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Teaching 101

Teaching 101

Paper, papier. Pen, crayon. Table, table. Chair, chaise. Black­board, tableau. Note­book, cah.…

I wish John would shut up. But you see, John is so enthu­si­as­tic about his French train­ing that he has to mum­ble vocab­u­lary on his way to class. For now, I’m try­ing to open the bloody class­room door. Stuck, as usual. Or… do I have the right set of keys?

Keys, clés.

John added a new word to his vocab­u­lary. He’s already pulling his elec­tronic trans­la­tor out of his brief­case to check the trans­la­tion. John is fifty-something. He’s an exec­u­tive. His employees dread his well-known out­bursts — he’s your basic worka­holic. The guy is a bit short-tempered, indeed. But here, John is Jean and he learns French. No choice: his posi­tion was recently changed to bilin­gual imperative.

The door finally opens and I let John in. The class won’t start before another 30 min­utes and I just have the time to eat my sand­wich. Another day at work. I pull a brown paper bag out of my bag and grab a news­pa­per. Hope­fully, John will get the mes­sage. I’m just com­ing from a three hours class at the City Hall and the last thing I want to do right now is small talk. This is my san­ity time. Before another three hours class.

Thirty min­utes later, peo­ple are gath­er­ing in the hall­way. If I don’t open the door wide, they won’t come in. Despite the fact that the room has a huge glass door and they can see me sit­ting at the far end of the big meet­ing table. I won­der how long they would wait but I don’t feel like exper­i­ment­ing today. I get up and go open the door.

Stu­dents come in, chat­ting. A cou­ple of them are still hooked up to their Black­berry and all of them place their cell­phone on the table in front of them.

Carla won’t come today, she’s sick. Mike will be thirty min­utes late. Greg won’t be here.

I some­times wish I could require a note from their par­ents. Unfor­tu­nately, it’s very unlikely my stu­dents will do it. After all, they are all between 30 and 60. I’m the baby of the class but they take me seri­ously. They’d bet­ter. I’m the teacher.

I let them chat for a cou­ple of min­utes while I pull out my fold­ers and my pens. I then raise my voice:

Ça va bien aujourd’hui ?

I carry about thirty pho­to­copies with me. Time to lighten my bag: I dis­trib­ute them and try to bribe my stu­dents in tak­ing the absen­tees’ copy. No way I’m bring­ing them back next week, only to find out more peo­ple didn’t show up.

Alright, time to cor­rect the assign­ments. I asked them to write a let­ter, let’s see what they came up with. I love cor­rect­ing papers. Armed with my slightly leak­ing red pen, I read aloud and scrib­ble notes in the mar­gins. I dis­sect. I explain. Clear­ing up a spe­cific gram­mar point makes me happy. It’s like untan­gling a knot. I can tell whether my stu­dents under­stand just by look­ing at them. So far so good—they even take notes today. Such atten­tive­ness isn’t com­mon: the class­room is a place for drama, a place to vent a bit, to for­get the hier­ar­chy. I often com­pare the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment to the “1984″ novel: some words don’t make any sense (“account­abil­ity”, “person-month”…) nor do some politics.

This is a writ­ing class. Stu­dents have a pretty good French level but they need to prac­tice their writ­ing because they all hold bilin­gual posi­tions. Each class, I give them assign­ment: usu­ally writ­ing a short let­ter, an email, min­utes of a meet­ing etc. Prob­lem is, when they print out their paper at the office, a few of them reported it was mis­tak­enly sent to trans­la­tion. Indeed, Eng­lish speak­ers are required to have any­thing they write trans­lated by the trans­la­tion bureau. No mat­ter how good their French is. What’s the point of this class, then? Well, in the­ory, they have to be able to write in French. But it will never happen. So, when they print out their assign­ment, my stu­dents have to specify it’s for their French classes, oth­er­wise, it’s cor­rected and trans­lated auto­mat­i­cally. Stu­pid pol­i­tics, I said…

One of the stu­dents looks like she’s on the verge of tears. This is typ­i­cally a case of “I failed the com­pe­ti­tion for a new posi­tion”. What adds to her mis­ery is the fact that mum­bling John was sit­ting at the panel—I’ll learn that at the end of the class. Ouch. There’s more drama in my class­room than in the OC.

Take the woman sit­ting at the far left. She’s obvi­ously preg­nant. Very preg­nant as a mat­ter of fact. But she didn’t men­tion it, prob­a­bly because she can’t: her man­ager is sit­ting in front of her and she didn’t offi­cially tell him. So we all have to pre­tend she’s not preg­nant. Office pol­icy: she will tell him when she’s sure she can take her mater­nity leave and mean­while, we avoid look­ing at her nice rounded belly.

By the end of the class, I have usu­ally fin­ished my big bot­tle of water and I have red ink all over my hands. I let them go ten min­utes ear­lier—so that they get a chance to linger a bit. I pro­vided three hours of free­dom. Teach­ing 101: stay away from office politics.


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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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