Version 2.0 – The Dilemma

Disclaimer: I am aware that, as an NQT, I know very little indeed about teaching.  My experience and knowledge are limited.  By writing this blog, I hope to critically engage with the theory and techniques that have been passed on to me, and based on which I have been judged.  All constructive criticism is welcome!

In my 18 months of teaching, I have been very lucky.  I have worked with many wonderful children, and in two schools full of extraordinary, dedicated and hard-working teachers.  I have seen some exceptional teaching, and have had the great fortune to learn from some wonderful practitioners.

When I started my NQT year, I found it easy to repeat the patterns of my training year.  I started with some momentum, which I maintained and then lost towards Christmas.  I had a paper problem: too much of it, and not much of it any good (sorry, MFL budget. Sorry, trees).  I spent quite a lot of my time thinking of the most ‘engaging’ way to teach the kids about colours, or animals.  It involved a lot of time, energy, powerpoints, pictures, downloading and adapting from TES… and, of course, paper.

A few months ago, I began to feel uneasy.  I was teaching the way I had been taught to teach, and my kids were doing… okay.  Not terribly, not wonderfully – about as well as could be expected when taught by a slightly stressed, very self-critical NQT.  Doubtless with a few more years’ experience, I would be able to turn that ‘okay’ progress into ‘good’ progress, or even ‘great’ progress.  Everything would surely be fine.

People who came to see me – from both MFL and non-MFL backgrounds – told me everything I was doing was fine, and that with a few tweaks it would be great; most of the kids tell me that they enjoy my lessons, and that languages are alright, fun even.

But the sense of unease remained.  I am teaching languages in a completely different way to how I was taught. I am using pictures, single word and short phrase presentations, building from picture+word to words+punctuation, as directed by mentors and managers.  We play games, we are active, we do a variety of activities. I get to integrate my love of music and drama into my lessons.

I didn’t learn like that.  I had rote learning, memorisation, textbooks, a few songs here and there, verb tables, drills.  Yes, I went to a grammar school, and was fortunate to find both learning and languages quite easy.  I learned both French and Spanish in this way, to a level that, 11 years after leaving school, I can recycle and reuse everything I learned then.  It stuck.

And I’m finding that, in the ‘words and pictures’ style, it doesn’t really stick.  Yes, some kids retain the information and can recall it in later lessons; some work really hard to commit their vocabulary and certain phrases to memory so that they can answer questions or do well in assessments.  Can they speak French? Barely.  Will they remember this stuff in six months, or a year?  Almost certainly not.

And it’s really HARD.  The process of devising lessons (our department is fairly new, so resources need to be made and revised regularly), creating resources, agonising over differentiation, creating schemes of work that cover both useful French and what’s contained in the exams, marking… It’s all really hard.  It’s hard for me, because I spend more time doing that than thinking about the best way to teach the language I love – what French is really useful, how to anticipate and deal with mistakes, make it challenging but manageable, give the kids confidence, help them to speak and understand and read and write French.

Worse, it’s hard for the kids.  They struggle, they find it difficult to recall words and phrases, they don’t always have what they need at their fingertips, let alone on the tip of their tongues, and when they’re handed a dictionary, they usually produce gobbledegook. I’ve noticed a polarisation in my classes: on one end, the kids who take the language and run with it and enjoy it and do well; on the other end, the kids who find it baffling and difficult to remember, who feel stupid in French, who get frustrated (rightly so) and give up.

At present, the effort I’m putting into teaching is not being matched by the outcomes for the kids, and that means that something is wrong.  Something feels wrong.  Like I said, I’m teaching in a way that I was never taught as a child, using techniques that nobody used then, but by some miracle I came out proficient in the languages I learned. I remember enjoying languages not just because of the feelings of sheer joy at understanding a foreign tongue, but because I felt like I was good at them.

Maybe one day I’ll enable pupils to feel that joy of decoding French or Spanish and making sense of something that was previously nonsense to them; however, I feel I should start by showing my pupils that they can be good at languages, to give them that sense of confidence and achievement that I felt in my school days, and engage them through an incipient mastery of French rather than because we do blindfolded obstacle courses or watch film trailers.

And certainly not because they spend most of their time looking at pictures.

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