In June this year, I will have taught English in France for four full years. These four years have been as much a learning experience as a teaching one. How did I end up being an English teacher in France?
Numbers, Numbers, Numbers
Never have I thought that I would become a teacher, and an English teacher to boot. My tertiary education was in Finance and Economics. It was expected of me to clinch one of the highly coveted finance jobs, be it in a financial institution, or a financial position in non-financial sectors. So, there I was, for 12 years, a clog in the wheel in the convoluted world of finance:
Generating sales figures, gathering data, analysing numbers, producing statistics, justifying valuation, and verifying results.
Reports, Reports, Reports
These numbers were usually not to be presented in their raw form, especially when your employers needed to justify to clients that the fees, trailing with zeros, paid out were not in vain. The end products usually arrived in the form of a report that was painstakingly prepared by yours faithfully. The thickness of report, in part, depended on how fat the fees were. So, that was my job: crunching numbers and churning reports. At times, I felt that clients were only interested in the final numbers, which could normally be found in the executive summary, located on the first few pages of the report. As long as these figures were within their range of expectations, the rest of the report was just procedural embellishment.
My point is that my that former professional background has not much relevance to my current profession as an English teacher. Other than the fact that English was the working language, which I used on a daily basis, both oral and written, and that I have a good grasp of the financial and economic jargons.
Back To School
English was not my strongest subject in school during my primary and secondary studies. I cannot recall what was being taught in class. The only memories of English lessons that I had were those with an English teacher, who was also my form teacher, in primary school. It was not what he taught during the lessons that left an impression on me. Rather it was his unconventional teaching methods, at least unconventional for the 1980s.
One of his approaches to force us speak English was making us pay 10 cents each time for not speaking English in his classes. Each time we uttered a non-English word, each time we broke out in our mother tongue, we would reluctantly dig into our pockets for a coin and dropped it into a big glass jar, placed at one corner of the teacher’s desk.
In the beginning, one could hear sharp, distinct “clink” “clink” sounds as the coin hit the bottom or the side of the jar. As the time flew by, the sounds became blunted as the jar filled up. By the end of the year, the jar could be turned into a heavy dumbbell; the money raised was used to fund our class outings.
As for English grammar, I have almost no recollection of any grammar points been drilled into me. Only a fuzzy memory of having to memorise the past tense of various irregular verbs and how to use continuous tense correctly. That is the extent to which I could recall of the instructions on English grammar.
I don’t remember ever having to demystify the differences between present perfect and past tense, differentiate the four main types of conditionals, understand when a gerund or an infinitive is to be used, or memorise phrasal verbs. What is a “phrasal verb”? And a “gerund”? What is a conditional and why do we need so many types? All these terms did not exist in my life before France, at least that’s what my memories tell me. Or was I just suppressing some traumatising childhood memories of English lessons? Perhaps my teachers did try to inculcate grammar rules in me, but to no avail?
However, I do remember the sessions when I had to write the English compositions, and those sessions did not elicit favourable reminiscences. At every session, I would spend half the allocated assignment time staring helplessly at the blank blue-lined page placed before my eyes. Spinning stories was clearly not my forte. As the minutes ticked away to half time, I would scramble to put down first words that were remotely connected to the topic, on the blank page. Words that would then be often erased, and re-written or replaced by another, until some form of a sentence appeared. Each assignment was like a visit to the dentist – each word agonisingly extracted and spat out. This process would continue as I ploughed through the assignment to reach the minimum number of words required.
As you can imagine, English was neither my favourite nor my strongest subject in school.
What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?
That said, you may be surprised when I tell you that being a librarian was one of my two dream jobs, if an adult ever asked me “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The other being an artist. Since a young age, I have always been a voracious reader, and I read mostly in English. My appetite for books did not secrete enough creative juice for me to write good English compositions.
So, how did I end up being a teacher, an English teacher?
Then, there is my temperament. My definition of a teacher, especially someone who teaches the younger generations, should possess most, if not all, of the following qualities: patient, caring, considerate, knowledgeable, passionate about what she does, good communication skills, strong work ethic etc. My friends and close ones would be in a conundrum if I ask them upfront to pick out the different qualities which are applicable to me: they would either expose me to the cruel truth, and hope that I would not be mortally hurt, or tell a barefaced lie to protect my feelings.
No professional experience. No academic knowledge of the subject. No relevant teaching qualities.
It is a banal story. Wife follows husband to new country for his work. Wife gives up her career…Nah…the second part is not true. The commonality ends at wife follows husband to new country for his work. I did not give up a high-paying, glamourous job for my other half at the time when I left Hong Kong for France.
I had been living in Hong Kong for four years when I decided to follow my soon-to-be husband to France. Perhaps it was a premature mid-life crisis, or perhaps I was one of the lucky few who realised early that my job did not bring me any sort of gratification, except in financial terms. The job was actually sapping my energy mentally and emotionally. At that point of my life, the past time that I picked up in Hong Kong—trail running— was my only respite. Pushing my physical limits by devouring kilometres of forest trails and racking up thousands of metres of elevation gain in races was the only way to show that I was still in control of my life. Be it reckless or wise, I quit my job 3 years after I arrived in Hong Kong, permanently left the financial industry after 12 years in Singapore and Hong Kong. By and by, without securing a new job.
A few weeks after I quit the financial world, through word-of-mouth, I was put in touch with a French couple who were trail running enthusiasts themselves and needed help with their budding English local trail running magazine. The serendipitous situation secured me with an editorial job that I was passionate about. No more number crunching and report churning. No more slogging 10 hours a day behind the computer screen.
No more obligatory makeup that clogged up my pores, heels that pinched my toes, business suits that constrained my natural movements.
The monetary compensation was less than a third of my previous job, but I was much more content than before. That lasted for more than a year before I decided to pack my bags and leave for France.
I enjoyed doing just nothing the first few weeks after my arrival in France. It gave me the opportunity to explore Orsay, my new city, and re-integrate into the French culture, after 20 years of absence. The first time I came to France was in 1999 when I was here as a jeune fille au pair, staying with a host family.
Many a morning, I would spend a couple of hours at my favourite boulangerie, La Pause Gourmand, leisurely breaking my fast, catching up on the news or reading a book. In the later part of morning, I would explore the new city by doing a short run. For the rest of the day, I would self-study French. Once a week I would attend a French class.
With a smattering of French, remnants from the 1.5 years of sojourn in Paris 20 years ago, I also started unhurriedly exploring job opportunities. Life was idyllic.
I had been forewarned before I left for France that finding a stable job here would be tough due to the high unemployment rate. The person wasn’t exaggerating. The situation was not made easier by my smattering of French. Job search, even if it’s in your native language is not easy. Imagine, I had to undertake the whole process—internet searching, writing CV, writing motivation letters, responding to e-mails, attending interviews—in French.
I landed my first job five months after I settled in France, and it was a part-time English teaching position with a language school in Paris. The compensation and working conditions were not ideal.
Beggars cannot be choosers. After four months of forced nonproductiveness, I was exhilarated for just clinching a job, not having to consume my rapidly dwindling savings, and feeling being useful again! Besides, at that point in time, I was thinking teaching English was just a stint, while I looked for something else. Four years later, I am still an English teacher. Despite the ups and downs over the four years, I like what I am doing overall.
That is how I became an English teacher.