Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

The ELT market is saturated yet we truly need new blood

A few days ago, a dear friend of mine, who started her teaching career in 2017, told me that she was done. She has been teaching online for the past year but the covid crisis was the last straw, the last nail on the coffin: she just couldn’t compete anymore in such a tough market. I was heartbroken, because she is truly an amazing and passionate teacher. That said, I completely understood her decision.

While browsing Facebook this morning, I saw a comment on a group called “non-native English teacher” which made me realize how disastrous the situation truly was. A person was seeking some advice about becoming an English teacher (something completely normal for such a FB page I would say) but the comments below were astounding: “don’t do it. It leads nowhere.” “You can’t compete with natives anyway, keep your money and do something else with your life.” And finally, “the ELT market is saturated, forget about it.”

My friend who just started a new career away from teaching, is a native speaker, so obviously, it’s not only a matter of “native-or-non-native”. Is the market really saturated? Are we so many teachers that it’s the job market can’t handle us? If I throw a rock right here, right now, am I going to hit an English teacher? (I have seen this analogy years ago about Hollywood, and I have always dreamed to use it, except that I replaced actors with English teachers, obv.)

If I completely miss my throw, and the rock lands on my foot (which could definitely happen, knowing my skills), I could say yes. But in reality, what’s really an English teacher nowadays? A native who is trying to earn a few bucks on the side by working online? A CELTA certified (native or non-native, you choose) person who got laid off his/her job during the pandemic? A person who bought a TESOL certificate online (don’t pretend you don’t know it exists, you can see the ad on FB as much as I do) hired by an online “school”?

We need teachers. We need real, well-rounded educated teachers. I’m sorry to say that having a CELTA is not enough, it’s like the entry point, basically. I am forever grateful about doing my CELTA at ITTC, I was trained by incredible people, and secured my first teaching gig minutes after I received my results. There is a simple reason why we have so many CELTA applicants and students, and why so many are actually not even teaching at all. Because it’s just not enough. It is a great start, but that’s it.

My CELTA cohort was composed of fifteen people, in July 2017. Almost four years later, only two of us are still teaching for a living (we were three only a few days ago though). We were both experienced before doing our CELTA, and we continued to train ourselves long after. Ironically, we were also the only two non-natives who had passed the Cambridge Proficiency Exam beforehand.

It’s a blatant lie to say that you can learn how to teach English in four weeks, sorry to burst that bubble. The market is truly horrible, mostly if you want to teach General English abroad. I do agree that if you are a non-native, it’s a waste of time lately. Once again, I am talking about General English. But I have realized also that General English is not really expected anymore by students, who want English for a specific reason. Only schools which are using the old “native speakers will teach you” trick to attract new students are using “General English” now.

Young Learners English. Business English. Conversational English. Legal English. Academic English. FCE/CAE/CPE/IELTS preparation classes. Medical English. So many more that I am forgetting right now.

While I was almost ashamed that I didn’t study English right after high school, and that I had studied other fields before switching to English (I graduated in management and communication, with a specialization in real estate management), it finally became clear to me that it was a big plus on my resume.

See, I had the opportunity to teach a writing class at Yale University back in July 2018, so a mere year after I did my CELTA. The students were all Business English students who appreciated my knowledge of the business world more than they appreciated the color of my passport. If I had done only my CELTA, and literally nothing else, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

I am not saying “yeah, me” here. I am trying to explain that saying that we can become a teacher in four weeks is leading us nowhere, and it must stop if we want to attract real, potential new teachers. Hundreds of people are disappointed now, like my friend, people of great talent, because the market is indeed saturated. Because they cannot compete and make a decent living. The ELT market is shooting itself in the foot, if you need a metaphor of what’s really going on. Let’s focus on the “Teaching” part of ELT more than anything else, and let’s see how it goes.

Being angry is my new normal

But at the same time, after reading this article, you should understand me. I have already discussed on my previous article the difficulties I encountered during the first trimester of my pregnancy. Unfortunately, it turns out that my prepartum depression is not the only problem I’ll have to face. No, really, human stupidity is getting way worse on the scale.

I know, I’m hard on people sometimes. But let me give you some examples of sentences people have said to me the past four months, and you will probably get it too. Piece of advice: if you don’t know what to say to a pregnant woman, especially one who is struggling, just shut the hell up. Because it can harm way more than you think.

Oh, you’re 9 weeks pregnant? You could still lose it.

Bear in mind that the day this person said that to me, I had just confessed that the reason I was on sick leave was depression related to my pregnancy. I know that most miscarriages are happening during the first trimester. But I am already down, I don’t need a reminder that on the top of it, I could lose my baby. I am not sure I could forget, nor forgive, this sentence, ever.

Are you sure you’re having only one baby? You’re so big already!

I envy women who can hide their pregnancies: I couldn’t after my second month. At 8 weeks of pregnancy, I had people already commenting it because I couldn’t pretend that I had eaten too much anymore. I know that my belly is big, no I am not expecting twins, and yes, I know that my baby will be big. At the same time, I am 6 ft tall, what do you expect anyway?

My female friend A. didn’t feel tired at all during her pregnancy (sentence said by a guy)

That’s amazing, I am genuinely happy for her but I don’t give a crap. I feel like hell, I sleep 18 hours a day and I can’t have a proper conversation because my braincells can’t connect together. Don’t rub my nose into other people’s supposed perfect pregnancies or I’ll bite.

Oh your cat died? Well, it’s not like your baby died.

What on earth is wrong with you? Let me give you the context: my husband and I adopted a kitty, almost seven years ago, who was ALWAYS with me. During my first trimester of hell, Mallow spent his entire life with me in my bedroom, never leaving my side. Okay, I think he was mostly enjoying the bed, but anyway, he was a constant in my life. And he suddenly died from blood poisoning, when I was 16 weeks pregnant. You can imagine how crushed I was; I mean, it doesn’t take a psychology degree to understand it was like the end of the world for me. And you want me to imagine now that my baby died instead? What are you, clinically insane?

I hope you will have a natural birth (sentence pronounced by a guy).

You hope? Why do you feel concerned by this anyway? I am terrified of natural birth, I am crossing all my fingers to have a C-section, and guess what, I won’t discuss that. It’s just gross and it’s not your damn business.

And finally, my favorite, when will you start trying for a second baby?

This sentence, which I have heard a lot lately (from students, colleagues, family), is purely the worst. I am not even halfway through my first pregnancy, which will probably be my only pregnancy anyway. How can you feel the right to say something like this? Even if you don’t know a single thing about me. Maybe the person in front of you had 5 rounds of IVF before getting pregnant and knows that she won’t be able to do it again emotionally or financially. Maybe the person in front of you doesn’t want anymore children in any case. Maybe it’s not your problem?

I have to admit, I wasn’t ready for all these remarks or other sentences. I didn’t think that people wouldn’t comment at all, but even if I suspected that it could become a topic of conversation, this invasion of privacy just drives me mad. I just want to scream HOW CAN YOU THINK IT’S OKAY TO SAY THAT? Emotionally, I am having a lot of troubles dealing with these remarks, and I know that I am cutting myself from people (decent people, who never dared to say something like the previous examples) to protect myself. It will probably get better but for now, my normal state is to be angry at the world.

And yes, we are adopting a new baby cat.

I should be happy to be pregnant, but I’m not: let’s talk about prepartum depression

My entire adult life I have been told that I would struggle to conceive.

I have been diagnosed with endometriosis at age 24, after years of complaints from my parts, and numerous hospital stays. My symptoms were very common, but debilitating for years, before my then-new gynecologist took me seriously. I had lost hope until that moment, when I finally switched to a period-free birth control. I still experienced pain, on a lower level, but more importantly, I could fully function again.

In June 2020, my husband and I, after discussing the matter for years, decided to start a family. I stopped taking my birth control, and the pain came back, albeit more bearable. But that was not the most complicated thing I had to deal with: I wasn’t ovulating. It’s quite common to be clumsy when it comes to understand when you are or are not ovulating but in my case, the answer was crystal clear: I wasn’t.

You can easily imagine what went through my head at this time: I was doomed, natural procreation would remain a dream for us, that we had to go through IVF. My gynecologist helped me understand a bit more what was happening and remained reassuring; I was indeed ovulating the day I saw her. So the machine was working! It was just a matter of time!

It was indeed just a matter of time. But by late November, early December, I wasn’t thinking about my ovulation anymore; as I experienced some Meniere’s episodes. I have been diagnosed with Meniere in 2015, and I know how to live with it; but this time, my usual tricks to calm down didn’t work. I couldn’t teach anymore(too much screen can trigger an episode), I couldn’t drink coffee, I was just stuck in my bed with my fluffy and then obese cat.

My blood test results didn’t take long to arrive; and my HcG levels were up the roof. I was pregnant! But why wasn’t I happy. On the inside, I had million questions, but I mostly hated everything: the fact that my body was weak, that I couldn’t even stand up, that I was sleepy all the time, that I wasn’t myself anymore. I felt like a giant incubator and I was NOT happy about it.

I questioned everything in my life at this moment, and wondered if I really deserved this baby after all, considering how appreciative I was of the situation. I was not throwing up, like a lot of my friends were at this stage of their pregnancies, but the rest was as bad. Imagine being so weak that you can’t even put on your socks; that was me for WEEKS. I felt useless, a waste of space, I thought I could never come back from this dark place. I just wanted everything to stop so I could be myself again.

My doctor was reassuring; these symptoms should fade away around week 12. And he was right: they slowly faded away, and by week 15, I was myself again (I’m on week 17 right now). I really missed being myself, and I can’t even believe what happened to me. I feel guilty that I just wanted to stop everything, pack my things and leave on another continent to start a new life (yeah, I went that far). I feel grateful now that the first trimester of hell is over. I also feel grateful that my ultrasound went great and that despite what happened to me, our baby is doing amazing.

Do I understand why people are still trying to have a second kid after the first, now that everything is okay? Nope. I feel mostly traumatized by what happened and I am not sure that I could survive something like that again. Ironically, I am now, for the first time in my life, really comfortable within my own skin, which is a very strange feeling.

I wasn’t emotionally prepared to what could happen to me, and I am fairly sure women in general are not emotionally prepared enough. We are talking a lot about physical pain we can experience during pregnancy (back pain, huge tummy etc…) but we are definitely not talking enough about the psychological scars it could left us.

My first blog post in forever

I haven’t forgotten about writing, no. I even missed it, but I just couldn’t put words on what was happening. Because way too much happened in only a few months so I guess I’ll have to unpack article by article.

If you feel like you are no longer a teacher, but some kind of robot, raise your hand. If you feel like you are a therapist to your students, you can also raise your hand. It works also if you feel like that you now work for a litigation and complaints department.

Because that’s basically how I have been feeling for the past four months. Sure, at first, I was happy to avoid walking in the cold, I was fine teaching wearing my fave Harry Potter sweatpants, but hey, reality kicked in. And I felt less and less human. I felt used, tired, irrelevant. I felt like I couldn’t teach efficiently anymore, that I couldn’t bring anything to anybody. I was in quite a dark place for a while.

My doctor forced me to take a break in December, where I pretty much reconsidered everything in my life: from where I was living to my job. I felt like I was wasting my time being an English teacher in a country which despised English anyway, that I could simply focus on my administrative tasks as Head of Department, that the exam my students were preparing was a big joke… My brain was working 24/7.

Oh, and I found out I was pregnant at that time.

I feel fortunate to work for a business school with a very comprehensive boss; and I crawled back to my normal life in January. I started slowly, by taking care of administrative tasks, then I started to teach a bit, then a bit more… I am working full time again for three weeks now (even though I am mostly correcting papers this week) and it feels good. Not great, but I am working on it.

Despite what happened, I feel quite lucky to be a tenured teacher, in a world where education is often seen as an option and where teachers are used like plastic bags. I may not be teaching English all the time (I teach also Communication and Project Management), but I earn enough to make a living. Where you’re about to be a parent (well, this summer), that’s what matters. Perspective, I guess that’s how it is called?

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.

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