This is the first moaning post I write. I do not have a solution for the problem that I am highlighting. I do not believe the blame is on the students, on the parents, on their peers, on the education systems at play, on society or on the teachers alone. I am just trying to raise awareness and to put the affective aspects influencing my teaching onto the screen. I want to apologize in advance for the grim post.
As a teacher, I am constantly struggling between supporting my students and challenging them to go further. My team of first year teachers has reached a commonplace point in the semester: week seven. Our semesters have twelve weeks. Students are used to a secondary system in which school terms are longer and have what it seems like a luxury from my third level perspective: a midterm break.
Fatigue and stress are starting to show in students’ and teachers’ faces alike. In the last week, and I can predict it will get worse in the weeks to come, I have received more medical certificates from students than at any other time during the semester.
Most of my colleagues drag themselves along the corridor to get to class with colds, sniffs and overall tiredness. Our caring minds compel us not to take a sick day off because we believe our students need us and in a system that does not offer teacher substitutes until the seventh week of sick leave, asking another colleague to take your class is simply not an option.
I am departing from my main question for this post. Let me go back on track.
Our Spanish course for beginners, you could argue that also our intermediate course (for people who had some Spanish courses before), is very demanding. Students are told from the beginning that this is so and we give them the reasons behind it. Namely, that during their third year in college, they need to attend a full academic year in a Spanish/Latin American university, attending and passing courses in both subjects that define their Arts degree. I am not sure what the case is in other European countries under the umbrella of the Erasmus programme (Germany, France, Italy…); but in Spain, with a much more curricular-oriented degree structure, and higher expectations from students that register in a third level degree; without the adequate language competence, students are likely to suffer and not to enjoy the above-named Erasmus year at all.
At the university where I work, all our second year students who successfully pass the year with a 40/100 go on this Erasmus programme. I do not have the statistics, but let me be honest with you: many students come back without enough credits in both or one of their subjects. Some of them completely disengage when posed with the challenge of completely different university courses and staff that assume that the responsibility for learning is the onus of the student. Many succumb to the pressure of social and emotional demands, about which I talked in my last post, and simply come back and pay a repeat fee to finish a Bachelor of Arts, without the International addition to it.
I believe one of the problems lies in first year, or even earlier.
On a side note, I found out last week that Trinity College – 50th on the world ranking of modern languages last year – only send their 2.1 grade students on Erasmus.
The Erasmus grant provides the student with a small sum of money, which varies every year, but generally comes to add up to around €1700 euro for the eight or nine months they spend in their host university. In Spain, depending on the city you choose or land in, that may very well pay your accommodation throughout the year. In Ireland, it will cover your accommodation for five months, if you are very lucky and do not fall prey to the greed of some landlords. This grant does not entail any penalties. What do I mean by that? No matter how many credits, courses, or fails you carry back to your home university, you still get the whole amount of money.
This system correlates, as far as I know, and please correct me if I am wrong, with the system of college grants within Ireland. No matter how many fails you carry or if you pass second time, if your economic situation is not buoyant, or rather you manage to make the central government agency dealing with these grants believe it isn’t, you still carry on as a grantee. I am unaware of the current equivalent scheme in Spain, but when I was in university and I was a recipient of these grants, I had to pass everything to secure the grant for the following year. There was also a merit recognition system then. If you got straight honours – I’m talking of 90-100% – in a module, you wouldn’t pay the equivalent fees for that module the following year.
Too much information? It is how it seems sometimes. Because you see? What I struggle with and mull over so much, especially while I walk home from the college and vice versa, is this: If we have lowered our academic demands from students both in secondary and tertiary levels – and I do believe we have, judging by the linguistic and academic competence of some of our graduates-, why can’t current students cope with them?
I now realize that I have been dealing with what I believe would be solutions to this problem in previous posts in this blog: discipline, enjoyment of learning for the sake of it, real guidance vs. advertising, emotional support from communities, time to spare… But it still troubles me, every day. Are we encouraging students to avoid demanding and challenging experiences? Do we really believe that they are so weak and so incapable that they cannot cope on their own with the ten or fifteen extra hours of study and practice that a language may entail as a beginner? Have we given up on them?
We are facing a high failure rate in our first test, once again. It was a demanding test, supposed to be challenging and to send the right message early enough in the year, so those who need it can come to ask us for advice about how to improve their studying skills and so we can help them organize themselves if they need to. My team of teachers was crestfallen after correcting what we all agreed was a challenging but fair test (and I have two non-native speakers of Spanish, one of them who studied with us from the beginner level in this team not so long ago).
Needless to say, these numbers feed our lack of confidence as teachers too and eventually, our teaching skills can suffer. Three people in my team have received teaching awards of excellence and innovation in different institutions all over the world – and I am pretty sure that the most junior members of this team will earn these kind of awards sooner or later because they excel in teaching and supporting skills already at this early stage in their academic career.
However, it is inevitable to question yourself as a teacher when a good majority of students cannot even string a simple sentence in Spanish after 7 weeks of the so-called Intensive Beginners course.
So this is the crisis, the real crisis, more far reaching than the economic one in this country. High demands on students are not engaging. Engaged students are on high demand.