I am surrounded by people in my profession who are constantly asking why I spend so much time making “cute” PowerPoint presentations for my lessons. Why the cats, kittens, puppies and other funny animals memes? Why the omnipresence of colours? All in every shades of blue, white and red with instructions in purple for French lessons. Red, yellow and orange for Spanish. Red, yellow and black for German. Yellow, blue and green for Swedish…
“It takes times, it must be a drag. No wonder you work so much!”
It is true that I can spend 50 hours every week planning for my 25 to 29 hours of teaching. That’s a lot, yes so why not just put some words and occasional fancy font on a couple of slides and go home?! Why am I doing this to myself?
Because I am not. I like it. I need visual stimulation to enjoy something and if I myself don’t enjoy my lesson, who will? That’s whence the very precisely aligned Comic Sans is coming, so are the little pictures on every slide. it’s not just perfectionism and hatred of emptiness, it’s something that brings me joy and a feeling of accomplishment in little things.
The colours came because, for years, I was teaching the same kids but in various languages, sometimes one lesson after another. French then Spanish. Same kids, same age so I decided that beyond the language itself I would make it more obvious for them. We were also changing moods. I took inspiration for respective flags and stuck with it every since.
On the one hand, I will admit that it used to be a drag somehow, at the beginning, but now it’s a reflex and one that allows me to be creative. Language-teaching is not always the most exciting of lessons. It’s hard and painful for all, as teachers, you are facing with kids who get impatient or demotivated very quickly, even in lessons where their native language is spoken, so imagine when everything is in another language. And when it’s Friday afternoon. So you have to constantly resist going the easy way and explain everything in your learners’ native language so you can save time and finish the unit in time for the test.
For the learners, especially teenagers, it can be a killer. Especially considering that a lot of school rationalise timetabling and put language lessons at once. It’s fine if only one is compulsory, better if optional (for the kids, not for the MFL teachers of course) but it’s torture for all when you have to teach Spanish to 30 kids for an hour and twenty minutes, get them out then get the same lot in again, just a couple of minutes later during which you switch to your German lesson. And there we go for another eighty minutes of hard work…
Beyond the mood, the need for a break and for clear, attractive visuals to keep their attention, it’s important to mention that I always have the highest expectations on everyone, regardless. I believe in the brain’s abilities to do and learn and that’s why I also like to somehow soften the blow with visually pleasing slides.
Not just games where they are learning a lot without realising it but also cute pictures of animals and funny cat memes. I love them, they love them, it makes them laugh between two exercises when I keep asking for even more of them. Put a cute kittens and you win over a classroom full of sullen girls.
However, before the kids, it’s for me. It is selfish before selfless for it allows me to be constantly creative which soothes my anxieties and when too tired to think of yet another totally new activity, I know I will always have the envy to google “cat dictionary” and add a little picture on the top right corner on an activity we did a couple of weeks ago.
Indeed, I will grant anyone that it is time-consuming to look through my hundreds of thousands of pictures on the Internet or my files to find exactly what I want and I know I have it somewhere or I know it can be found somewhere but this is something I enjoy doing very much.
“Ten minutes on a picture?!” I hear. No, ten minutes taking some time to let my perfectionist self relax and be inventive, be different. Only I, in the whole of England, would spend twenty minutes on Tumblr less than an hour before my lesson because I have decided I need a caption of Sophia Petrillo from the Golden Girls or Richard Hammond talking about the trout to simply illustrate the opening title of my Year 9 lesson on how to express sickness.
I could be calling parents, marking books or exams, I am told. Yes, I could but I hate it. That’s a part of the job I loathe beyond anything. Exams are fine but the books…I see them everyday when I go around checking on their work. The parents? Holy Mother of God, have mercy! Not them!
The ones you have to call are the self-righteous ones who hated school when they were little, think their child should be mentioned in the Bible as God or Satan, and believe you’re either a torturer or should do their job of teaching them manners. It says “MFL teacher” on my contract, thank you very much, not “nanny”.
I came into teaching to teach (duh!) because I like what I am teaching (duh!²): languages I want to convey it. It is hard to do so when restricted behind books mainly written by people who have close to no experience with children in a classroom setting such as university-teaching linguists or simply pedagogues. It is hard when you have a very restrictive timeline with yet another boring exam at the end where, in all languages, the writing text always starts with “You write to your penfriend about” something.
They don’t have penfriends and I want to have fun! I want my lesson to be pretty, attractive, colourful, animated. If I am not excited about showing someone what I did, I will not be able to open the door with a smile…Okay, I never smile unless actually amused but I do make jokes and love banter in the classroom and without the witty, always-on-point and creative visuals on the board, I would not be able to do so and set the evermore necessary positivity as, year in year out, teaching becomes harder by the week. The few classes where I have not been able to do it, I hate and I feel the work is far for the standards I expect of myself.
Whatever it is, the first golden rule of teaching is to enjoy yourself and it means whatever you want it to mean. I find pleasure in top-notched visuals, inventive games and the regular listening of songs and little activities around videos. Find yours. It’s doesn’t have to be massive, just a little something that’s for you every single time you teach. You have to take something out of it or you will grow to resent it beyond limits.
I have found that, even when it brings nothing for the kids as such, like a puppy with a mini basket ball to illustrate one sentence about playing sport, if it pleases you, it will please them. Because it is personal, that things will become your signature and if they always take everything for granted and don’t always acknowledge it at the time, they will come to miss it when moving on to the next teacher.
“Sir, I miss your cat memes! And the colours too. That was so nice and fun!” That sentence matters to me much more than “I think you should spend less time planning your lessons.”