Yesterday, while I was correcting practice work with one of my junior French classes, a colleague popped into my room.
“Bonjour, Madame,” I greeted her.
This led to a quick conversation in French. Like, really quick – just as long as it took for her to ask if I had any extra workbooks, and for me to reply that I had a few, but that I thought there were more in the prep room.
I broke away from correcting my kids’ work for about twenty seconds, but they were all staring at me when I turned back to them. Some of their mouths were actually agape. Others looked like I’d just announced a pop quiz. There was a whole lot of confusion going on.
“What?” I asked them. My own eyes were as shifty as theirs as I scanned the room, trying to figure out what had happened in the tiny amount of time I’d turned away from them.
“You speak French?!”
I hesitated, trying to figure out if this was an honest question.
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “I’m kind of your French teacher and all…”
“But, like, you can actually talk in French and stuff?”
At this point I stepped back from the corrections we’d been working on and really looked at my class. This is a high-energy group of students. Getting them to focus normally takes as much – if not more – of my time and effort than teaching the course content. But at this moment, every set of eyes was on me.
They were all waiting to hear if their French teacher actually knew French.
“Yes,” I told them. “I speak French. In fact, I was the sole bilingual employee at the Canadian head office of a multi-national corporation before deciding to become a teacher. That means that I handled all kinds of business conversations and correspondence in French. So, this French thing? I’ve got it, guys. Alors, nos corrections. Qui a la réponse pour numéro cinq?”
And with that, we resumed our corrections.
You know, the corrections of the stuff I’d taught them.
And I was laughing about this little interaction. I mean, what silliness that they thought their teacher didn’t know anything about the subject she was teaching them, right?
But then I stopped laughing.
In my mind, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to my students that I know French. For one, I’m their French teacher. French is the only subject I’m teaching this semester, and my course load includes senior level classes. Let’s add to that the fact that I speak French to them daily. And I correct their pronunciation. And I teach them grammar points. And I give them new vocabulary when they need it. And I walk them through how to read in French. And write. And listen. And speak.
You know, all the cornerstones of language.
So why did this class think that I could do all of this without knowing the language myself?
Why did they think that I was faking my abilities, or somehow making it through each day without knowing my subject matter?
I hope that it was just the result of still-developing critical thinking skills.
But I fear that it wasn’t.
I worry that this is an ingrained understanding of teachers and our competencies.
Teens aren’t oblivious to what they hear at home and in the media, and it’s not like teachers have been getting much good press in the major news outlets – especially over the last year.
So I worry that we’re seeing trickle down of this disrespect in our classrooms.
I wonder whether my class is typically so high-energy and distracted because they thought I had no clue what I was doing – even while I was teaching them and they were learning.
I wonder whether they thought they didn’t have to respect me, or the subject I teach, because I was just a greedy know-nothing who had only a rudimentary understanding of the subject I’d been assigned.
And I wonder how I can combat these perceptions.
Because something is very wrong with the way we view teachers in this community when an entire class is amazed that their French teacher knows French.