Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Speaking of English teaching

In my last post, back in September, I mentioned that I would be coming to France to teach English, and that I hoped that this situation would inject some purpose into my posts here.

Well, it certainly hasn't been for lack of spare time that I haven't posted about my experiences. I practically have nothing but spare time in this twelve-hour-a-week job, where half my time is spent simply proctoring practice oral exams. It's just that I've gotten lazy and kind of depressed and it's taken a lot of willpower to do just about anything lately.

Let me start over from the beginning.

I arrived here in late October. The first thing that Christine, one of my supervising teachers told me was that the students were mostly from low-income families (I live in the Ardennes, which like much of northern France and Belgium, has suffered from a sort of deindustrialization in the last few years), and that working abroad or with foreign companies was a distant and foreign idea to them, but that they were generally eager to learn.

"Eager to learn" immediately smelled fishy to me as a generalization, because let's face it: how motivated are high schoolers, as class units?, but I was more concerned with the first detail. I realized that I was undertaking something I simply wasn't up to doing. My job would be more than just improving their English. It wasn't enough for me to simply show them how to use the language; it occurred to me that I needed to give them a reason why it mattered whether they learned it or not. I, the stereotypical rich (well, relatively) WASP American who appeared out of nowhere and would be disappearing to whence I came; it occurred to me how little I was prepared to identify with these students. Things didn't look easier when I first met them; every group asked me what I thought about different American TV shows, whereupon I was forced to admit that I was a bad American in that I don't watch TV.

The job got easier, though. It took me a while to get used to the actual teaching part; some of the few classes that I actually teach, I overwhelmed with exercises that were a little above their heads. I still occasionally find myself choosing documents for my other students to report on that are too hard for them to grasp, but it's getting easier. Another important problem was coming back to high school after I'd just graduated from college; I'd forgotten that the high school teacher has to be the one to motivate the students instead of leaving it up to them to be interested in the subject. It doesn't make it any easier that some of the actual teachers I work with aren't much better at this than I am, and some of them quite clearly don't care. Hervé, who is technically my immediate supervisor, asks me how things went in his class and I tell him about the difficulties one of his students had with the exercise; he shrugs and says, "Oui, mais c'est qu'il est nul, lui" ("Yes, but that's just because he's no good").

Part of the problem with evaluating my students is that the criteria are generally limited to their ability to express themselves in English, and not to the content of their expression. That is, they can make an eloquent exhibition of their ignorance or their total lack of understanding of the subject they are describing, and it counts as good enough according to the rubric as long as their English is good. I don't like being a tough grader, so this suits me pretty well, but it's been hard at times not to let the things they say get to me.

One girl, when giving me an oral report on the famous picture of the guy standing in front of the tanks to stop them from going to Tien An Men Square, presumed that they were American tanks in a recent picture, not even leaving room for doubt, and said something to the effect of "I presume this picture is from the war in Iraq because these are American tanks and the United States is always the first to wage war". I struggled to keep my poker face after hearing that one. Not all of the things they say are upsetting, but they can certainly be baffling: one girl told me, and convinced her partner to tell me as well, that a coffin draped with the American flag was probably that of Lady Diana because uniforms of the soldiers carrying it apparently reminded her of the Royal Guard. Ehm,... not quite, but she explained her reasoning clearly in English, so I gave her the credit. One boy, while explaining to me a passage from Frankenstein while reading from his partner's notes (they had to analyse both the extract and a picture, and one of them just did the text and the other just did the picture and they simply traded notes for the presentation; I decided to let them go with it if they could BS well), continually referred to Frankenstein's description of his monster has having yellow skin and eyes, without making it clear that he actually knew why he was talking about them. I asked him what the significance of the yellow skin was, and, after a very brief pause, he answered, "Because he looks like a Japanese". I couldn't help myself; I laughed out loud at his answer. Luckily, he didn't get upset, because he knew that I knew he was just making it up. These were the same two boys whom I caught making fun of my goatee right in front of me because they didn't realize I'm fluent in French (I'll grant that my whiskers may be somewhat laughable, but they could at least be more discreet). I'm not supposed to have favorites, but if I did, it would be these two, unless it's the small 12th-grade-equivalent class with the three boys who bicker and curse at each other in English.

All in all, I think I've gotten accustomed to the job. Life outside the school is a different story, though.

It takes a lot more than just speaking French to adapt to life in France. There is, of course, the never-ending bureaucracy to contend with, but that's really a fact of life in any country. One thing I can't manage to deal with is the level of conformism in French society; they take things like fashion and etiquette a LOT more seriously here. The former I have never cared about, and I've never been good with the latter even in my native culture, so I'm already set up to lose in that aspect. I've gotten used to the punk kids pointing and laughing at me in the street, though...

There's more to all of this, but I've been working on this post for two months (at least, I started it two months ago), and I need to post it. Funny story: I'm in my classroom right now, which happens to be a computer lab. My class didn't show, I think because their teacher is absent. I shouldn't be glad about that, but I am. I'm thrilled I don't have to teach.

[EDIT: The title made more sense when I started this post, because the last one before that was the one about "native American teachers".]

1 comment:

Beth said...

thanks for your post Dan, interestingly enough, I was just able to get a picture of that sign from the previous post, so I updated it and now it can accompany your post!