Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Category: education (page 1 of 2)

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.

This is not the end

It was, for a short period of time, the end of my website, much to my dismay. But I won’t bore you with technical problems, I swear. I have way too much to write about to elaborate on this precise point.

COVID-19 changed, probably forever, the way we are teaching. All of the sudden, we had to teach online, we had to adjust our methods, we had to assess differently, and we mostly felt lost. I felt lost. All I could think about was coming back to a real, physical, classroom. In the meantime, the ELT world had changed, and not for the best.

We live in a world where education is seen as a service, and most students, now, see themselves as clients. What happened, the past few months, only reinforce their positions. Competition is out there, offering a better price, offering better results, even though it’s a blatant lie, it’s what the client wants to hear. I am technically not a part of the ELT world anymore though: last June, I was offered a position of Head of Department, and I took it. Strangely enough, not being a freelance English trainer was more comforting.

My heart still belongs to English teaching, I am currently working on my MA dissertation, but let’s be honest, stressing out about invoices; about companies who just used me as an accessory; about students who were just looking for a better deal; I just couldn’t handle it. I still teach English, at my college, that’s like 80% of my activity, but the context is different, there is a state degree they have to take at the end, there is a curriculum to follow, and well, students are not supposed to be clients. They still tend to be, though. (I also teach Communication and Project management, and they tend to react the same way, so it’s not an English-related problem).

The past few months proved me that the entire world of education must change, if it wants to survive. It’s clear that by agreeing, even if it’s unconsciously, that it’s the new normal, that education can be treated as any other type of structure, will only doom the entire sector. And teachers will never gain respect again. I can’t believe I am writing about respecting teachers right now, but also I couldn’t believe, just ten days ago, that a teacher could lose his damn head in the middle of a French street, but here we are.

I have put a lot of things in perspective these past few weeks. I am not sure I’ll continue with my DELTA anymore (I am supposed to take LSA4 again one day), because let’s be honest, this way of teaching, of thinking, it’s just not relevant to my situation. I still want to love my job, but I want to be able to do it safely. And it’s not guaranteed anymore, because it’s not taken seriously. We can thank some governments for blaming teachers, for accusing them of being lazy, for hiring people with no qualifications whatsoever, for literally saying that anybody could be a teacher. For other things as well, but this is a blogpost, not an essay.

I told you I had a lot to write about. And now that I’m back, I have no intention to let things slide away.

Students are not clients

I mean, in some sense, we can say that they are indeed clients, as most of them are paying to be in language classroom. I have been working for three years now in ELT, so I am still a baby teacher with a lot to learn, but here is something I would like to highlight: when it comes to education, there shouldn’t be a notion of clientele whatsoever.

Let me explain why I am ranting about this precise topic right here, right now. My college students had to take a written exam today (technically a mock exam), and one of them decided to email me right after, to tell me that it was incredibly difficult. It was not, I had used a past paper, I didn’t overcomplicate the matter, and it was totally manageable for a student who had worked correctly this year. But this precise student hadn’t, and sent me another email, five seconds after the first one, asking me how she was supposed to know all these things?!?

I did NOT send an email like “Gee, IDK, work a bit, for a change?”. I really wanted to, but I just sent her an official document which stated the level of the exam. But she is not the only one reacting this way, as a client: she is barely listening in class, she never opens her mouth and never does any homework BUT she expects some results, and good grades.

The reason is fairly simple: education as been seen as an industry like any other else for so long that our students truly believe that it is indeed one. Let me hear, loud and clear, education is NOT an industry. We can’t promise any precise success early on, we can’t sign a contract based on results. As teachers, we do our best to educate, to adapt, to overcome difficulties, but we CAN’T just implement our knowledge in our students’ skulls. We can’t say on September 1st that an A1 student will be B1 on March 23rd, because we can’t promise these things.

The problem, when you see education as a real industry, is that you start to see the finances behind it, the wheels of rentability, and the clients’ satisfactory rate. We can’t use these tools in education. Our students are sitting in a classroom, normally, because they want to learn English (or they are being forced to learn English, let’s be honest). Their motivations can be various (to get a better job, to pass an exam, to live in another country, whatever, all are valid) but they are here to LEARN, not to CONSUME. We cannot put knowledge in a can.

Another problem, when you think of education as an industry, is the quality. I have seen like a gazillion of ads saying “teacher wanted” with literally no requirements; except being a native speaker (when it comes to languages) or to hold a degree (any type of degree would be just fine, thank you very much). I told people, years ago, that I was studying to become a teacher, and most of the time, the reaction was the same “do you really have to study to teach? I mean, it’s not that hard. “

Not so long ago, being a teacher meant something. It still does, to me at least, and to a lot of people. I never regretted my choice to leave the real estate industry behind me; it was crooked, it was unhealthy, it was all about the money. But I was a bit naive when I started, and I hadn’t realized that education, not only ELT, had became an industry. We want our students to succeed, we want to give good grades at exams, but we won’t just because we are told to do so. Education still means something, at some point. And giving out good grades and exams, it’s just devaluating it. I am not saying it that we have to be harsh, and severe, for the sake of it, that’s actually the opposite. We have to find back our place, as educators. And Education, with a big “E”, must remain out of the business world.

Why I am taking a step back

2020 is going to be different. I am not saying that because it’s January, or anything like that, it’s not a resolution. It’s simply a fact: this year is going to be very different.

Before you actually start reading, you must consider that these opinions are mine, and that I am not criticizing anybody.

You may remember that I only started within the ELT field three years ago. I started online with the TKT, then I did a French degree in education, which allowed me to work in a bilingual primary school. We all know I didn’t get the job after because I was not native (this is not an assumption, the management explicitly told me so) and I continued, with a CELTA. I started to get involved in TESOL association, to read a lot about Second Language Acquisition, about methodologies… Which led me to start a MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL. In other words, I am still a baby teacher, a rookie.

I admit that my first year of MA was quite disappointing: a lot of theories, not enough cases, and I guess I had another vision of it. Nonetheless, I am quite happy I am doing it (I just finished another Module) despite some setbacks. Alongside my MA, I started my Delta, and well, I have written a lot on this topic already. Saying that Delta didn’t go as planned is the understatement of the year, but it made me realize that my priorities were not straight.

But the thing is, I worked non-stop for the past three years. I went to conferences, I met people, I did some research, I didn’t stop reading and I worked on several projects. I wanted to develop some CPD workshops in Lyon, France, where I have been living. I wanted to develop my academic research, despite not feeling academic myself, because I wanted to show that I was a good teacher. And I wanted other teachers to become more aware of their environment, to create interesting sessions.

Boy, I was a bit presumptuous. CPD workshops are a great idea in theory, but after organizing two workshops with an attendance close to zero, I just decided to spend my Saturdays elsewhere. Attending conferences are great, but expensive, let’s be honest, and is it really interesting and relatable? And if I spent a great deal working on some research, it was not always related to my context, nor my students. I won’t say it was a waste of time, but I could have used this time differently.

I have been teaching in a local college for five months now, and it’s probably the best gig I had so far. The students’ general level is quite low, but the degrees they are studying for is interesting. It’s not 100% academic, which is fine by me, because I am not 100% academic. I seemed to forget that before being a teacher, I graduated with a BA in management, another BA in business and worked six years in real estate. It’s a real added value that I didn’t really use properly, obsessed over the fact that my passport was less important than my degrees. So, when this local college asked me if I were interested by teaching something else than English, I said yes.

Teaching English is, and will always be, what I prefer to do. I love this language way more than I could actually explain it. But I also live in a country which doesn’t fully appreciate other languages, in which teachers are not being recognized, in which native speakerism is all over the place. My MA is not going to change that. If I ever get tenure in that college, or in another school, that won’t be because of it, as the national education system doesn’t accept it. If I ever finish DELTA one day, once again, it will be for me.

I feel better writing these words, almost liberated. I put so much pressure on myself for so long that it feels amazing just to say “I am doing this for myself”. Working in ELT is not easy, it can actually be quite vile and I won’t apologize because I have decided to step back from the whole academic world. What really matters here is the person I am in front of my students, and the quality of my work, not if I transcribed correctly in an presentation.

Writing here is still very important to me, and despite being non-academic, I’ll continue to do so. I still have things to say, even though I am not a part of any TESOL or IATEFL association anymore.

Am I good enough?

I pretty much ask myself that question every day since the beginning of the school year.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, sure you had realized that I was quite busy, that I hadn’t updated in weeks, that my plate was quite full. I started yet another challenge, yay. I have been teaching for more than two years, I’m still a baby teacher, a rookie, after all. So I guess wondering if I am a good teacher is quite normal at this stage.

Let me explain what’s happening lately: I started teaching in a local college (literally right after high school – first year college students!) and well, the experience has been enriching so far. I never really took for granted that students wanted to be in front of me; even when I worked briefly for a language school in England. But this experience is whole new level.

So I was expecting young people in front of me (they are ten to twelve years younger than me after all, I can call them young people) but not that young. I mean, that type of young. I wouldn’t be mean to call them naive, but they are definitely out of this world. Not all of them are like that, of course not. I have also amazing classes who are motivated, focused, and know that education matters. But I also have a class full of slackers.

France is not a huge fan of teachers in general and I am not a huge fan of the French system either. We teachers are basically the official government’s punchbag for quite some time now, and language teachers are considered as useless most of the time. I can’t count how many students have told me “I can’t believe you are French, you never speak French in class!’. Apparently, it’s mandatory to speak your native tongue despite teaching another one, I was not aware of that rule though.

I know I sound dorky by saying that I want to help my students, that their successes matter to me, that I am glad when I hear a struggling student saying “I got it!”. I decided to teach English fully aware that half of my students would probably hate it. But I really mean it, I feel lucky enough to do a job that I love.

But despite that, I wonder if I am enough, if my good will, my good feelings will be enough to prove my point. When marketing and advertisement became more important than education and knowledge, I guess society lost it and will pay the price later. Sorry for getting dark tonight guys, I didn’t want to. I guess wondering is healthier than just accepting facts, but nonetheless, it can give quite a headache.

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