Teach English in JiAngjunyao Zhen - Baotou Shi

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As English continues to gain prominence as a global language, countries around the world have undertaken the challenge of making English instruction a core component of public education. This is certainly true within the European Union where a commitment to multilingualism is enshrined in public policy and English, near ubiquitously, is a required subject of study (Fact Sheets on the European Union). Despite their shared goal of cultivating English proficiency, certain European states have had more success at this than others. In recent years, France has made some gains in comparison to its neighbors (English First English Proficiency Index), however, there is an ongoing discussion in the country about how English instruction, and public education in general can be improved. I had the personal privilege of gaining hands on teaching experience in France, and as a result, I was made aware of the grievances commonly espoused by students and teachers alike. A year after I completed my undergraduate studies, I was offered a position as English assistant to middle and high school students in metropolitan France’s stunning Mediterranean outpost, Corsica. Heading into the experience, I had my own preconceived notions about what teaching English in a European country would be like. I rather naively thought that the majority of my students would have a high level of English proficiency. As I quickly realized, however, this was not the case. Many students who had studied English in school for several years struggled to make simple statements about themselves and found it very difficult to parse even simple texts. Such cases were ubiquitous enough to leave little doubt that there was room for improvement on a systematic level. A number of incidents I observed gave me some idea of the types of issues at play. Firstly, I was struck by the severity with which some teachers (though not all) reprimanded their students over small matters both related and unrelated to English. In some cases when a student made the same error twice or asked for a piece of information that had already been given, they were greeted by a sarcastic, or even hostile, reply. In short, had these teachers calculated on discouraging class participation, they could not have found a surer method. In most every class, even those taught by more considerate teachers, students would stare blankly at myself or their instructor, and no small amount of cajolery was needed to rouse participation. It would be wrong, however, to lay the blame at the feet improper disciplinary measures, as widespread a problem as that may be. In my personal experience I found that the problems around student-teacher rapport went both ways, and the result is a readily perceptible tension between students and their teachers. I can personally attest to the frustration I felt speaking in front of a classroom full of stoic teenagers all of whom seemed determined to speak as little English as possible. This situation did improve as I established greater rapport with the majority of my students, however, I found, to my disappointment, that a certain contingent had little intrinsic motivation to learn English but were instead motivated by marks. As I was not there to give them marks, these students felt little need to participate in my classes. I don’t intend, of course, to come down to hard on these students as I believe that their lack of motivation can be put down to broader cultural and systemic factors. An article in The Guardian newspaper quotes a French principle who describes his country’s education system as a “huge prehistoric animal unable to walk due to its own weight.” (Polly Curtis, 2011) While the article is now over eight years old, I can affirm that the issues it raises were still very lively topics of discussion amongst my colleagues while I worked in France. To summarize, the article’s two main points are that the French education system is outdated and overly centralized and that for cultural reasons academic success is conflated with social worth. Based on my observations, it seems that these two issues compound one another. Owing to the uniformity of the education system, teachers aren’t given broad freedom to come up with creative and engaging curriculum. Their success and that of their students is measured by a series of tests. Students feel and respond to the immense social pressure to do well on exams and as a result become more focused on the goal of succeeding at tests than on improving their English proficiency. In addition to describing these issues, the Guardian article also describes some measures being taken to try and address them. It mentions one school in which teachers are encouraged to treat students as individuals, give extra attention to those who need it, and perhaps most importantly, the notoriously difficult French marking system is done away with. I’ve mentioned already that in my role I was not expected to regularly grade students. While this did, I believe, limit the motivation of some students in my classes, it was also a blessing in that some students were more willing to step outside their comfort zone and practice new skills knowing that failure would not be punished. I believe that this is a crucial step for improving the quality of English education in France. While there are many issues at play, central to them all is the motivation and confidence of students. Fortunately, with the proliferation of media in English, students are now able to find content that interests them and in turn gain motivation which isn’t directly tied to marks. If I have the opportunity to teach in France again, I will take an approach with emphasizes the development of language skills and which makes use of students’ intrinsic motivation to engage with the English-speaking world. Sources Curtis, Polly. (2011, March 25). Revolt stirs in France’s schools against ‘elitist’ education system. The Guardian. (online) Language Policy. Fact Sheets on the European Union. EU Parliament. (online) English Proficiency Index. English First. (online)