Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Category: ELT (page 1 of 15)

Be proud of your accent

A few days ago, I watched a YouTube video from a French woman who was explaining that her dream was to speak perfect British English. She knows how to speak English already, she has a quite decent B2/C1 level but she was saying that she was « ashamed » to speak English because of her accent. That she « wanted » a British accent and that she would be ready to pay a lot of money to be able to do so. I felt incredibly bad (and sad) for her, knowing that a lot of people feel the same, ashamed of their accents. 

We can thank native speakerism for that I suppose. A lot of non natives are truly ashamed to speak English, despite their perfect command of the language, because all they think about is their accents. 

A student asked me last month if her accent was assessed at the spoken exam. Like we could assess an accent, because apparently there is a scale of acceptable or non acceptable accents I am not aware of. I said «no, of course, but pronunciation will ». Do you know what she answered ? « Oh, it’s the same. »

Mmmh, no ? Not at all ? Most students are confusing the two of them and for this precise reason, are trying to modify their accents.  Pronunciation is NOT about accents.

Non-native speakers are constantly bullied because of their accents. One of the first questions we are asked after telling our names, for most teachers, are « where do you come from? » and « how come you learn English like that » among others. 

I spent only a short time in the US but I felt bad every time someone was asking me about my accent, which was literally every two days. And I am privileged: I am a white woman, 6ft tall, with blondish hair. My name can be perceived as American, despite being Italian (Pattio) and French (Combe, even though I met people with the exact same surname in Britain too). It was not to make fun of me that people asked about my accent: it’s because it’s socially acceptable to ask about an accent and to consider that one is better than another. AND IT SHOULDN’T BE. It’s an invasion of privacy, plain and simple, and it shouldn’t matter, especially since I am intelligible. That should matter way more: intelligibility is key, accent isn’t.

That’s why a random French lady, educated, with a decent English level, wishes she speaks with a British accent, despite the fact she is not at all British, that she went to the UK only a few times and that it is NOT her. Why would someone who spent her entire life in Paris would have a British accent?? It doesn’t make any sense, if you think about it more than a second.

Be proud of your accent. Be proud of who you are. Be proud of your successes. Dear NNST, you mastered a language well enough to teach it, that’s amazing! You should be celebrating your achievement, not being ashamed. Teach your students to be proud as well: learning a language is tough enough as it is.

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.

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.

The future of English lies with non-native speakers.

Sorry not sorry. I know I am adding wood to the fire.

I find it pretty offensive to still read, in 2020, listed as a requirement for a TEFL job, right under the qualifications, “native speaker.”

Let me rephrase it. What I find deeply offensive is to consider that a passport, from a very specific country, is enough to offer someone a job. Do you realize how insane this situation is? People work for months, years, to become teachers only to hear “sorry we only hire native speakers”, most of the time said with a smirk.

And let’s be honest, when we hear “native speakers” you can be sure it implies “white.” The perfect ESL teacher, according to job ads, is white and is coming from 6 countries, because as we all know, only 6 countries in the entire world can speak English properly. And the problem is, a lot of people are actually okay with this. I can give hundreds of stories of white native speakers who decided to teach English to travel and came back home, happy to share travel stories and pics.

I am a white EFL teacher, and I know I got at least two jobs because the recruiter had no idea that I was a NNS. Did I say anything to make him change his mind? No. The most recent one realized that I was French only when I gave him my passport in order to prepare the contract, two days before the start of the semester. He never, ever mentioned the fact that he wanted a NS during our interview, but we had it over Skype in July 2018, when I was studying at Yale. He thought I was a damn NS, and I said NOTHING. Does it make me an accomplice of this whole scheme? Yes. Would I have had the job if I had mentioned my passport? No.

Since this interview, a lot of things changed. I now only present English as an International language, and myself as an English as a Foreign language teacher. I teach in France, I hold a French passport, my dad is actually Italian, I grew up with two cultures which are not English or American, why should I pretend that I arrived five minutes ago with my backpack? This cliché continues only because we allow it: if people were responsible enough not to answer to these jobs ads which require native speakers, they would have dried out. It’s easier said than done, I am aware.

As teachers, what can we do? We can start by shutting down the “I can’t believe you speak so well English!” and the “are you sure you’re not American?” (I have heard these ones quite a lot) in the teachers’ lounge. We can emphasize to our students that English is a global language, and that they will probably only speak English to another non-native speaker (80% of English interaction are between NNS – Crystal, 2018). We can explain to our students that English as a Second Language or a Foreign Language is not used the same way than as a Native Language. We can use a course book which is “NNS friendly”. And of course, we can refuse to apply to jobs who ask specifically for native speakers, even if you are indeed a NS.

As human beings, what can we do? We can start by, outside the classroom, praising people who are trying to speak the language instead of mocking them (I am not implying that a lot of you do that, but I have seen people mocking others). We can start seeing the beauty of knowledge instead of monetizing it. We can start by praising teachers instead of saying that everybody can do “that.” Not everybody can be passionate about teaching, like not everybody cannot be into accounting. We can start by acknowledging that being a teacher is a real, serious job, and that you don’t fail if you decide to make education your future.

I turned my back on a very promising career in real estate management to embrace one in ELT, and despite everything, the racism, the poor conditions, the shitty salary, I wouldn’t go back.

Bibliography:

Crystal, D. (2018) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: CUP

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