionally, to write emails. They want to communicate, to help grandchildren with their homework, to understand something in a menu, at the airport… It must be practical. They have a deeper motivation, I think, as they took the decision to be learners again by themselves and they set their own goals. They are not here because someone forced them to be: they want to be here.

It must be relaxed. Seniors are less stressed but not less busy! They want to learn and that changed everything. They are not afraid to ask questions because they have seen worse. That also sometimes means that they cannot stop talking about their previous experiences.

Discipline within the classroom is another experience itself!

I had the worst moment of my teaching career with some of them. I assessed their levels at the beginning of the year to split the big group in two: beginners and intermediate (basically A0-A1 and A2-B1). One of the beginners decided that he was intermediate and showed up at the intermediate class. During that class, he spent the entire time googling every word written on the whiteboard. His goal was clear: proving that I wasn’t a good teacher.

He also told me, very loudly, that I wasn’t a real teacher because my degrees were not French but English and American. Visibly, he thought that he could do the hell he wanted because he wanted to do so. I did not have the time to say anything back: another student called him off (quite violently, for someone over 75 years old). He never came back.

Since last September, I teach two groups of beginners, two groups of intermediate and a group of advanced students. There is between 10 and 15 students per class, with basically the same background profile. Seniors who want to learn English are most of the time curious and they are not afraid to provide examples or input.

It also means that, for the beginners, the structure plays an important role. It must be clear and efficient, they need to know where you are going and what is the goal. Can they use it rapidly? Is it too complex? Is it useful? The way you structure a lesson is utterly different. They will need a routine, to revise the vocabulary previously seen in class, they will need (I should say « ask for ») grammar exercises.

Being bilingual is a huge advantage. Mostly, they are going to compare English with their native tongue. They want to relate to another learner, if possible, a successful one. If you, the teacher, cannot provide the answers to their numerous questions, they will grow out of interest quickly (true story, they ask a question and wait for the answer, and just don’t listen the rest)

Why can’t we find a course book designed for SL (senior learners) but a million or so about YL? Because they won’t take an exam at the end. Because the market is not interested. Because there is less money to make.

Even though, I wouldn’t leave my gig. I genuinely love my students, and the relationship I developed with them couldn’t be possible with another kind of learners.

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