Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Month: November 2018

Empathy in the classroom

Two weeks ago, I attended TESOL France colloquium in Paris, and more specifically, I attended Kieran Donaghy’s plenary session. The topic was utterly interesting, especially when you are a language teacher:  empathy and the necessity of it.

When I was doing my CertIBET last year, my trainer used to say that a good teacher had to be genuine and empathic. A lot has been said (and written) already on the subject, notably by Sarah Mercer, so I am not reinventing the wheel here. Anyway, I was quite shocked to realize that, for some people, it was not necessary to remember students’ names. Kieran Donaghy pointed out the striking difficulty a student could have while talking in a foreign language to someone who didn’t bother learning his/her name.

Donaghy mostly teaches seniors, as I do. The relationship you can develop with senior learners is completely different than with younger students. I love teaching seniors because they don’t care of making mistakes, they are motivated (not because someone is forcing them to) and because they always have something to say. I guess it’s easier to become aware of the necessity of empathy while teaching seniors?

He provided some advices on how to develop empathy in the classroom. My dad calls it respect, more than empathy, but I guess we need to label everything now. We are teaching human beings, not machines, so it makes sense to ask them how they are when we see them. I teach English in a business school, and we established a routine: we all stand up, and we talk for ten or fifteen minutes about what’s going on with them. I know small details of their lives, they like to have a nice conversation in a relaxed way.

The problem is the teacher is seen as a judge, not a helper, most of the time. That what my younger students told me recently: “you want to help us?!” They were truly shocked, the way I was truly shocked to discover that learning students’ names was apparently not mandatory for everybody.

Kieran Donaghy also mentions the necessity, for a language teacher, to be fluent in more than one language. I was puzzled, considering the whole NS/NNS debate, but I wasn’t surprised either. It makes sense, if you think of it, to feel more confident with someone who can understand the struggle of learning a new language. I tried to learn German for years and I haven’t been able to utter a simple sentence without stuttering (my students love that anecdote). I am not saying that as language teachers, we must master several languages. But struggling to learn a language is a necessary step to become a more efficient language teacher.


This week, a campaign was launched, I am sure you saw it: #AntiBullyingWeek. The numbers of bullied people increased drastically over the years, and we can thank social networks for that. Before, bullied people were harassed at school, but were done back home. Now, it’s everywhere, all the time. I am not saying that because I wanna be trendy. I am saying that because I have been bullied for years.

I was too tall, too nerdy, I had glasses, and I was the scapegoat just because I was there. Nobody tried to save me, nobody lift a finger. They (teachers, principals, adults in general) didn’t say a word to stop my abusers. Until I punched them back, when I was fifteen. Don’t worry, I didn’t get in trouble after all, because other students stepped in and testified on my behalf.

Do you think that story changed something in my high school? The answer is no. Bullies continued their dirty work, and nothing changed. But in November 2006, it was too much for a friend of mine. He couldn’t stop the constant insults, the anonymous scathing letters he was receiving on his bag, and it was the beginning of AIM. Back home, he was getting insulted on the Internet. He told people about it, his friends, his teachers. Nobody, including me, did a thing. We all thought it was just a rough patch.

He hanged himself before turning 18.

It’s been twelve years now but I still feel the rage I felt that day. I remember everything: the person who told me, the way people looked at us, his friends, on the hallway. Everybody talked about the incident for months. Teachers admitted later that they knew, but they didn’t take the time to talk with him.

I am far from perfect, but when a student of mine isn’t okay, I talk with him or her, even if it’s just for five minutes, after a class. I just don’t assume it’s a rough patch. Because bullying can kill, and I will always recall the face of his bullies when they had to carry his coffin, back in November 2006.

Bullying is not a joke, and bullies must be punished.

TESOL France colloquium is around the corner!

In less than a week, TESOL France 37th annual colloquium will be in full swing and I’ll probably be dying out of stress. I am extremely proud to be a part of TESOL France, and to take part of the colloquium, as a volunteer. But that’s not the reason I’ll stop breathing at some point next Sunday.

Maybe you remember that I published an article over the summer, and I’ll be there on Sunday, doing a poster presentation. It was extremely strange for me to see my own name printed on the programme, even if it’s just for a poster presentation, because well, I am still a newbie!

Do I feel better, as a teacher, since I wrote this article? Not completely. Over the past months, I have realized that we talk a lot about theories (I have nightmares about UG and LAD), tests (don’t make me start on TOEIC), or making our lessons fun enough. But that’s just the top of the iceberg, especially for young teachers.

Anyway, I’d love to grumble more on how decayed the ELT industry is becoming, but I’ll probably write a whole article about it soon. I’d love to write more to be honest, but being incredibly busy lately, between a hectic teaching schedule and a MA, I just can’t find the time.

So if you are at the colloquium next weekend in Paris, look for the tallest blonde woman you can find, that would be (probably) me!

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