The Language of Love…and Hate

It’s a big week at my school: grade 8 course selection week. The now not-completely-terrified thirteen year-olds are being asked decide how they’re going to spend their next year.

It has also historically been one of my most aggravating weeks as a French teacher.

See, grade 8 is the last year that students are required to take French in BC. According to Federal mandate, and in conjunction with provincial curriculum, BC students take some variety of Core French (also called FSL, or French as a Second Language) starting in grade 5. Grade 8 is the last year that they “have” to take French. And it’s…interesting to teach.

The kids don’t have to pass; they don’t have to take summer school if they fail. They don’t need to pass French 8 before taking Spanish 9, or any other language. A lot of kids come to me already hating the language, and biding their time until they’re rid of it. And by “biding their time,” I mean doing next to nothing in class and going completely haywire instead.

So I normally hate this week. Because I’m trying to teach them French – which they don’t want to learn – and I’ll I can hear is “I’m taking Spanish next year. French sucks.”

Ouch. Word dagger, right there.

Now, I admit that I’m biased. I don’t speak Spanish. I wish that I did, and I hope to learn one day, but I don’t. I speak French. And hearing that something that you love sucks? Well, that doesn’t just suck. It blows.

So this week is normally pretty deflating.

But I decided to get in front of the Spanish-centric classroom conversations this year. Instead of trying to convince my students of how awesome French is, I tried to get them to look at the advantages of learning another language. Any language.

We talked about how knowing more languages opens opportunities for travel, but we also chatted about what they can learn through travel, and how it can make them grow as people.

We talked about how knowing additional languages can lead to job opportunities, and how bilingual positions can be harder to fill, and better paying. I referenced French/English work with the Canadian government, UN, or IOC. I told personal stories of how my knowledge of French has opened two career paths for me, right here in BC.

We went through university admission requirements, how they require a language 11, and how all Arts programs require a language 12 – or 6 credits of university language, at a cost.

I talked about how knowing more languages can help them better understand and communicate in English.

I gave them the sad, sad news that all languages have nouns, verb conjugations, adjectives etc., and that Spanish still has that pesky masculine and feminine thing.

But I ended with this: taking a language is a choice. They don’t have to choose a language elective. There are benefits to it, but they need to use their sound decision making skills to decide what’s best for them, because choosing a language means that they’re choosing to learn that language. They’re choosing to commit to it.

And I started to summarize. “So what I’m saying is…”

“We should all take French next year.” The voice was low, but clear. Off the cuff, but pointed. Sarcastic. Annoyed.

I looked at the student.

“No. That’s not what I’m saying. If you don’t want to learn French – if you don’t want to put in the effort and come to class each day intending to learn – don’t take it. I don’t want you in my class if you don’t want to be there.”

And I paused. Not for effect, but because I had nothing more to say. I had, in fact, rendered myself speechless.

They were words that I never thought I’d say. But I meant them.

I would love for all of my students to find a passion for French, or at least a respect for the language and its history in Canada. I would do backflips if only a whole class would ace a test or a project; I would cap it off with the splits if none of them had complained about having to do the task.

But I can’t do backflips. And I definitely can’t do the splits.

Not that I’ll ever have to.

Because as much as I love something, I can’t force my students to feel the same way. It’s the equivalent of trying to make an apathetic person notice and love you; it doesn’t work, and it wrecks your sense of worth if you try. And today, I surprised myself by admitting that I’ve stopped trying to win my students over.

And I feel good about it.

I can’t make my students love the subject that I teach. I can just show it in all its glory and gruesomeness, hoping that they see its beauty. French is gorgeous. Its curves roll off the tongue when it’s spoken, and its words meld into one another, fitting together perfectly, like few other things in life. But it’s complicated. It’s moody. It takes a special type of person to see its beauty through its flaws.

But like we know from so many teen books and movies, sometimes the high school loser shows everyone in the end.

And today? Today’s not the end. I’ll be hitting send/receive for the next thirty years, waiting to hear if anyone fell in love in my class and let that passion take them around the world – or straight to the UN.

4 thoughts on “The Language of Love…and Hate

  1. Belinda Jolley

    I’m not offended, and I hope you don’t take offense, but I have to say, I disagree with your statement of not wanting a child in your class if they don’t want to be there. In school you have to remember the child is forced to be there. Forced to sit and learn things they think they will never use. My child is five and he doesn’t want to go to school and he is only in kindergarten. Its the struggle of growing up. It’s so important for the teacher to not try to win a child over, but to get the child’s attention. Because if it was the thirteen year olds choice, he’d much rather be hanging out with friends then trying to learn a language that could improve his life. It’s not the child’s fault he isn’t passionate because he is ignorant or disinterested, it’s media, his peers, his home life, his past teachers and possibly his present teachers. We see things through our own point of view, we forget to look in the point of view of the people we influence. As a teacher you have a tremendous influence on children, I would hope you would put as much work and dedication into my child if he loved French or not. It isn’t about you, it’s about them. That’s the purpose you are there, to help them be better, even if they think they don’t want to be. What do they know, other than what we teach them? They’re kids. Nobody said your job was easy. But you don’t have to let them know you resent them for not wanting to learn French as much as they resent you for making them learn it. I know I’m just a mother, but I think a parent is one of the most important teachers in a child’s life, I’m going to teach him stuff even if he doesn’t want to learn at the time, and I’m going to do it with a smile on my face cause I know he will appreciate it later, even if he doesn’t admit it. :D

  2. Ashley D. MacKenzie Post author

    Thanks for the response, Belinda. There are a lot of thoughts in there regarding issues that I didn’t address in the initial blog post – student accountability, the role of parents in a student’s education, and what a teacher’s job is, for example – and though I may post about those things in the future, I don’t feel as though I would do any of them justice in a short reply.

    I do want to clarify one thing, however, which is that I was not telling students who were required to be in my class that I didn’t want them there. This comment was specifically about choosing their electives for the following year. They are not required to take a language next year, and can choose either French or Spanish if they do decide to continue with one. If they would rather take Spanish, then that’s what I want them to take. I don’t want them to take French because they feel like they “have to.” It’s a choice: their choice.

    As I said, I’m highly invested in the subject that I teach, but I can’t force my opinions on anyone.

  3. Belinda Jolley

    I didn’t mean you did anything wrong. I can see where you are coming from. I can just simply remember what I went through at that age. Even most of my electives weren’t because I wanted to take them but because they looked good on my transcript. And even the fun electives are still a forced class, you still HAVE to take something. So I hope you understand my misunderstanding in your post. I know it must of felt liberating. Like an emphany. I hope I didn’t ruin how you feel, I was just stating sometimes it isn’t the child’s fault for not wanting to learn, and you shouldn’t take it out on him/her just because they are taking it out on you.

  4. Melissa

    Respectfully, Belinda, I disagree.

    I am also a teacher and while I agree that teachers can have a tremendous impact on children, my job is to plan educational, engaging lessons as set out by the provincial curriculum and then assess a student’s learning compared to what they knew before they entered my door. I put equal amounts of effort into every kid in my room.

    At some point, though, the student must take some accountability for their learning. I might not feel like getting up and going to work some days but I do it anyways because I have bills to pay and responsibilities. Students need to know that not everything in life is going to be fun and sometimes we *do* need to do what is required because ‘somebody says so’.

    I think a huge disservice has been done to the profession of teaching with the media’s whole ‘teachers change the future’ thing. Not every kid is going to be reachable by every teacher. I wholeheartedly believe that every kid will be affected by *a* teacher, but not every teacher. There’s the unrealistic expectation that teachers be anything but human. When hours go into planning lessons and units, marking assignments, and practically spending every waking hour of the work week trying to figure out how to engage kids, it comes to a point that a person has to be okay with the fact that they’ve done their absolute best for those kids.

    Like the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” I think that’s what Ashley was saying with her post. That she’s realized that she does the best she can for those students in her room. The rest is up to them.