Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Month: July 2018 (page 1 of 2)

Time flies

This week was important for me, as a teacher:

  • A year ago, I completed my CELTA. The memory is still vivid, but also distant, I can’t believe that it’s been a year and at the same time, it feels like it was ten years ago already.
  • I taught the Yale Business Seminar Writing class, conjointly with Prof. Betsy Rosenblum. We created a whole session together (4 classes of 90 minutes) and it was, by far, one of the best experiences I ever had. I worked previously with others, but never that intensely. I would never be able to thank her enough for the opportunity she gave me.
  • Working alongside Betsy made me realize that I wanted to do more, as a teacher. I want to be able to create syllabus, to develop a certain expertise, to observe and help my fellow teachers. You got it, I am thinking about doing a DELTA now.
  • The fact that I have been to Business School and that I worked six years in private companies is a huge asset when it comes to teach Business English. I am proud to be the first non-native teacher in a French Business School starting next September 🙂


Finally, I realized that I was putting way too much pressure on myself. I have the worst competitive spirit ever (I am working on it) and I bursted into tears when I realized that I didn’t understand the instructions of one of my assignments. Putting too much pressure isn’t healthy for me nor my students. Suffering from anxiety is a fact, but knowing how to handle it is another. And yes, Julian, I have to thank you for helping me realizing it. Happy? 🙂

The Yale Student diary: week 4

I have been asked recently why I decided to apply to Yale TEFL’s seminar. Being obsessed by Yale University since my early teenage years, it was almost evident to me to check if they had a TEFL course once I decided to specialize into American English. And they did, so last January, I applied to the seminar, which is designed for non-native speakers only.

The past week has been incredibly intense, because we approached the notion of critical thinking and how to make our students think academically. As a French person, that was pretty new to me either, so I particularly enjoyed that class.

Take the notion of freedom for example: just write it on the board on a class full of grad students, from different countries (Japan, China, Israel, Korea, France, Brazil…), put them into groups, and make them produce questions about that notion for five minutes. They’ll need to write these questions on a big white sheet, which will be put on the wall after these five minutes. They’ll then compare their own questions to their colleagues’ and will discuss the idea in class, using their favorite question.

Of course, carefully monitoring students is a must in this particular case.

I also made myself a promise:  to always give a feedback to my students. Always. See, I handed to my Writing’s professor my assignment ten days ago and for now, he said nothing. Nada. Rien. Niente. As a student, it is extremely frustrating to wait to get some feedback, especially when we have been longing for it. And when the reason is “another student didn’t get it done on time”, it’s even worse!

Third week at Yale: already?!

Wow, that one was the busiest so far. Here some elements about it:

  • For the first time, my main teacher asked what a CELTA is. I thought it was worldwide, but in the US, the CELTA isn’t very known. I had to explain the whole idea and they were quite amazed, mostly because they really really need ESL teachers. And I am not saying that because I want to criticize their system, it’s a fact. They need people able to explain the grammar, the fine details of the English language, and despite having well educated teachers, they can’t do it.  ( I think that the CELTA needs to change, but that will be the topic of another article)


  • Which brings me to my second point: grammar isn’t important here. At all. They care more about pronunciation than grammar, which should be on the same level (that’s my opinion, at least). They don’t learn grammar, so they don’t teach grammar. Using timelines to explain a tense is sci fi around here, so I look like an alien when I am using it!


  • Speaking is definitely the most important part: debate clubs are all the rage. I witnessed to day the preparation of a debate concerning gun control, and it blew my mind. It’s not an end of the class activity: it’s a two or three sessions’ activity!


  • Americans are going to speak about your accent, either you like it or not. They love talking about it. The very first question is “where do you come from?” even if it can be quite disturbing, even invasive. My Uber driver started yesterday with “I assume you are not from the US, so where do you come from?” and I just wanted to say  “Come on, my pronunciation is better than yours!”. They are genuinely interested by it, and they wanna know how you, as a foreigner, learned English. Fun fact: most people think that I am from the Netherlands or Scandinavia, not France or Italy. But they all get that I studied in the UK right away!


  • And I had the opportunity to teach! I taught the Business Seminar’s students (Turkish, Brazilian, Chinese…) about writing emails, more specifically complaining by emails. I started the lesson by a fun activity, which included Macy Gray’s I try, and I put some words on the board that they had to get from the listening. Then, using the vocabulary, they had to write a letter of complain, using the hand outs I prepared in advance. I had two teams of three, and they were writing to each other for a different problem. I never taught that type of advanced students before, and it was one of the most stressing experience ever!


To sum up, this next week is going to be as intense as this one, I guess, but I feel 100% better now. I am supposed to teach the Business Seminar again (the students requested it!) and animate a debate, I am just shivering with excitement right now!


How to teach American culture through paintings

Yesterday, I had the most unusual class I ever had. We had to meet our teacher, Kirk, directly inside the Yale Art Gallery, this incredible and free museum that I am lucky enough to visit three times a week.

He made us walk to the American wing, and asked us to choose two paintings that we would save if the building was on fire. Of course, if you don’t have the chance to have a Yale Art Gallery right next the corner, you can also put different pictures all over the classroom and make your students choose.

We all chose, and we had to explain and defend our choices because at the end, it appeared that we would be able to save only one painting. The class can debate and provide arguments to choose one painting over the others.  It is a great writing exercise (they need to prepare first, we had ten minutes) and a great speaking one as well.

We set our minds on Edward Hopper’s Sunlight in a cafeteria:

Résultats de recherche d'images pour « sunlight in a cafeteria hopper »

(For the record, that was my choice, so I am pretty pleased with myself just about now)

We chose Hopper because of its importance within the American History of Art. Most of the students probably never heard of him, but he is one of the greatest painter from the US. Choosing Hopper made sense for different reasons: it’s realism, so it’s quite easy to catch the meaning.  It’s modern, so students can relate to it. And the colors are carefully chosen, so it’s nice to look at it. Let’s be honest, most students prefer to look at a nice, bright picture than at a blurry, dark one.

Talking about Hopper’s painting made us talk about life in the fifties (this precise painting is from 1958) and what we actually knew about it. As the teacher, we can use the characters in the paintings to create a discussion (what about their clothes? what about the decoration of the cafeteria?), avoiding a boring lecture about “Life in the US during the Fifties”.

The second class, which will be held tomorrow, will follow a precise path, divided in three parts:

  • Description, internal evidence itself: general and larger observation, then detailed observation.
  • Deduction: sensory engagement, intellectual engagement and emotional response to the painting.
  • Speculation: theories and hypothesis.

Continue reading

Yale’s TEFL Seminar – part 2

Boy, have I ever been so stressed in my entire life?

The answer is : nope, despite the fact that I did a CELTA last year.

For years, I waited, expected it; studying in an American university, moreover an Ivy League one. Applying to Yale was the first research I have ever done on a search engine all by myself. Being here is, of course, different that what I have imagined in the first place, but it’s still incredible. My writing class is definitely the most challenging I ever had, I have the opportunity to observe several Yale academics as they teach, and I am realizing how ESL is seen here on the other side of the Atlantic.

I guess you already know the answer: very poorly. I have been asked several times to teach French in community colleges, mostly, but never ESL, despite having no certifications whatsoever in French, and plenty (!?) in ESL.

The fact is, a lot of people are asking me if I have another project, besides being an ESL teacher. I would love to be a writer, but that’s for another lifetime, because I enjoy way too much teaching to take a step back. Writing a blog is fine by me. When I left real estate, and I job that I truly hated, I never imagined that someone, anyone, would ever ask me that. Honestly, I thought that answering “I teach English” was enough as it was, but I was deeply mistaken.

I am dealing with anxiety for decades now. I used to rely on people for everything, and I always wanted to please everybody. I have been fighting this for years, but being here, away from my family, away from my normal life, it’s getting harder to keep up.  Especially when even Yale teachers are explaining that our discipline isn’t regarded as it should be.

So, I am the kind of person who needs to know what the plan is, and right now, the plan is kinda blurred.

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