Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Category: education (page 1 of 3)

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.

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.

My first blog post in forever

I haven’t forgotten about writing, no. I even missed it, but I just couldn’t put words on what was happening. Because way too much happened in only a few months so I guess I’ll have to unpack article by article.

If you feel like you are no longer a teacher, but some kind of robot, raise your hand. If you feel like you are a therapist to your students, you can also raise your hand. It works also if you feel like that you now work for a litigation and complaints department.

Because that’s basically how I have been feeling for the past four months. Sure, at first, I was happy to avoid walking in the cold, I was fine teaching wearing my fave Harry Potter sweatpants, but hey, reality kicked in. And I felt less and less human. I felt used, tired, irrelevant. I felt like I couldn’t teach efficiently anymore, that I couldn’t bring anything to anybody. I was in quite a dark place for a while.

My doctor forced me to take a break in December, where I pretty much reconsidered everything in my life: from where I was living to my job. I felt like I was wasting my time being an English teacher in a country which despised English anyway, that I could simply focus on my administrative tasks as Head of Department, that the exam my students were preparing was a big joke… My brain was working 24/7.

Oh, and I found out I was pregnant at that time.

I feel fortunate to work for a business school with a very comprehensive boss; and I crawled back to my normal life in January. I started slowly, by taking care of administrative tasks, then I started to teach a bit, then a bit more… I am working full time again for three weeks now (even though I am mostly correcting papers this week) and it feels good. Not great, but I am working on it.

Despite what happened, I feel quite lucky to be a tenured teacher, in a world where education is often seen as an option and where teachers are used like plastic bags. I may not be teaching English all the time (I teach also Communication and Project Management), but I earn enough to make a living. Where you’re about to be a parent (well, this summer), that’s what matters. Perspective, I guess that’s how it is called?

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.

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