Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

I teach seniors, and I love it

It was not my plan to teach seniors, quite the opposite. The first plan was to teach, as many young language teachers, Young Learners. You may remember that my first job after my TKT was in a bilingual primary school, as a substitute teacher. I would have loved to stay but that didn’t work out after all (my passport was not the right color). Just a few days after I heard that my application has been turned down, I received a phone call from a local association of retired people.

« We are looking for a qualified trainer, to teach us general English. We have a bunch interested but it may not work long term, we have to give it a try. We need someone who can explain in French and in English.»

That was in July 2017.

In September 2017, 25 students enrolled, and the adventure started.

In September 2018, 95 enrolled.

Teaching seniors is very specific. They don’t need to take an exam, to speak professionally, to write emails. They want to communicate, to help grandchildren with their homework, to understand something in a menu, at the airport… It must be practical. They have a deeper motivation, I think, as they took the decision to be learners again by themselves and they set their own goals. They are not here because someone forced them to be: they want to be here.

It must be relaxed. Seniors are less stressed but not less busy! They want to learn and that changed everything. They are not afraid to ask questions because they have seen worse. That also sometimes means that they cannot stop talking about their previous experiences.

Discipline within the classroom is another experience itself!

I had the worst moment of my teaching career with some of them. I assessed their levels at the beginning of the year to split the big group in two: beginners and intermediate (basically A0-A1 and A2-B1). One of the beginners decided that he was intermediate and showed up at the intermediate class. During that class, he spent the entire time googling every word written on the whiteboard. His goal was clear: proving that I wasn’t a good teacher.

He also told me, very loudly, that I wasn’t a real teacher because my degrees were not French but English and American. Visibly, he thought that he could do the hell he wanted because he wanted to do so. I did not have the time to say anything back: another student called him off (quite violently, for someone over 75 years old). He never came back.

Since last September, I teach two groups of beginners, two groups of intermediate and a group of advanced students. There is between 10 and 15 students per class, with basically the same background profile. Seniors who want to learn English are most of the time curious and they are not afraid to provide examples or input.

It also means that, for the beginners, the structure plays an important role. It must be clear and efficient, they need to know where you are going and what is the goal. Can they use it rapidly? Is it too complex? Is it useful? The way you structure a lesson is utterly different. They will need a routine, to revise the vocabulary previously seen in class, they will need (I should say « ask for ») grammar exercises.

Being bilingual is a huge advantage. Mostly, they are going to compare English with their native tongue. They want to relate to another learner, if possible, a successful one. If you, the teacher, cannot provide the answers to their numerous questions, they will grow out of interest quickly (true story, they ask a question and wait for the answer, and just don’t listen the rest)

Why can’t we find a course book designed for SL (senior learners) but a million or so about YL? Because they won’t take an exam at the end. Because the market is not interested. Because there is less money to make.

Even though, I wouldn’t leave my gig. I genuinely love my students, and the relationship I developed with them couldn’t be possible with another kind of learners.


  1. I’d love to write you a coursebook, Helene! It’s been something I’ve been mulling over for a few years. I get pushed into writing lots of stuff for teens & young adults, & I’d love to write for people nearer my age (not quite a ‘senior’ yet maybe, but just about to turn 50).

    • hcombe

      2019-02-24 at 7:42 PM

      That would be an amazing project! There is virtually nothing for “seniors”, but more and more seniors are learning English (to travel for ex.) I’d love to help you! (I am not sure that you’d need a rookie like me to do so, but considering that I used your books to prepare for exams, it will be such an honor!)

      • Julie Moore

        2019-02-24 at 9:43 PM

        Helene, If I deicide to take the idea further, I’ll get in touch. Several teachers have mentioned the same gap in the market & I love the idea as a writing project, but I don’t have hands-on experience teaching this group myself.

  2. Brilliant post. You’re amazing!

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