The Best Part of My Job
The thing I’m most passionate about in my job is the building and development of learning communities amongst students. Foreign language teachers like me are always looking to foster good communication, and I am, of course, excited by the thrill of initiating conversations across the classroom or lecture theatre, but in the last couple of years what has stimulated me most has been using online environments to allow student interaction that is different, and perhaps more profound.
My first venture into harnessing the online world to nurture the student as expert began last year, when I invited students to become virtual mentors to their peers, and was amazed by the enthusiastic response (despite all students having to take the time to complete online training). Now the nuts and bolts of student academic life – choosing modules, preparing to go abroad – are partly imparted to the uninitiated by those who have most recent experience of them.
Building on this principle of knowledge sharing, I’ve spent the past year working with colleagues to develop a Moodle site designed particularly to cater for the needs of students undertaking the Year Abroad. We wanted these students to feel closely connected to us and to each other despite the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles that separated us. We wanted them to keep one eye on their academic learning – otherwise the return to final-year study can be a bit of a shock – but we also wanted them to embrace the open-endedness of this year to set their own learning agenda and take on new challenges. And, most importantly, we wanted to create an online space where the students would spur each other on and track their progress together. In its apparent riskiness, the year abroad spontaneously generates empathy and a collective will to succeed that draws students to each other, even as they pursue very different activities.
The result was a mixture of formal set tasks and regular, informal prompts: it was a real pleasure to seed the various forums on the site with low key, ‘fun’ activities to stimulate students’ reflections on the culture and language surrounding them: virtual cinema, reading and cookery clubs; regional guides and discussions of linguistic variation emerged, discussed in ever-improving French. Most heartening for me, though, was the willingness of the students to work their way towards self-motivation and production with the most minimal of prompts from me. It was a student who posted ‘noticed any improvements in your French yet’ to her cohort before I had had the change to, eliciting the response ‘Thank you so much for posting this – I thought I was the only person to have this same awkward feeling that my French is not progressing’ and an ensuing interrogation of why the problem existed and how to solve it. Challenged to come up with their own topics for written discussion, students pondered that perennial challenge for exam setters – how do you create a good question – debated methods, supplied examples, in French and in English. Cajoled by me to share professional skills acquired, the language assistants set out lesson plans, discussed bullying and appropriate terms of employment; Erasmus students shared advice on how to manage the challenges of the notorious French university administration system. After Christmas, now skilled each in their own management of cultural, linguistic and professional domains, another student posted ‘Howdy peoples. I thought maybe it would be a good idea to have a forum where we could post things that could be of particular interest to next year's YAers’ . The response was enthusiastic, and we now have a body of resources to use at our forthcoming meeting for outgoing students.
The most rewarding aspect of the site has been the opportunity it has afforded me to see students flourish in an open space and to appreciate the depth of reflection that can result. Encouragingly, it does seem that offering some direction to students by way of simple scaffolded tasks assists this kind of deep learning – the Year Abroaders’ Facebook page, set up by the group, doesn’t go anywhere near as far in producing self-examination and discernment. So, with that thought in mind I haven’t yet got too worried that by promoting students as experts I’m doing myself out of a job. I have learned an awful lot, though!
My least favourite part of the job
A tricky one to answer. I think it’s probably being frustrated by the rooms we teach in. In Humanities we are not blessed with the kind of facilities on offer at the Reinvention Centre, and at times I would dearly love to be able to make regular use of a visualiser in language classes, or to structure group teaching around computer work. I suppose in my ideal world I would have a classroom I could call my own, which I could prepare for students so that I could set up an enticing learning environment from the minute they walk through the door!
My most important reasons for being a teacher
I think it’s probably the excitement of meeting new ideas and new perspectives on a daily basis. Teaching is a dynamic, unpredictable process; I love the fact that no matter how many times you teach a text – or even teach the subjunctive! – there will always be more to say. I also enjoy the pastoral side of teaching and learning. Some students overcome all kinds of obstacles to get their degree, and it’s a real pleasure to be involved in helping them find their way towards their goal.
The Best Lessons I’ve learned from my students
Well, apart from being taught how to dance with a giant fluffy dolphin in my grammar lecture, where I received a rag week ‘hit’, some of the most interesting things I’ve learned have come from student alumni who keep in touch and show me the numerous different places a language degree can take you. Years after I’d extolled the virtues of spending time in France cheaply by volunteering on archaeological digs, our departmental secretary rediscovered a former student in the pages of the National Trust magazine having become responsible for the estates at Hardwick Hall (it wasn’t so much the French that left an impression on her as the work of retrieval and presentation on that summer placement). Because our students are tasked with finding opportunities to live and work in other cultures, they are very adaptable and embrace all kinds of challenges. This year I’ve learned from my students abroad about volunteering in French prisons, writing poetry with French school children, and getting caught up with party bigwigs at a French UMP rally.
Pearls of wisdom from my colleagues
Many years ago, when discussing how terrifying I found language teaching, a colleague told me she thought that it wasn’t necessarily the case that one got more knowledgeable as a teacher, but that gradually one cared less about making mistakes in the classroom. Whilst I don’t think she was quite as nonchalant as she wanted to appear when encouraging me, this pearl of wisdom has helped me loosen up and take risks. Gradually I have realised that often it’s not what you say but the way that you say it that prompts students to take up and run with an idea in their own way.
Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence, 2012
Click here to view Catherine's departmental page.