ETAS Journal- vol.30 Voices from Greece

An English teacher or a Language School owner?

What it takes to serve two different roles in one.

Welcome to my world, or maybe…two worlds? The more I think about it, the more I realise that they’re ,indeed, two totally different worlds. The one of an English teacher and the other one of a school owner’s. I experienced this, once again, the previous week. It was registration time for my school and I had to deal with confused parents every day. What would you say to a parent asking:”What’s the appropriate age for my kid to start learning English?” “Exposure to the language at a pre-school age would be more than beneficial”, most of us would say. Well…not in this case, you see, children in Greece start  having English lessons at the age of 7 or 8. Parents are of the opinion that their children should firstly learn to read and write in their mother tongue. And the truth is that they might be right up to a point since the Ministry of Education has not included CLIL in public schools yet. So, how could 4-5 year old infants, who haven’t developed their cognitive skills, learn a foreign language in a formal classroom environment where they  are exposed to the target language for an hour or two each week and the teacher focuses mainly on teaching the alphabet, some grammar rules and the basic vocabulary? This is almost what happens to some private foreign languages schools in my country. Even though teachers would love to use drama, poetry ,rhymes and games  in the lesson so as to get very young learners immersed to the full in the foreign language by learning through real life experiences, they are apprehensive of the parents’ reaction. The latter disregard such methods assuming that they are a waste of time as long as their little heroes do not come back home with a pile of homework assigned. Another point that should be also mentioned is that both learners and their families are not actually interested in learning the English language. All that matters is merely acquiring a certificate. The sooner, the better! If only it were possible for students to sit for B2 level exams at the age of 10 or 12!

I do not blame the parents. The public educational system is also exam-oriented. At the age of 16, students start preparing for the university entrance exams and this takes almost 2 years. They’re so fully occupied with lessons at school that they do not have time to do anything else, not even to follow their extra curriculum activities; far more to study for English lessons. And as certificates (B2 level and above) are considered a “Must” for a child’s future pursuit of best professional career, we end up having frustrated parents and miserable students.

Now, as a teacher of English, I do know that it’s far too difficult or I dare to say impossible for students to reach the required B2 level at the age of 13 (though I’ve met rare exceptions). The standards required by the CERF are too high for the Greek students. No matter which syllabus you’re going to follow, which booklist you’re going to choose, whichever methodology approach you apply, the result remains the same – dead end. Students are not mature enough to deal with specific parts of the exams. They haven’t developed their ability to think critically in order to perform well in the reading tasks of the exams. And what about writing? The kids themselves call it “a nightmare”. They’re to express their views or argue on issues they’ve never come across. And we have to admit that writing is not all about set phrases or formulaic expressions, as some of my colleagues might support. Encouraging and inspiring creative thinking is what the students actually need. Thus, we should act as role models to them by being resourceful, adaptable, able to “deviate” a little from the lesson plan and implement creative tasks which will initiate learners to show their innate skills and interests, and think critically (“outside the box”) coming up with authentic ideas.

On the other hand, I have to see my role as a school owner- a businesswoman. A manager of a private language school who is responsible for recruiting the staff and monitor its performance, managing accounts and bills and attending meetings with my personal accountant and business counselor in regular basis. I have to make sure that the school, which is like all other businesses, is financially viable and profitable. Meeting deadlines and living up to my customers’ expectations is sometimes really stressful and unbearable. But that’s the price I have to pay as a businesswoman involved in the rat race of a highly competitive job market in Greece. I always point out my country as it is one where school owners have to be teachers, managers, accountants, Director of Studies and lots more at the same time. Of course there are large school organizations with experts and qualified staff in each department (marketing, accountancy, teacher training, etc) but these ones exist only in few of the biggest cities. The reason why is more than profound – large population means more customers which in turn means high business turnout. Hence school owners, in these cases, are able to afford such services offered by specialists, free themselves from these burdens and commit themselves to teaching.

Still, most of us feel a bit nervous when it comes to meet parents who want their children to be enrolled in a course. They have a lot of saying to their offspring’s education and combined with the lack of proper information about the teaching of the English language make them rather demanding. However, these parents are also my customers (I hate this term by the way). How am I going to convince them that getting a certificate requires specific skills, a lot of practice and of course time?  Am I risking to lose a “customer” if I tell them the truth? What about if I’m honest and speak myself as a teacher? It’s a vicious circle…

I run the risk all the time. I do try to have a discussion in depth with parents, to make them aware that learning English is not just a certificate. It’s all about education! It’s about teaching learners to think, to understand, to integrate what they have learnt and move on one more step on becoming better human beings. Education is not supposed to be the transmission of knowledge from the educator to the learner, though this should be the primary purpose. It is the transfer of knowledge from school to real life. What’s the point of having memorized endless lists of words and grammar rules without being able to use them in real life situations? What is there beyond certified knowledge of another language? Shouldn’t we pose such questions to those who are interested in learning English? Shouldn’t parents be aware of the fact that even in a language school teachers struggle to inspire virtues and find the hidden treasure in the soul of each child? I suppose I’m a dreamer. The financial crisis, my country is facing these years, has badly affected all of us. We have lost our faith and trust to values such honesty and dignity. No one is proud of that. But we must overcome obstacles each one day. Payment cuts, taxes and unemployment are the daily topic discussions. Most teenagers are to face a gloomy future. Some of them see no future at all. Parents are there to support and provide them with all the qualities and qualifications needed spending every little penny wisely. I sympathise with them wholeheartedly on the tight budget but , on the other hand, I am not willing to accept the fact that the crisis might undermine the quality of education language schools provide in Greece. English teachers must be on alert both for the benefit of our profession and the learners’. No matter what the circumstances are, children have the right to quality education and lifelong learning. We are the ones to lead them to proper language learning and protect them from any pitfalls. They do not deserve the added pressure from their social environment.  Some of them might have managed to achieve their goal and get the so-called B2 certificate. But what about the rest? Have we ever wondered how candidates feel after failing once, twice or even three times? I feel it’s my duty to warn parents about that, too. It’s about their kids, after all. Or is it all about money?

Still, I don’t know whether honesty pays. I must admit that there have been parents who didn’t even want to spare a few seconds discussing or thinking about it. It is obvious that I have lost some “customers” because they took the easy way out. Fast exam courses, less money, little time but ….dubious results. I’m not judging anyone. At least we’re honest to ourselves.

If I fail as a businesswoman, I hope I’ll survive as a teacher.

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