Saturday, 24 December 2016

Chapter 8 Disillusion and the possibility of an exchange

Chapter 8

Disillusion and the possibility of an exchange

As I have already mentioned, “Tour de France” (the course we used from S1 to S4) had its weaknesses which led to frustration and dissatisfaction, and toward the end of the eighties a replacement was being sought. In March 1988, I suggested an approach based on contexts familiar to pupils but which was dependent (with substantial input) on class input. Our adviser at the time seemed very taken with this idea and offered to fund a cover teacher for me for two weeks to allow me to type up an outline of contexts, vocabulary and exercises which he would then have written up professionally and distributed.

I have to confess I was flattered and pleased to go down this route of possible career development as the traditional promotion route really didn’t appeal to me.

So, I spent two weeks beavering away and produced what amounted to a two-year course with a variety of contexts, vocabulary and suggestions for speaking, listening, reading and writing extensions. It was duly collected and the Headmaster received a very nice letter commending my professionalism.

And that was it. My “course” simply disappeared into the abyss of educational ideas.

Some time later I approached the subject with the adviser and he pointed out that my whole approach required substantial input from both teacher and pupil (though I had provided copious amounts of guidance, detail and vocabulary) which was seen, on reflection, as a major problem. In all fairness, although disappointing, this was something of a stumbling block as staff had enough to do delivering lessons without having to create them as well.

Of course, some twenty years later this might have been viewed more favourably under Curriculum for Excellence in which teachers were encouraged to depart from “normal” book-based work, but at the time it was, understandably, rejected.

I was quite demoralised. Although I understood why my work had not been picked up, it pained me to think my efforts served no purpose. More importantly, I had thoroughly enjoyed producing the materials and would have liked to pursue such endeavours, and an alternative means of moving forward which seemed to have been proffered was now withdrawn. I had been at the school for some seven years, having intended to see out my probationary period of two years there, and I had itchy feet. I was reasonably happy, but I felt there may be other possibilities elsewhere. This feeling was compounded by the fact my father died a couple of years previous to these events and, as is often the case, loss of that kind invites reflection on values, purpose and the future, and I was no longer sure of what I was doing and why I was doing it.

I needed a change and Arthur helped me on that route by organising an interview for me with the bureau for international educational visits and exchanges.

To my astonishment, one of the members of the panel had been my own teacher of French in S2 and S3, Mr Joe Wake! He was responsible for ensuring the standard of French of candidates, and after pointing out to him that this was the first time in some sixteen years that we had spoken to one another in French, he seemed happy that I could communicate adequately and announced that he was entirely satisfied with the level of my language skills.

The rest of the interview went smoothly and thus I took my first steps toward spending the following academic year in Rennes, Brittany.

While the school was happy to support my candidacy, there were a few misgivings about who exactly would replace me for the year. A colleague had undertaken the same process three years previously and while we appreciated having a native speaker and permanent source of cultural information in our midst, there were one or two areas where things didn’t go entirely smoothly.

Dominique (the exchange teacher) was a relatively small, balding, bespectacled, age-obsessed (he always gave his age as forty, though it transpired he was still thirty-nine) Corsican with a magnificently sculpted physique of which he was (rightly) very proud.

He was a fairly tense man not renowned for his sense of humour, and found it quite difficult to adapt to teaching his own language (rather than English), the course and methodologies we used to teach French, and of course his pupils and the relationship they expected to have with their teacher. He was also accustomed to doing everything at a steady pace and never seemed to be in a hurry to do anything.

At the start of his year with us (and, come to that, throughout his stay), he had a few discipline/relationship problems as French teachers tend to be a little more distant than their Scottish counterparts and have expectations of pupil-teacher relationships which differ from those that frequently apply in Scotland. He didn’t cope well with questioning and challenge, and was of the opinion that pupils should simply accept his authority. When I gently suggested that he could perhaps make some effort to get on with his pupils and thus win their esteem, it appeared he just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) understand that concept.

I have to gain their respect?”

It was really all a matter of culture and adaptation, but therein lay the problem.

Dominique insisted on a relatively dry and traditional approach whereby he would present the work and it was up to the pupils to meet the standard or not, whereas our course book was built on strategies and methodologies which aimed to engage and develop personal communication. As he was clearly struggling with this aspect, I wrote out some forty lesson plans (all very simple and straightforward), but he abandoned these after about three classes.

While most of the staff made some effort in terms of clothing (shirt, tie, reasonably smart outfits), Dominique persisted in wearing casual clothing (as per expectations in the French education system) and often wore rather large and heavy walking or climbing boots which tended to attract attention.
I once was conducting a speaking test in the base adjacent to my first-floor room, with the pupil facing the open door which looked out on to the corridor. As my pupil gallantly tried to answer my questions in French he was suddenly distracted by the sight of Dominique passing by the open door, slowly but steadily measuring his pace in his sizeable climbing boots, clutching a bottle of water and looking as though it had required quite an effort to get this far up the stairs and along the corridor.

“I know we’re quite high up on the first floor, but that’s ridiculous!” he said, remarkably astutely, as I stifled my desire to laugh and repeated my question in French.

Dominique was given the use of a new Citroen 2CV during his stay by his exchange partner, and toward the end of the year he very kindly invited Arthur and me to lunch at a local restaurant and insisted on transporting us all in his car.

It is common for foreign drivers who are unused to driving on the left to occasionally wander into the right-hand lane, causing considerable anxiety to oncoming drivers, or to keep so far to the left they almost mount the pavement and virtually invite fellow road users to overtake them. Dominique found a novel solution to both these potential problems. While both going to the restaurant and returning to the school, he opted to drive down the middle of the road thus avoiding the two traditional problematic approaches, but doing very little to avoid all other traffic. This was compounded by the fact that he undertook both journeys at his usual pace and proceeded at no more than 20 mph.

On our return, and with magnificent understatement, Arthur whispered to me, “That was a bit hairy, wasn’t it?”

The result of all this was that the Headmaster expressed a desire to meet my exchange partner before giving final approval to my year-long exchange.

I met up with Claire (my proposed exchange partner) at a train station in Paris during the Easter break of 1989. (I thought it best to spend a week or so in France to re-acclimatise myself to French culture and life before spending an entire year teaching English in a Collège (a secondary school for S1 to S4 pupils) in Rennes.) All went well and we spent a pleasant hour or so chatting about ourselves, our schools and our hopes for our exchange. Claire had been an assistante in Scotland some twenty years before and she clearly wanted to recapture some of the pleasure and benefit she had gained from that experience. She struck me as a very competent and confident individual who was keen to make our exchange work. We organised a visit to Invergordon in May so she could see the school and meet the Headmaster.

Everything went well during that visit. The Head was suitably impressed and concurred with my thoughts on my partner, and Claire seemed very happy with what she saw of Invergordon Academy.

Everything was in place for our exchange to start in August 1989 and all augured well, or so it seemed ….

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