Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Month: May 2017 (page 1 of 2)

Random thoughts while working on my exit paper

As you may know, that particular time of the year is the exam part of the year. And this year, because I got the foolish idea to go back to college, I have to write an exit paper and then present it at the end of June. And since I have nothing else prior to do, I am entirely devoted to it. I still have random thoughts tho, about a lot of things, while working on it…

-Why write an exit paper? Why not an exit video? Can I just give my blog address and let it go?

-I should re-read the entire Harry Potter series.

-Can I quote Mickey Mouse on my paper instead of the serious writers I have been working on since a year?

-I can’t wait to have a dog. We already chose his name: Winston… because it’s too cliché to name it Stitch.

-Is it okay to use a quote from Maya Angelou as my title, but never quote her again?

-I have to book my flight to London pretty soon or it’s gonna be way too expensive.

-How many pages am I suppose to write about my internship again?

-Why did I buy a 650 pages book about linguistics if I am not going to use it?

-I should watch again some Woody Allen’s movies

-Why do I love to write about everything but my exit paper?

But… You are French

Before working in TEFL, I had an idyllic vision of teaching. I actually thought that being a good teacher would be enough, and being passionate about the matter you were teaching would be a big plus. That’s why I decided to become an English teacher: because I was in love with the English Language. Turns out, it’s definetely not enough.

As I previously said, I began to study English all by myself as a kid. I wasn’t lucky enough to study in a bilingual primary school, and even if I went in a private middle school and got to study three foreign languages (English, German and Italian), I never actually studied in England or America. All I know is what I learned from books, TV, movies. I literally read a thousand of history books, fiction and non fiction novels. Ask me about George Clinton, Los Angeles geography, Aaron Burr, Lady Bird Johnson, the fifty states of the USA: I know all about this. You can do the same exercise with the UK as well.

I decided, when I was nineteen years old, that my English level wasn’t enough to become a teacher, and the French way to become a teacher wasn’t the one I wanted to follow. I traveled a lot instead, worked on my English by myself, got my business school degree with honors. And after three years of working in real estate, I finally tested my level. Do you know why I wanted to test it? Because when I was in New York City, someone complimented me on my French. That very American Lady thought that I was American.

I actually had 19,5/20 on that test, level C1. I nailed it. I applied to several schools in order to get a teaching degree and get to pass the Teaching Knowledge Test from Cambridge English Assessment (which is part of the University of Cambridge). I got it with Band 3 on every modules I did. I did the Cambridge Proficiency Test and got my C2 level (IELTS: 7,5 to 8). My oral examiner asked me how long I lived in the US.

The fact is, I have no problem with accents. Not to blow my own trumpet, but I can take any accent I want. As a kid, my game was to talk with a foreign accent all the time. I can speak with either a British accent, or an American accent without any problem. I can switch from French to English, then from English to German and so on. I recently discovered that my American accent is the one I take the most naturally, which means that I don’t have to think about it at all. I am currently working in a bilingual primary school, as an assistant teacher, and my students think that I am American.

I will finish soon my Teaching degree (in English, of course!) here in France, I am head of the class, and I will continue this summer with the CELTA ( a Cambridge certificate of teaching English to speaker of other languages). I want to apply to a MA in TESOL (Teaching English to Speaker of Others Languages) in the UK. I want to do a DELTA (also from Cambridge) in a few years.

But yesterday, when I applied in a French bilingual primary school in order to be a primary school teacher in English next year, I got that concise answer: “Don’t bother giving me your resumé. Your qualifications are great but… You are French.”

So, what? Since I don’t have the right citizenship, I don’t deserve to be an English teacher? I honestly think that I speak a better English than some natives rednecks. But if we were applying for the same position, the redneck would won. That’s called discrimination against citizenship. The other word you are searching for that situation is stupidity.



Be nice, but not too nice

I like to think that I am nice person.

I am not writing this because I want to blow my own trumpet. I am always trying to be nice to everybody, to leave my seat on the bus to the elders, to be polite, well, whatever my parents educated me to do. This is what I am trying to do with my pupils.

We cannot save them all. It’s the first rule. Despite everything, their background, their smile, you cannot let them eat you alive because you don’t want to upset them. It’s good to be a nice teacher, but when they are doing BS, you better not mess with this.

This advice is actually good for every day life: on my former career, I was always the “nice girl” so everybody on the fifth floor (mine, obviously) came to my desk to borrow me an eraser, a pen, my IPhone charger or… my chair (true story). But at the end of the day, I had to see every people who came by my desk to get my stuff back or I could kiss them goodbye forever.

With primary school pupils, that’s exactly the same thing. One of them, today, wanted to borrow my Lilo & Stitch eraser (Yes, I have a Lilo & Stitch eraser, a Hello Kitty ruler and a Mickey Mouse mug. I am basically a child myself.) and threw a scene when I said no. I know the boy: I could say bye to my eraser, and I like that eraser. It’s not being selfish or voluntary being mean to a six years old, no, it’s called “get your stuff or you’ll get a note on your notebook for your parents.” Rules are rules.

By being too nice, as teachers, we are basically not helping them: we are overprotecting them. If I had let my student to borrow my (favorite) eraser, he would have never understand why it was necessary to bring their tools. When we don’t want to shout at them because they are talking too loudly, for example, we are not helping them either.

By making them following the rules, so when we avoid being too nice, we are, actually, the nicest teachers.

I am American at heart (but shhh!)

I am French, so my passport says. I never actually lived in the US, more than 3 months at least. But my deepest secret is this one: I always felt more like an American than anything else.

When I was eight, I decided that I wanted to move to NYC. I should probably blame Friends but when my fellow schoolmates were drawing their perfect houses in the french countryside, I was drawing Times Square. I bought myself a NYC map and learnt it by heart. Do you wonder why I learnt all alone English?

Because I wanted to move in the US at 18, of course! I wanted to study at Yale (or Princeton, I wasn’t really decided back then, because I was ten) in order to become a History teacher. My hero’s name was Axel Foley, but my favorite movie was, and still is, Die Hard. My favorite novel was Little Women. I knew by heart the fifty states before I got ten. I knew what the NRA was, who George Clinton was and which city was the capital of California before turning twelve. But I know way more than folklore: I knew the state’s capitals, I learned which and why some colleges were on the Ivy League, for example.

Turns out, life is not Beverly Hills 90210. I didn’t move there at age 18. I didn’t go to Yale or Princeton, either. But I still deeply love the US, despite everything, actually. I got hurt as hell on 9/11. I know by heart the lyrics of the Star and Spangled Banner (once I got drunk and yelled it in Monaco in the middle of my incredulous former colleagues). I was angry when Trump became president, because he is the most stupid person ever and because I supported Bernie Sanders. My fellow teacher, who is a real american, this one, felt the same thing.

I am not even sure we will go back there. Despite everything, Trump administration for example, I still believe in my American Dream.

First comes love

So, my mother has leukemia.

She has been diagnosed last Saturday. She is living in Brittany and her doctor is a friend of hers, so when the results came back positive, well, her doctor sent her to an oncologist in order to begin her treatment. She retired last March, after spending 39 years working as a school nurse.

My mother is that kind of person that make you say “whoa”. She seems really strong,and she is, and nothing, apparently, can break her. She lost both of her parents before turning 40, she struggled with dyslexia all her life and she loved her job so much that she cried on her last day there. She didn’t want to stop.

It’s complicated to deal with that kind of news. I live in the same country, of course, but there is 1000 kilometers between us and I can’t do 6 hours of train every two days, especially since I am working on a bilingual primary school now. She didn’t even want me to come, period. She is really supportive about my studies, despite my age, because she always pictured me as a teacher.

To be honest, I never pictured her being sick. I always imagined that she will live forever, being a pain in the ass and then, because that’s how life is, she will just disappear, without any pain, like falling asleep and never wake up. I never thought for one second in my life, that I would have to say that my mother has leukemia.

Her next medical appointment is on Thursday, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t like that feeling. I need to know everything all the time, and when my father told me about the disease, I read every article that I found on the Internet about it. It’s not wise, but I just had to. I just couldn’t sit and wait, avoiding crying, I had to do something and in my case, it was reading a lot about leukemia.

Obviously, I don’t want her to die. But I do want her to know that she is not alone and that if she cannot be strong this time, it’s okay, we will be strong for her. On this moment, there is no anger, or rancor, no hate, not anything negative, there is only love.

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