Humanising Language Teaching
What have School Inspectors done to me, inside?
At the very beginning
Nothing! The inspectors taught me nothing, at least not when I felt I most needed their help when I started teaching English in a French secondary school. That was quite a long time ago, but I remember vividly, or rather, still with smouldering anger, how desperate I was for advice on what I could possibly do with the students I had in my charge. Back then, I had to teach 3 classes for the first time in my life and the inspectors gave us some training on Thursdays. Funnily, my memory of everything that they told us on the first Thursday we had with them is very precise, together with the memory of the panic I was going through. 'Find a visual document for your first class to get your students speaking' still rings clearly in my ears, and that's what I did. I have learnt since to rely on my students to see many more things than I do in visual documents, I am quite hopeless. That's probably why I resented the blunt advice for quite a while, since, to me, it felt like a dead-end wass of communicating with my students rather than a way of making a good first contact. As for the very long lecture a male inspector gave us on the official regulations that we had to follow, with all the new teachers of English of the year sitting motionless and bored to tears, in a university amphitheatre, it remains, in my view, the very model of what I should avoid doing to anyone listening to me. (are you?)
And then, three inspectors came to my classes
Being a state school teacher, I do not depend on inspectors for placement or pay, and I often wonder what made them and still makes them so important in my eyes. One of the things I heard, too, during that first Thursday, was that there were no models for a good class, that we had to devise things ourselves and fortunately, this has worked well for me. Only three inspectors have ever come to see my work in my classes, and all were much more important to me than I would care to admit, as a responsible adult. One came twice in the course of the first year, a second one fifteen years later, followed by a third at a more 'normal' gap, six years later. Their successive reports on my work impacted me either very positively or very negatively, as is usually the case with me. The first visit was very positive , the second one reduced me to nothingness for a few months and I was put back in the saddle by the third one. Shall I tell you the whole story? I wonder as I'm writing, how many of us would be ready to share inspection stories? A lot of us, I guess.
Inspection number one
Let me go back some twenty years, to that first year again, and to a very positive contact with 'my' inspector. She was quite an old woman and she had had cancer, I think, which made her distant but strongly humane. I don't think she ever gave lectures (or if she did, I didn't attend any; I had learnt my lesson about Thursdays). She came on two visits to my classes and was immensely helpful. I still follow the steps she suggested when I mark my students : in the area of oral work she suggested additions or modifications to the class she had seen, and very concise ideas for solving career-long problems. She really spoke to me. Her written report bore no trace of reproach but underlined all the qualities she felt I had which make me a good teacher. Some colleagues think it is ridiculous for someone to judge you after just one short visit. I think it is not impossible. In a few minutes this inspector gave me a confidence boost which lasted me a very long time . I made a point of trying to do what she had said with my students since it felt so right : What I can say to them orally is different from what can be said on the page. Always try to be positive, this woman taught me, especially if the message is likely to be durable.
Are we like students with our inspectors, then? We teachers have stayed at school, after all, we must like the learning process for ourselves. Well, I know I like it, and I see contacts with other people very often as something which can teach me things. In this case it did. In the following years, whenever I felt I couldn't do the job properly for one reason or other, I read her report again and more than once found the energy I needed in its pages.
When the second inspector came, I felt reasonably confident. I also decided to test our institution, which she represented, possibly in a childish way : I deliberately wanted to show her something that mattered to me, something I had learnt on a course in UK, something that might surprise my students. I felt rebellious towards the hierarchy and would show her something different, to see how she reacted. She was a woman of my age, or even younger and I must have felt in competition, somehow. My students played the game I had planned, but she did not. She probably could not. I noticed her reaction. I hated her for not understanding what was going on during that dictation. Her body language indicating that she wanted to see what she had come to see. I sensed I had to improvise a questions-and-answers lesson for her instead of carrying on with what I had planned. We nearly had a row when we talked afterwards and her report bears traces of this dislike.
What is this woman's job, I wondered. Is it not to encourage new techniques and teachers' creativity? Well, in a curious way she did, since she appreciated my ability to improvise and change the course of lesson and over the next few years, I stopped looking for ideas in Resource Books and relied on my own resources on the spur of the moment in class. Well, in the end, even with some anger (still?) I did learn something from this visit, too: I learnt to trust my reactions to the students and to let them improvise a lot more. What's more, I thought, if someone who lacks understanding has power in our Education Nationale, why should I not take my own small share of it? I started writing about teaching, going as far as to apply to become an inspector myself. Somehow, she has helped me become more adult in my job, less dependant on the judgement of others, including of bosses like herself. I failed the inspectors' exam, by the way, but I may decide to take it again, if one day I really feel like leaving teenagers and starting to work among adults who may have some power to 'think' the system through, at least partially. Yet, my third inspection has fully given me back the taste for fun classes, with young people playing with the language. So I'm not ready to change jobs, yet.
I took hours to prepare my lesson. This time, I thought, I would show the inspector a game that she could understand. This time our contact was light and creative. She understood and so did the students and I felt I was stamped as 'good teacher' again. And I needed it. Again, as my students need my appreciation, I need people above me in the hierarchy to give me some recognition. Does this happen inside or outside me, I don't know, but I need more than the money to feel secure in how I work. Inspectors scare us, and, in my case have made me angry or caused me to be provocative more than once. I have a vague feeling this is one of the reasons I still go to school. Somehow, they embody the complex relationship I have with power, support and learning, which makes me do the job the way I do it.