With Christmas 2012 and the end-of-the-world doom-mongering which preceded it now but a memory, the students of Oxford have once again descended upon the city of dreaming spires, ready for another eight gruelling weeks of hard work, shameless hacking and general drunken debauchery. There is, however, one type of student who will not benefit from the various delights Oxford has to offer this term. For this student, there will be no coveted place on the guest list for President’s Drinks at the Union; no spare seat to listen in on the fascinating rowing debates which captivate entire dinner halls at college; and no Toby ‘Beerz’ Baker to tempt them with his alluring charisma to sample the glitz and glamour of Park End on a Wednesday night.
I am one such student, missing out on the perks of being at Oxford this term. This is because I am a third-year Modern Languages student, and as such I am currently living in France as part of my complusory year abroad. So while many of you will be frantically trying to get that essay or problem sheet done which is due in tomorrow but which you only thought about starting the night before, I will be busy chomping on onions and going “hoh-hee-hoh-hee-hoh”, as Alan Partridge once accurately put it.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s all plain sailing for us linguists this year. We are expected to put in a shift in one form or another, and upon arriving at the conclusion that spending a year at a French university would almost certainly lead to playing hours upon hours of Mario Kart with like-minded lazy students, and would therefore not exactly be conducive to improving my grasp of the French language, I decided to take a step into the unknown and have a go at teaching English at a French primary school instead.
Having never previously given a thought to pursuing teaching as a career path, I had no idea of what to expect as I took my first tentative steps into the school building. Indeed, my nerves weren’t exactly settled as one-by-one I was introduced to the classes I would be overseeing for the next few months, and after each introduction came the same trembling look of astonishment and awe from the wide-eyed, puff-cheeked faces of the schoolchildren. For the Star Wars aficionados among you, picture the reception C-3PO got from the Ewoks on the forest moon of Endor. For those of you who loathe/choose to ignore/aren’t well acquainted with George Lucas’ fantasy universe, imagine Ryan Gosling descending the love lift on a Saturday night edition of Take Me Out to a dumbstruck audience (disclaimer: in no way am I comparing myself to Ryan Gosling). And for those of you who have better things to do than spend a night in the company of Paddy McGuinness or Jar-Jar Binks (I can only begin to wonder why…), or who just want me to shut up and get on with it – well, I think you get the idea.
Yet as the teaching began and the days passed, and the children began to realise that behind this veneer of otherworldliness was just another boring, authoritative grown-up, I began to appreciate just how demanding, yet ultimately rewarding the job can be. There are, of course, the handful of unruly children who take obvious pleasure from the chaos which they cause and even more so from the desperate struggles of the teacher to maintain order. This is especially true when faced with a language barrier – I have now learnt that it takes more than just yelling “Arrête!” or “Tais-toi!” to silence the sniggering scallywags sitting at the back of the class. But this is just part and parcel of life as a schoolchild, that streak of mishief that each child possesses at a time when everything still seems so exciting – I defy anyone who, as a school pupil, did not at least occasionally find the funny side of the teacher’s travails.
And for every moment that descends the whole class into anarchy comes a moment which makes you forget all about the little blighter who has been driving you up the wall for the past 45 minutes. The last week before the Christmas holidays gave me the opportunity to go over some English vocabulary for our festive traditions with the French schoolchildren. I had prepared a set of flashcards for one of the classes, and as I went over the words in English with the schoolchildren I arrived at the last flashcard, which was a snowman. With the French for snowman being ‘un bonhomme de neige’, a more-or-less exact translation, I tried helping the children by explaining that the English for neige was snow, and that un bonhomme de neige followed the same formula as the names of the superheroes which they all knew and loved; Batman, Superman, Spiderman.
Asking them to remember this, I then posed the question:
“Un bonhomme de neige, c’est quoi en anglais?”
One of the girls in the front row was the first to raise her hand, and after a few seconds of taking in my ‘expert’ advice she came up with a response:
It was a response that both brutally exposed my shortcomings as a teacher and which typifies the joys of teaching, a job where no two days are the same and where one can never fully predict the wonderful, inadvertently amusing thought processes of the children, whose tireless enthusiasm and desire to learn makes it all worthwhile.