Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

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No, I am not a native speaker

But English is my first language nonetheless. I read in English all the time, probably a lot more than most people; I speak in English every day; I watch documentaries, movies, information channels, pretty much everything actually in English; hell, I even text/tweet/Instagram in English.

Yet, today once again, someone was surprised when I said that my ultimate goal was to train teachers of English as a Second Language. Her reaction was actually quite extraordinary: “but you have to have a high level of English to do so!” That person being my dentist, I cannot exactly qualify her of being stupid so I answered that I was indeed bilingual.

“Yes,” she continued, “but are you originally from England, or another English speaking country?” I would love to explain to her that I don’t know half of my biological details but as I couldn’t (TMI already) I just said that since she wasn’t from the land of the Tooth Fairy but could manage to be a dentist, I would be just fine being an English teacher and teacher trainer despite having a French passport.

The year is 2019: we know that English is an International Language, we know that most conversations in English are between two non-natives, we know that bilingualism is real yet, when it comes to English, it seems necessary to prove that we are somehow related to an English speaking country.

An educated person once told me that I was good at English because my ancestors were probably from an English speaking country. As I am not exactly motivated to do a DNA test to prove these people wrong, I am just gonna say that I probably have Celtic origins, but I highly doubt it matters.

The thing is I am white, (fake) blond, tall woman. I am lucky if I compare myself to others, who every day have to face discrimination just because of their skin color (and it’s only one example). I face discrimination because I am not a native speaker, but hell, I can clap back as much as stupid people can ask dumb questions.

English is my first language, and I am proud of say so. My native language remains French, but I prefer to express myself in English, and now this is not something recent: I am sure I can dig up an old diary of mine from 2003 already in English. I chose to teach English because I love it, and honestly, I would be the worst French teacher ever. Literally, you should run away if you enter in a French as a Second Language class and see me.

So yeah, English is my first language, French is my native one, and I have to work twice as hard to make people understand that I am competent. I have nice certificates upon my walls, from Yale University, Cambridge University, and they are not only here to decorate, and I am far from being the only one who has to demonstrate her ability when she explains what she does for a living.

For the record, a lot of writers who are considered genius, such as Joseph Conrad or Jack Kerouac, had another native tongue than English. For some reasons, I highly doubt that it is impacting the book sales nowadays.

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.

Here we go again

Temperatures are dropping, days are getting shorter (at least, where I am currently, it might not be your case), it means only one thing: my third year as an English as Foreign Language is starting!

I am teaching a looooot of people this year, and they couldn’t be more different:

-First year students at a local college, who are preparing the French equivalent of an Associate’s degree in Business.

-MA (in Marketing) students at the same local college

-Employees of a petrochemistry company (which is really funny, because I know next to nothing to petrochemistry, and they teach me a lot about it)

-Seniors! Seniors everywhere!

In a previous post, I mentioned that teaching seniors was extremely interesting, but also tiring and intense. Nonetheless, it allows me to try different techniques and methods, like using literature within the class (with B1 students), Project-Based-Learning (with B2 students)… Yes, it takes a long time to prepare all the classes. Yes, it’s tiring because they are demanding a lot. But I am allowed to design my own classes, I can use what I want to use, they are determined and motivated, it’s flexible.

I am not doing a MA and a Delta just to stay an EFL teacher ad vitam aeternam, that would be a lie, as you probably already suspected. I’d like, at some point, to become a DoS, or a teacher trainer, and the Senior Language School (within a company- there are only retired people from this precise company, so I am technically an employee of that company as well) I am in charge of is the best first step I could dream of.

What is this Senior Language School anyway? Two “Elementary 1” classes of 90 minutes (Mondays and Wednesdays) which are basically A0/A1; one “Elementary 2” class of 90 minutes on Wednesdays which are A1/A2; four “Intermediate” classes (two are 45 minutes as it’s only a conversation class – one is quite traditional and the last one is called “Introduction to British culture”), which are on Tuesdays and Wednesdays , for B1 students and the last class is called “Advanced”, but should be called “Project class” (I literally call her the “PBL class” myself) on Wednesdays, for B1+/B2 students. I am designing all these classes, and I, of course, teach them.

So you know pretty much everything about my projects for this academic year. I hope everything will go as smoothly as possible, and I wish you the best for this new year 🙂

Bye Bournemouth!

As I type right now, in a coffeehouse on Wimbourne Road, Bournemouth, UK, I can’t quite believe it myself. Yesterday was the most intense, emotional and strange day I have ever lived so far: yesterday was the end of Delta Module 2. We survived, guys! We did it!

To begin with, let’s be honest about one key point: our tutors were simply the best. I mean, did you ever have a Delta tutor who picks you up at home because you overslept and you’re late? We did. Did you ever have a Delta tutor who brings you watermelon and pastries every day because you need comfort food and vitamins? We did. Nothing would have been the same if they were just a tiny bit different. I don’t say that often, but they are amazing human beings.

That’s the strength of good teachers/trainers: they inspire you, they motivate you. They set the bar high, and all you wanna do is to become just half as good. I will never recommend ITTC enough to wannabe and experienced teachers.

In general, I know I am going to miss Bournemouth. I loved my life here, my Delta cohort, my tutors (obv.), the coffeehouse I had my breakfast every morning for six straight weeks (the one where I am right now, typing). I have lived in numerous places, and back in 2017 already, Bournemouth was an amazing experience. I cried when I went back home.This year, it almost felt like home, and even though I might not cry, it won’t be less painful.

I would love to say that I’ll be back. I can only wish. Brexit being what it is, and me having a family (a husband and two cats, that’s still a family nonetheless), it’s quite hard to say that I’ll move here for real. Maybe I’ll go back to teach a few weeks at BEET? That would be pretty nice enough(fingers crossed). I feel incredibly lucky already that I had such an experience, and that my Delta course went that smoothly. I know that, for some people, it’s purely Hell on Earth; for us, yeah, it was not a walk in the park, but nobody had a meltdown, everybody passed an internal LSA (or two, or three) WITHOUT resubmission (I passed 2, and I went to see my CELTA tutor afterwards just to say: “do you remember when I had to resubmit every damn CELTA assignment??”).

And yeah, I am going on holidays, now. 🙂 Happy holidays everyone!

Five weeks out of six!

I used to think that I pretty good at my job. Not like a genius, but pretty good. These days are OVER.

That’s the magic of Delta: you think you know something, like yourself, or your job, or the English language, and well, you don’t. Mostly because you have to think a specific topic (like multi word verbs) completely differently, and because you have to write 2000 to 2500 words on it (which can sound either too much or not enough) and create a lesson. It can make you loose all confidence in yourself. It can make you scream that you are the shittiest teacher ever on the planet. But apparently, at the end, you are a better teacher, so I heard.

I toyed with the idea of teaching poetry for a while, and I never felt good enough to teach writing. I love writing, obviously, but I felt that teaching it would be just too much, that I wouldn’t know what to do. So for my second skills assignment (I passed my first skills assignment on reading for global understanding), I decided to go for it, and I chose writing informal emails (LSA3). The bright side: my students didn’t sleep during my poetry class, nor just wrote a couple of sentence during the informal emails’ lesson. The less bright side: I didn’t sleep a lot because of all the prep, but it was worth it. It showed me where my strengths were, but it didn’t show me how to overcome my weaknesses aka systems assignment, nor my demons.

I am not surprised I failed my systems assignment (LSA2). I was sloppy on it, I designed the lesson backwards, I wasn’t confident AT ALL during the lesson… I would have been surprised if I HAD passed. Now that LSA4 is around the corner, (and yeah, it’s a system one again!) I am feeling more and more insecure. I know I shouldn’t, because that’s also why I failed the previous one, but I can’t help myself but thinking that my explanations are too blurry, that I don’t know how to anticipate problems… I am writing down pretty much everything I can think of, hoping it would click or something like that. My lesson is better designed than the one I had for LSA2, and I feel a little more confident about the topic in general (modals of obligation and permission), but I can’t stop myself from thinking that I won’t be enough.

Remaining sane during this course is not an easy task. Honestly, it’s been the worst five weeks of my life so far, despite the happy moments and I can’t thank my cohort enough. I am pretty sure we are going to start a support group the second we are going to leave Bournemouth, because we will seriously develop PTSD. It feels like we have been here for months and that we have been through everything together. (That’s the silver lining moment).

I still have learned something along the way: it’s healthier to question yourself daily than never at all.

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