Bethany Cagnol has a BA from the University of Virginia, USA, and an MA in TEFL from the University of London. She was the 2009-2012 president of TESOL France and organized many of its conferences. She is currently the IATEFL BESIG Treasurer and on the IATEFL Conference Committee. She owns two companies in France devoted to project management, language training and language skills assessment.

1. Tell our readers how you got into teaching.

Like many of the trainers you’ve interviewed, English teaching found me.  In 2002, fresh off the boat, while in line to get my French work visa, I met an English teacher who referred me to a language school looking for trainers for the Chateau de Versailles. I had already taken a TEFL Course at the University of Virginia, but only had a few hours of one-to-one teaching experience. I was interviewed for the position and within one month was teaching at one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in the world. It was definitely a pinch-me moment. And I very quickly grew to love this profession.

2. What advice would you give those that are wishing to go teaching in France?

Um… don’t? Sorry for being blunt, but the private industry training market in France isn’t at all what it once was in the 70s and 80s.  It also depends on one’s visa.  For example, it’s next to impossible for Americans to obtain work in France without being married to a French citizen or having a EU passport. The hourly wages have steadily decreased and companies have grown pickier.  Moreover, language schools are no longer seeking trainers for full-time contracts.  Therefore, the trainer is at the mercy of the market, which means juggling several part-time contracts for an hourly wage of €20 an hour (before taxes) and some as low as €12 an hour. Transportation is reimbursed less and less, forget about lunches, and the trainer has no sick leave or holiday pay.  Today, it is very very difficult to survive as a freelance trainer in France even for those who have started their own companies. The supply, currently, is higher than the demand I’m sorry to say. 

3. Could you tell us about the first time you taught a lesson?  How did you feel?  What did you do?

I was a colossal disaster, a nervous wreck and only spoke Tarzan French.  I had planned my lesson down to the minute.  I had cut up pieces of paper of this and that, but none of it went according to plan.  Only one trainee arrived on time. The others trickled in, so I, like a dummy, waited until everyone arrived.  Once we got started, my trainees were lovely, but a bit surprised I didn’t speak French.  They then proceeded to ask me to translate some very specific vocabulary related to their work. Can we say: deer in headlights? Since these were the days before smartphones and online dictionaries, we spent the entire lesson flipping through an enormous bilingual dictionary.  I then remembered I had prepared an activity and desperately tried to freight train through it in the last 15 minutes of class.  What a disaster! But this first lesson taught me that nothing goes according to the lesson plan. And, heck, it never should, in my humble opinion.

4. What has been a memorable lesson you have taught?

Gosh, there are so many.  Is this blog suitable for children? Many of the most memorable lessons involve some pretty unladylike vocabulary due to all the false friends in French and English. 😉 I think the most memorable lesson was when I taught a group of 17 multi-level nurses. I invented a speed-dating-like activity in which they mingled around the room but had to pick a strange characteristic from a hat and act it out (e.g. you like to smell paper; you untie the shoes of your partner, you count the buttons on your partner before saying ‘hello’; you’re afraid of the English teacher, your partner smells bad, etc.).  The nurse who picked “you like to collect DNA from your partner” got the biggest reaction. And yes, he collected fingernails and plucked hair from his fellow nurses’ heads.  We all ended up in stiches (pun intended). 

5. How would you describe the role of the teacher and learner in the classroom?

This is an interesting question and I think my answer has changed significantly over the years.  As a newer teacher, I felt my role was to manage the group and help the learners obtain as much knowledge as possible about grammatical structures and vocabulary.  I was married to lesson plans.  Today, it’s quite different.  I always start the semester off with detailed needs analysis. I still plan lessons in advance, but now I give a lot more control to the learners.  My ESP classes are more subject-based than structure-based. I still hold the reigns, but very much enjoy stepping back and letting the learners take control of the lesson to guide it in a different direction. I find this approach gives the students room to grow at their own pace, but also nurtures fertile ground for future lesson ideas and approaches.

6. What are your opinions of translation in the language classroom?

I let the learners decide if they wish to incorporate translation in the classroom. I remember being an A0 beginner in French and my teacher refused to use English no matter how much I begged. I’m an auditory, lexical learner; I like to learn the music of useful expressions in chunks.  But our coursebook was 100% grammar-based, gave us no indication of what we were saying and didn’t have an English glossary. I was utterly lost and incredibly miserable. So again, I think the trainer and the learners should discuss the option of translation and, ultimately, the learner should make the choice.  I don’t think translation should ever be banned (by the teacher or the language center). That’s my opinion and I’m stickin’ to it!

7. What advice would you give to newly qualified English language teachers?

Don’t be surprised if it all goes terribly wrong at first. Classes will go haywire, lesson plans will stink, and you will get incredibly frustrated. Give it a year to get your sea legs. Join a teachers’ association now!  Learn the local language. Don’t throw anything away. If an activity doesn’t work with one group, don’t toss it! Try it with another. As you explore the profession don’t ever forget to ask for help from your fellow teachers.  Use your colleagues to share ideas, seek advice and don’t hesitate to vent. But vent in a reflective, solution-oriented way. Be ready to change your lesson plans, question your approach and even your philosophy as a teacher for the benefit of your learners (and your sanity)!

8. Finally, what is your opinion of coursebooks in the classroom?

Again, like a previous question above, my answer has changed significantly over the years.  As a new teacher I was grateful for coursebooks – especially ESP coursebooks. I remember being lowered into the deep cave of teaching scientists; the coursebook and teachers’ notes I used were like a carbide lamp giving me the light I needed to navigate the harrowing passages of such a complex industry.  I use coursebooks less and less in the classroom, but I still do consult them for ideas and information on my learners’ specific field. Today, the Internet is my coursebook and I bring it with me to every lesson and encourage my learners to do the same.