Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

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I should be happy to be pregnant, but I’m not: let’s talk about prepartum depression

My entire adult life I have been told that I would struggle to conceive.

I have been diagnosed with endometriosis at age 24, after years of complaints from my parts, and numerous hospital stays. My symptoms were very common, but debilitating for years, before my then-new gynecologist took me seriously. I had lost hope until that moment, when I finally switched to a period-free birth control. I still experienced pain, on a lower level, but more importantly, I could fully function again.

In June 2020, my husband and I, after discussing the matter for years, decided to start a family. I stopped taking my birth control, and the pain came back, albeit more bearable. But that was not the most complicated thing I had to deal with: I wasn’t ovulating. It’s quite common to be clumsy when it comes to understand when you are or are not ovulating but in my case, the answer was crystal clear: I wasn’t.

You can easily imagine what went through my head at this time: I was doomed, natural procreation would remain a dream for us, that we had to go through IVF. My gynecologist helped me understand a bit more what was happening and remained reassuring; I was indeed ovulating the day I saw her. So the machine was working! It was just a matter of time!

It was indeed just a matter of time. But by late November, early December, I wasn’t thinking about my ovulation anymore; as I experienced some Meniere’s episodes. I have been diagnosed with Meniere in 2015, and I know how to live with it; but this time, my usual tricks to calm down didn’t work. I couldn’t teach anymore(too much screen can trigger an episode), I couldn’t drink coffee, I was just stuck in my bed with my fluffy and then obese cat.

My blood test results didn’t take long to arrive; and my HcG levels were up the roof. I was pregnant! But why wasn’t I happy. On the inside, I had million questions, but I mostly hated everything: the fact that my body was weak, that I couldn’t even stand up, that I was sleepy all the time, that I wasn’t myself anymore. I felt like a giant incubator and I was NOT happy about it.

I questioned everything in my life at this moment, and wondered if I really deserved this baby after all, considering how appreciative I was of the situation. I was not throwing up, like a lot of my friends were at this stage of their pregnancies, but the rest was as bad. Imagine being so weak that you can’t even put on your socks; that was me for WEEKS. I felt useless, a waste of space, I thought I could never come back from this dark place. I just wanted everything to stop so I could be myself again.

My doctor was reassuring; these symptoms should fade away around week 12. And he was right: they slowly faded away, and by week 15, I was myself again (I’m on week 17 right now). I really missed being myself, and I can’t even believe what happened to me. I feel guilty that I just wanted to stop everything, pack my things and leave on another continent to start a new life (yeah, I went that far). I feel grateful now that the first trimester of hell is over. I also feel grateful that my ultrasound went great and that despite what happened to me, our baby is doing amazing.

Do I understand why people are still trying to have a second kid after the first, now that everything is okay? Nope. I feel mostly traumatized by what happened and I am not sure that I could survive something like that again. Ironically, I am now, for the first time in my life, really comfortable within my own skin, which is a very strange feeling.

I wasn’t emotionally prepared to what could happen to me, and I am fairly sure women in general are not emotionally prepared enough. We are talking a lot about physical pain we can experience during pregnancy (back pain, huge tummy etc…) but we are definitely not talking enough about the psychological scars it could left us.

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.

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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