Au revoir children, I'm off
Qualified language teachers are leaving the profession to take up highly paid jobs in City firms, where they feel their hard-won talents will be appreciated. Carol Toms explains why they're going
Thursday 14 January 1999
Undergraduates considering teaching modern languages may be deterred for several reasons: they study for four years for their first degree, and to add a PGCE may seem a year too long to exist as a student for many people. Debts increase, and although there is the promise of an adequate salary at the end, peers are snapped up by blue chip companies after their degree, on salaries of pounds 17,000 upwards - and their peers use their languages to do more than order un coca s'il vous plait.
Graduates who spend four years analysing the existential qualities of Camus come down to earth with a bang as they start their PGCE and learn lots of French (or German or Spanish or Italian) that they had never come across before - for instance "turn to page 23"; "where is your homework?"; "complete the table on page 89 as you listen to the cassette."
Then they hit the classroom on teaching practice and watch professionals with an excellent command of the language spend 35 minutes trying to teach a bunch of bored teenagers how to book a room in a youth hostel, when the class: a) don't know what a youth hostel is; b) don't care; c) are never likely to go to France anyway.
Many schools advertise posts for dual linguists, making it difficult for those with only one language to find a post. It is the same schools demanding two languages from their staff that only allow their pupils to study one of the two. In the school I taught in, six out of 80 pupils took two languages at GCSE last year. No-one from that school will sit two language GCSEs in 1999 or 2000. This is not an isolated problem, as studying two languages to GCSE level is increasingly rare in comprehensive schools.
Get over the initial hurdles of foregoing a huge salary and a benefits package bigger than free red pens in the City, get on to a PGCE course, survive it and, being an unpaid trainee, manage to find a job. Then you will begin to suffer the problems which, together with a management style that lacked care, led to my leaving teaching:
POOR RESOURCES: tape players that were unreliable and liable to ruin a lesson plan at a moment's notice. Fifteen dictionaries between however many classes as were timetabled on French simultaneously. Text books that the children either found ridiculously easy (top sets) and unchallenging, or had too much text in (bottom sets). Some new books appeared in my last months there, but a pantomime ensued; a rota to share 90 books between 200 children, each child had to have the same book each week - much valuable lesson time was wasted.
CLASS SIZES: a favourite moan of teachers this, but teaching 30 children in a bottom set, managing challenging behaviour and sorting out tape players, dictionaries, missing books, etc... simultaneously for 30 children is bound to be more difficult than teaching 20. Opportunities for spoken French, where the bottom sets really shone, were limited: with classes that size, in 35 minutes each child would be heard for less than a minute.
Modern approaches to language teaching mean that the days of chanting verbs or even sitting in a language lab are over. Target language is the order of the day - every word is in the language from the moment the pupils enter a classroom. Here is not the place to debate the virtues of this method, but it has brought more fun into pupils' lessons - games, drama, IT and videos are part of lessons in many schools. But if you're teaching in a school where the IT facilities available to you are two clapped out 286s and an Apple Mac covered in an inch and a half of chalk dust, all between five classes, then IT in the national curriculum is a bit of a joke. Booking a proper IT room meant having to grovel to the teacher who is supposed to be in there, and carting books and dictionaries around there for 35 minutes. Drama and games for classes of 30 and upwards in rooms built for 25 pupils required a degree of organisation that a military commander would be proud of.
Languages teachers often complain of a lack of interest from their pupils. Pupils can be motivated by games, drama, IT and decent books, but only if their teachers are also motivated. Disenchanted teachers produce disenchanted pupils.
Language teaching is a fight:
n With parents who have had no experience, or negative experiences, of language learning at school.
n With the media who portray Britain as a nation of poor linguists, and reinforce the view that everyone in the world speaks English if you shout loudly and slowly.
n With other professionals who say: "Why should a child who has difficulties in English waste valuable time on another language?"
n With the children who soak up all these views.
n For money to be spent on expensive items, such as tape players, videos and software, rather than on library books, for example.
It is little wonder, then, that professionals give up the fight, battle weary, and retire to other jobs, where sparring qualifications are not necessary.
As for me, I have not spoken a word of French since I was leaving my teaching job, and said: "Au revoir, et bonnes vacances mes enfants."
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