Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Can I speak to your manager?

This sentence was not heard in a supermarket or in a random store, no, this was the title of an email I received a few weeks ago at school.

Let me give you some context: I have been teaching in a French business school (we are offering more than only business courses but it’s easier for me to explain this way) for two years now, and I am Head of Department since September 2020. France’s educational system is crumbling, let’s be clear, the high school diploma (baccalaureat) doesn’t mean anything anymore and the current Education secretary basically destroyed the whole idea behind (it used to be a national degree, not it depends on your high school, say hi to inequalities). Anyway, as the term was over, we (the Director of Studies and I) checked everybody’s report card, and discussed to warn some students about their results or their behavior. Nothing out of the ordinary so far.

Contrary to popular belief, we do not enjoy warning a student about their bad grades, or bad behavior. I am teaching at this level because I don’t want to deal with angry parents unable to see that their precious little angel is a brat. Above 18, in France, parents cannot say anything: if they do, I’ll literally won’t answer, as the student is responsible for himself (in theory), but I am always available to my students. They know they can reach out easily if they encounter a problem. My point is, we sent an email to a student, who I had talked to numerous times this year about his low grades and his really bad attendance, to tell him that he had failed some classes and had to take them again the following year.

Bear in mind that I told him more than once (since February!) that if he continued this way, he would fail, and he became a fully fledged slacker nonetheless. So after calling us to blame online classes and the whole covid mess, as the title implies, he sent me an email asking for the manager.

We are still talking about a kid who doesn’t work, doesn’t show up to class, has an atrocious GPA but he wants to speak because obviously, according to him, he shouldn’t fail. No, we (the teachers) have been mean to him personally because we don’t like him. That must be the reason. Of course, it’s the reason. Also, he is paying, therefore he cannot fail. My DoS didn’t appreciate the email and answered back that since it was a school, and not Walmart, there was no way he could speak to the manager. Guess the kid’s reply?

“I’ll find a school where I’ll be more considered.”

Be my guest. Since Education is a lucrative business, and a wicked one I might add, I was not surprised by his reaction. This student will indeed find another school, but that doesn’t mean he will get his degree at the end (especially since it’s a national one). The problem is quite simple actually: since it’s a business, the student is treated like a client, after he is paying, right? Learning something, anything, is not even the point here, since it’s obtaining a piece of paper. You probably roll up your eyes now, but think about it, if you browse a bit the internet right now, you’ll find dozens of online “degrees”. There is nothing to learn here, no exams to take, of course, since it’s entirely empty. Sure, you can brag about the degree, but at the end, where are the skills?

Education is getting emptied, and my little blogpost is not going to change anything, since most governments right now are clearly not interested by it. I am an old-fashioned gal: I studied for my degrees, I had to reach a certain level to obtain them and when I decided to become an English teacher, I didn’t decide to scam people by getting a fake TEFL certificate (the kind FB advertises every five minutes). I could have, since it takes approximatively five seconds. But, no, I can’t accept a student who thinks he can speak to the manager because this is not Target, this is school, and it still means something to some people. Learning still means something, you can’t fake it, even though dozens of online ads are telling you otherwise.

Dear students, you can appeal your teachers’ decisions to the headmaster, that’s your right. But if we are indeed failing you, it’s not because we want to bully you, since we have nothing against you personally. You deserve to fail, especially if you have been warned numerous times before to adjust your grades/behavior. Education is not free, but you are not entitled to anything here. And if you can’t accept that, I guess you better find another place to go, but be sure that you will have a hard time later in life. It just won’t be my problem anymore.

Be proud of your accent

A few days ago, I watched a YouTube video from a French woman who was explaining that her dream was to speak perfect British English. She knows how to speak English already, she has a quite decent B2/C1 level but she was saying that she was « ashamed » to speak English because of her accent. That she « wanted » a British accent and that she would be ready to pay a lot of money to be able to do so. I felt incredibly bad (and sad) for her, knowing that a lot of people feel the same, ashamed of their accents. 

We can thank native speakerism for that I suppose. A lot of non natives are truly ashamed to speak English, despite their perfect command of the language, because all they think about is their accents. 

A student asked me last month if her accent was assessed at the spoken exam. Like we could assess an accent, because apparently there is a scale of acceptable or non acceptable accents I am not aware of. I said «no, of course, but pronunciation will ». Do you know what she answered ? « Oh, it’s the same. »

Mmmh, no ? Not at all ? Most students are confusing the two of them and for this precise reason, are trying to modify their accents.  Pronunciation is NOT about accents.

Non-native speakers are constantly bullied because of their accents. One of the first questions we are asked after telling our names, for most teachers, are « where do you come from? » and « how come you learn English like that » among others. 

I spent only a short time in the US but I felt bad every time someone was asking me about my accent, which was literally every two days. And I am privileged: I am a white woman, 6ft tall, with blondish hair. My name can be perceived as American, despite being Italian (Pattio) and French (Combe, even though I met people with the exact same surname in Britain too). It was not to make fun of me that people asked about my accent: it’s because it’s socially acceptable to ask about an accent and to consider that one is better than another. AND IT SHOULDN’T BE. It’s an invasion of privacy, plain and simple, and it shouldn’t matter, especially since I am intelligible. That should matter way more: intelligibility is key, accent isn’t.

That’s why a random French lady, educated, with a decent English level, wishes she speaks with a British accent, despite the fact she is not at all British, that she went to the UK only a few times and that it is NOT her. Why would someone who spent her entire life in Paris would have a British accent?? It doesn’t make any sense, if you think about it more than a second.

Be proud of your accent. Be proud of who you are. Be proud of your successes. Dear NNST, you mastered a language well enough to teach it, that’s amazing! You should be celebrating your achievement, not being ashamed. Teach your students to be proud as well: learning a language is tough enough as it is.

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.

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