Interview 2: "The Key to Success"

or "How Individualizing My Teaching Changed My Life as a Teacher!

Marianne Raynaud explains "The Key to Success" in institutionalized language teaching, which for her lies in "teamwork" and a "core curriculum".

Laura Lerner: Last time you promised to speak about the importance of teamwork in your personal experience and how you came upon the idea of a common program for all the teachers of your team.

Marianne Raynaud: Teamwork and what is commonly called a "core curriculum" are concepts that have for a long time been of primary importance in my teaching. When I started my career, I first taught English alone. That was at the Universidad de Oriente in Cumana, Venezuela. I was the only English teacher so there was no chance of building up a team! Later I entered the French national school system by passing the competitive exam for teachers called CAPES.

Laura Lerner: That’s when you became a “professeur certifiée” and started as a civil servant working for the French Education Ministry, right.

Marianne Raynaud: Yes, that changed my life, but I can’t say I was fully prepared to teach a class of 30 students. Even though I had had some teacher training for a year, once in charge of real classes I felt very much on my own with very little help from those around me during my first years. Even if the inspector from the Ministry of Education considered me to be a good teacher, in front of the class I still experienced "the loneliness of the long distance runner." Furthermore, we had to follow instructions set up by the Ministry that I didn’t believe were effective. I wanted to experiment with my own ideas and the methods I had used in Venezuela. When in 1980 I was appointed to a university post, I knew I would at long last have the freedom to set up my own program. I longed to be head of a "team working towards a common goal". The goal I had chosen was that of teaching young people how to "speak" English. I had expected to find a “united” team of teachers.

Laura Lerner: Did you set up a team right from the start?

Marianne Raynaud: Of course not. I was appointed to the English department of an engineering school where several people had already been teaching for many years. I wasn’t even the "real" head of the department. In truth I had never expected to be “head of department”. I had imagined engineering schools having English departments where teachers worked in teams to set up coherent programs at different levels. I had even naively believed the departments functioned together using a “core curriculum” and common exams. I was young and eager to be part of the English team! I simply wanted to contribute to the work of the team. Unfortunately at INPG such a team simply didn’t exist.

My first year at engineering school

Laura Lerner: What was your first year like?

Marianne Raynaud: Just plain dreadful! By the time I was appointed (October 1980) the timetable had already been made up; and I, of course, had the worst one. The other teachers were all men, who didn’t even think of the fact that I was the mother of a young child. Furthermore, nobody talked to me. I mean none of the other English teachers said a word to me. The latter had simply taken the classes they wanted and left me with the rest, the ones at impossible hours especially for the mother of an infant. These men (yes they were all men!) all held tenure as professors in English at Stendhal University in the Humanities Department, and they were doing extra hours at my engineering school just to earn some money on the side. They were not in the slightest interested in teaching. They refused to inform me of what they had done the year before with their students. There were very few teaching manuals in the cupboard where they were supposed to be kept. I had no idea of what I could expect from my students, no idea of the level or interests of my audience. No, that wasn’t entirely true. The Dean of the engineering school, a physics professor, welcomed me graciously on my very first day on the job; and then he said in a rather low voice as though it were a well kept secret, "The students are not very interested in English and don’t often attend classes, but you shouldn’t be upset about that. You are now in an engineering school and only the sciences really count." I remember vividly going home and saying to myself, "I’m going to make them like English as much as the other subjects!

Trying to please the students: Not the right course of action

Laura Lerner: And did you manage straight away?

Marianne Raynaud: Of course not. I didn’t have much in the way of teaching materials. Those few methods I had experimented with elsewhere were not really adapted to engineering students who were part of the French elite when it came to the sciences. Moreover, I didn’t feel I was backed by anyone. Yes, once again I was all on my own. At the time I was young and of course believed I would be successful only provided my students liked me. If they liked me, they would accept to come to class. If not, I would again be a lonely frustrated teacher. So I did whatever I could to please my students, which was not the right course of action.

Laura Lerner: I suppose this experience was relevant to what you undertook later on.

Stop “trying to be liked by the students”

Marianne Raynaud: Yes, I’d say it was the foundation of what I tried to develop over the next 15 to 20 years. Later, as a confirmed teacher with tenure who had to hire teachers paid by the hour without any contracts, I based my teaching philosophy on the dire experiences of my first two years at the university. I felt it was my duty as the appointed head of the language department (the only person with a fixed position and a fixed salary!) to help and train all those teachers I had hired.

Laura Lerner: But train them in what way?

Marianne Raynaud: From the beginning I realized I could only really succeed, if I managed to set up a teaching program with a core curriculum i.e. the same contents, the same assignments, and the same evaluation system for all students regardless of whom they had as a teacher. Most importantly I realized it wasn’t simply a question of being liked or not by the students. The issue at stake was providing the students with an effective and efficient language program. I told my young hires success didn’t depend solely on the teacher’s "friendliness", but much more on the “course” that we were offering together as a team.

Why insist on having a common program?

Laura Lerner: Why did this “core curriculum” seem so important to you? You could have let each teacher go ahead and do his or her own thing without bothering to intervene. Why did you insist on having a common program with everybody doing the same thing?

Marianne Raynaud:
I had heard about the idea of a core curriculum at symposiums, but I didn’t know of any program that actually existed or had been experimented with. The idea seemed right to me mainly for a number of practical reasons. I wanted to develop an effective program and knew from the start it would be very difficult to write two or three programs at the same time corresponding for instance to different levels with the same year of study. I wanted to focus on one single program suited to the greatest number of students. I was in an engineering school where all the students took the same courses in math, physics, electronics and so on. So the question I asked myself was, "Why not set up the English course just as the science teachers set up courses in their respective subjects?

Laura Lerner: But your students didn’t all have the same level in English, did they?

The best possible strategy at a scientific university

Marianne Raynaud: Definitely not. Some were quite good, whereas most seemed very uncomfortable "speaking" English. My decision to set up a common curriculum was based on somewhat "scientific" concepts. Since the students showed great respect for certain professors, I concluded the best possible strategy at a scientific university was to imitate the very best science teachers. I started by analyzing their way of teaching. These science teachers would begin the year by defining precisely what they were going to teach, what order they would follow and the reasons for their choice. Generally, they had prepared ahead of time a booklet ("polycopié" in French") with course materials. Their transparencies would indicate the criteria of evaluation they planned to use and the dates of the papers to be handed in or the experiments to be carried out in lab. All this was merely presented to the students, who diligently took notes on the course. The respect the students showed for their science teachers was the respect I wanted to create for the English department.

Laura Lerner: So your colleagues in the sciences inspired you.

Marianne Raynaud: Yes, that’s right. Another important principle I took from my scientific colleagues was the system by which each class or lecture hour was devoted to a different theme or type of activity. There was no talk of going back over something one student had been unable to grasp the time before or worse still explaining once again a concept missed by a couple of students because the latter had been absent! The professor would end his class or lecture simply with the words, "We’ll carry on from here next time." or "You will have to prepare the practical which is explained in the handout you were given."

The key word is “Respect”

Laura Lerner: But that sounds terribly austere! It is like "the master with his flock of obedient lambs" type of teaching. Shouldn’t English be more about communicating and enjoying class instead of being in awe of some imposing figurehead?

Marianne Raynaud: Believe me in today’s world the key word is respect. If you get respect from your students, they will learn more; and little by little what you call austerity can become greater complicity towards a common goal. If on the other hand, you start off by appearing laid back and cool, students will consider you lax. They may not criticize you during the course for not giving any difficult homework or for allowing them just to chat in poor, ungrammatically correct English. What sane student asks for more work! Nevertheless, after they have graduated, they will put the blame on you for not motivating them enough to do the work. They will say they didn’t become proficient in English, because the course wasn’t interesting! That is part of human nature. Once I heard the phys. ed (gym) teacher at our university speak of his students. "You can always tell an INPG student from other students", he said. "You tell an INPG student to do 20 laps in the pool, and he’ll go out there and do them. He won’t ask why. He’ll just swim, and afterwards he’ll be damned glad to have done all those laps!" That is a bit exaggerated, and not quite in line with the objectives of the English program. But isn’t it the same thing for all of us? We still remember those teachers who made us work when we were young, and we have forgotten all the others.

Laura Lerner: You’re 100% right about that! I still remember those who forced me to stay up late at night finishing essays. So in a nutshell we can say that you set off to imitate your colleagues in the sciences. How did you proceed?

A different curriculum for each of the three years of study

Marianne Raynaud: First, I decided to set up a different curriculum for each of the three years of study. I wanted each year to have a different program to avoid any unnecessary repetition.

Laura Lerner: I see what you mean. It is quite difficult when you don’t know what the teacher of the year before has covered with the students. You wanted to spare the teachers this frustration.

Marianne Raynaud: Exactly. Furthermore, at the end of my second year at the university I submitted a project for a language lab explaining my main objective: individualizing language teaching. Not only was my pedagogical program accepted and the financing for the lab ensured, but also I was also officially considered Head of Department with the right to hire people with whom I could work as a team which was a terrific breakthrough. The first two years I had to put up with some English teachers who had been there for a long time but who were obviously not at all interested in making their students progress. I had even been told the students hardly ever spoke English in class and the evaluation system was very unfair. But these "professors" in the humanities department of another prestigious university held very high degrees, higher than my own, so up until then I hadn’t been allowed to replace them even though they were just doing extra hours to gain extra money.

Laura Lerner: What you are saying is you didn’t complain about a lack of funding or faulty equipment. You simply submitted a project and defended it; and then you set up a new team of teachers.

Marianne Raynaud: Well, it wasn’t as easy as all that. I had previously worked in the secondary school system where I had all my professional contacts. So I started off by hiring four highly qualified high school teachers (agrégés) to do extra hours at the university. Over 60% of all English classes at our university courses were and are still taught by what we call "vacataires" or teachers paid by the hour i.e. teachers working temporarily without any contacts. Unfortunately, after a year the four newcomers told me these extra hours were too demanding (the students were too good) and they preferred doing extra hours in their respective high schools which required much less preparation time and where the pay was considerably higher. That is when I decided to hire teachers, who didn’t have the CAPES or AGREGATION, in other words who were not civil servants.

The "Dream Team"

Laura Lerner: Where then did you find your "dream team"?

Marianne Raynaud: I found a number of native speakers, mainly women who had married Frenchmen or who had settled permanently in France. They were all very devoted teachers. Little by little we created a real "team". There was a marvelous feeling of teamwork and complicity. I was the only person with tenure i.e. a fixed position since I was the only person with the CAPES degree. The others had university degrees from their own countries but no French degrees. So they all had the "vacataire" or “temporary status”. I could hire them, but they didn’t get any contracts whatsoever from the school. They were paid by the hour i.e. according to the number of hour they taught classes.

Laura Lerner: Is that why you did all the organizing?

Marianne Raynaud: Yes, that is why I felt I should do all the organizing and the actual, I mean “physical / concrete” creation of the "product". Nevertheless, it was all the time a group effort based on the ideas of all the members of the team. We brainstormed together. We gave each other encouragement and advice. And we shared our "discoveries". There was a wonderful feeling of joy. The more we worked together, the better we became as teachers, and the more appreciated we were by our students. Suddenly, the English course had become one of the most important and respected courses at ENSERG, the engineering school where I worked at that time. The opinions of the representatives of our department were often solicited at juries and the Board of Administration decided to give the English course an even higher coefficient among the required subjects.

Laura Lerner: You mean to say the Board of Administration increased the coefficient of the English course?

Marianne Raynaud: Yes, we were given a higher coefficient, which was something we hadn’t even asked for! As far as equipment was concerned, I put in proposals each year; and we wound up with a considerable "investment" plus "an operating budget” for each school year.
Laura Lerner: So that’s when you set up the core curriculum, wasn’t it?
Marianne Raynaud: Yes. After three years of intense work we had a common program that functioned fairly well. I had also managed to get an excellent timetable, which made it possible for us to offer one hour of supervised lab work to each student plus one hour in an audiovisual room. We had our "English booklets" that we had written ourselves, our homemade but interesting (according to the students!) cassettes and the videos I had edited on my in a very primitive "studio" based on the wishes of the “team”. The students encouraged us by saying openly they really enjoyed the activities that were offered.

Laura Lerner: Was that the truth or were they simply trying to be nice to their English teachers?

Marianne Raynaud: Well, I have a story to tell you. Formerly, all the teachers of the school in all the subjects were severely “graded” by the students at the end of each year in an “official student poll”. At the beginning when I was teaching alone with those three strange men, who came from the humanities university and were only doing extra hours at our school, I received a “grade”. It was not a very high grade, barely passing, but it was still one of the highest grades of all the teachers of the school. Nevertheless, being “graded” in a student survey and seeing my grade pinned up on the wall of the cafeteria together with numerous caricatures made me feel very uncomfortable. I was shown on a swing with a very broad smile!

Laura Lerner: What was that supposed to mean?

Marianne Raynaud: I never understood what the caricature really meant. Was I “swinging” back and forth because I didn’t know how to deal with the class? Was I lackadaisical? Did I not care about my teaching? Did I just smile? And not teach them anything? I never found out. But I do remember vividly how terrible it was going to see the grades. And we teachers only went to the cafeteria when we were sure all the students had left the building!

Laura Lerner: How long did that go on? I mean the grading of the teachers.

Marianne Raynaud: At the end of my fourth year, when we, the English teachers, had our “team” and after we had accomplished all the things I mentioned earlier: core curriculum, booklets, lab, tutorial, finally the English teachers were no longer included in the “horrendous rankings”. We were considered “hors competition” in other words above the competition! That was a great honor. Yes, that was a time when there was a synergy that really worked. Our efforts had paid off!

The idea of the “Booklets”

Laura Lerner: Tell me about the booklets. When did you get started with them?

Marianne Raynaud: The idea of the “Booklets” has really saved me a great deal of bother and even worry over all these years. With my colleagues we realized with the core curriculum we were giving out a great number of papers and other handouts with pages stapled together for each class. I would have them printed up, and then the teachers would take the number they needed from the various stacks. Suddenly there were so many different stacks. Some were for first and second year classes and others for third year. There were so many that naturally we would all get a bit confused.

Laura Lerner: I can imagine. You were handing out a lot of papers each week.

Marianne Raynaud:
Yes, up to 10 pages for each class for both the lab and for the classroom activities. There was another problem too. Occasionally it turned out we didn’t have enough copies or teachers had handed out second year papers to first year students. And even worse: if a student had been absent, he would come to me asking for a paper without even knowing the title! And I had to rummage through the big filing cabinet to find the right paper.

Laura Lerner: Knowing how well organized you like to be at work, I understand such confusion must have been a nightmare for you.

Marianne Raynaud: It certainly was. Moreover, we often had to print up papers at the last moment just before class, and inevitably the photocopying machine would go on the blink the minute I put my card in. Yes, we had cards and were limited as to the numbers of photocopies per department. So one day I said to myself, “This can’t go on.” I thought really hard, and suddenly it occurred to me I could plan ahead and include all the teaching material in booklets of about 100 pages that I would have printed ahead of time in recto-verso by the printing department.

Laura Lerner: Did that solve all the problems?

Marianne Raynaud: Yes and no. It solved at least one problem. It was now easy to finish the following week an exercise that had been started the week before. This sounds like a silly detail, but it isn’t. If you hand out separate papers to students one week and a week later you ask them to take out exactly the same paper, I bet you half of them won’t find the paper what they were given. If they do find the paper; it is generally after a boisterous 5 minutes of searching among all their loose papers.

Laura Lerner: I know exactly what you are talking about!

My very first computer - an Amstrad

Marianne Raynaud: The booklet idea was a “simple” innovation to a certain extent. Anyone could have thought it up. For me it was “the” solution and it saved me ever so much time. I had this idea when I was in bed for 7 weeks after having ruptured my Achilles tendon in the finals of a tennis tournament! I couldn’t stand up; so I ordered my very first computer, an Amstrad. That was in 1986 and I couldn’t afford any of the PCs or Mac’s that were on the market at that time, not even the ones sold in the U.S. So I had an Amstrad computer delivered at home, and I spent all of my convalescence typing in pages and pages of teaching materials for our "booklets". I realized straight away there would be numerous constraints, the first being that I had to put all the necessary teaching materials together at least two months before we actually gave the classes. My first attempt at putting out a booklet was not a relaxing experience. I had to be sure everything had been typed onto the computer and all the documents needed for 8 weeks of classes (lab and classroom work) had been included in the booklet.

Students have always enjoyed the “Booklets”

Laura Lerner: Your colleagues must have been pleased! They received a booklet and didn’t have to do any more photocopying.

Marianne Raynaud: Yes, the teachers were very pleased; but one woman complained about not having a table of contents. Personally, I didn’t need one, since I knew all the pages inside out; but for her sake I wrote a table of contents for the second booklet! I want to insist on the fact that the students have always enjoyed getting booklets where all the photocopied pages have been bound together. The course appears to be much more professional that way! Furthermore, I have always made a point of writing much of the material myself. So the booklets have never had what students might call the look of a "children’s book with pictures in it". I have always avoided any presentation that might look too juvenile relying rather on authentic student artwork for pictures. By “authentic student artwork” I mean pictures drawn by the students to illustrate their oral presentations. I believe this rather plain format with drawings by the students themselves has contributed greatly to the success of the booklets. Once I had started I “published” 3 booklets per year for both the 1st and 2nd year courses and one big one for the short 3rd year course.

The great advantages of having one “Set” course program

Laura Lerner: So it was smooth sailing from then onwards?

Marianne Raynaud: Having one “set” program for each academic year had solved most of our previous problems. Students stopped complaining about a "lack of coordination" among teachers. They could no longer say one teacher was better than another, because he or she had a more interesting course to offer. They couldn’t object to the assignments, because all the groups had the same assignments in other words the same workload. Somehow the discipline problem just disappeared. No one ever skipped an English class. The students were even very punctual. We never had to "summon" them in. We realized that united as a team we were strong. The team members were exceptionally talented and devoted individuals. Furthermore, we had our objectives and could concretely see our commitment to this joint effort was producing the desired result. Consequently, we all wished to maintain the high standards of the core curriculum.

A real "Laboratory of Ideas"

Laura Lerner: And everything worked well from that day on?

Marianne Raynaud: In a way yes, since the positive sides of the core curriculum were obvious. With a common program we knew exactly from one year to the next what our students had studied with their previous teacher. We could easily determine what additional points should be included in a particular course or what had to be reviewed or changed. Above all we could propose different activities for each term, and we no longer risked hearing students say, "Oh, we did that last year with the other teacher." On the other hand, each year we tried to weed out any teaching material that didn’t seem appropriate and to improve on activities or exercises that seemed to be yielding good results. Our language department was like a real "laboratory of ideas". Everyone felt free to contribute. No ideas were ever scornfully turned down.

The “Common Program” can never be static

Laura Lerner: And that reduced the amount of “preparation” work?

Marianne Raynaud: Well, not exactly. I quickly realized the common program could never be static i.e. we couldn’t rely on exactly the same program year after year.

Laura Lerner: So what did that entail?

Marianne Raynaud: That inevitably meant constantly improving and updating the material we offered the students.

Laura Lerner: So you had to communicate among yourselves about how the course was going.

Marianne Raynaud: Yes, and, moreover, we would warn our colleagues about possible “spills” that could take place. "Oh, don’t do what I did. Avoid spending more than 3 minutes on X" or "I suddenly came up with an idea right in the middle of class and had the students do “Y” first... and it worked". That was the sort of conversation we had constantly. We felt so free in our creativity that we could admit to each other our weaknesses, thus helping the whole team to progress. It was really exciting and very rewarding!

"Actors" with the opportunity to perform the same play several times over

Laura Lerner: Wasn’t it a bit boring though having all the teachers do the same activities on the same day?

Marianne Raynaud:
It depends on whose point of view you consider. When I say, "We all did the same things,” it sounds as though we were robots going through the gestures. But we were "actors" who had the opportunity to perform the same play several times over in front of different audiences. Each experience was unique; but since we had more or less scripted what we planned to say and do, we could gradually progress and become better at interacting with the audience. If a teacher is willing to speak openly with you about the difficulties of this profession, he or she will often mention the time-consuming tasks needed to prepare different classes and the dissatisfaction of knowing each performance may be for only one single class hour. Many teachers, at least in France, choose to work with texts taken from newspapers or news magazines. To make all the preparatory time worthwhile, they use the same text with classes of different levels or even of different years. In my case I wanted above all to make sure each year of study had totally different teaching materials or class activities. I opted for a very explicit differentiation between the different years (1st, 2nd and 3rd), yet tried to maintain the idea of "efficiency" to make it easier for the teachers. By “efficiency” I meant teachers would teach the same class two or three times but with different groups. Thus pre-class preparation per group was obviously reduced.

Colleagues found the approach logical

Laura Lerner: How did your colleagues, who were "vacataires", (temporary staff without contracts) react to your way of doing things?

Marianne Raynaud: Instead of finding this approach "boring" my colleagues found it logical and told me it gave them the opportunity to feel much more at ease with the curriculum, particularly since they had the booklets to study at home and could easily prepare ahead for their classes. They also said they felt far less stressed than at other engineering schools where there was no core curriculum. At the other schools they had to come up with their own teaching material and had to spend much more time preparing for class. They also found thanks to this system they had much more in common with their colleagues. This was because they worked two at a time, using the lab and the audiovisual room together rotating at each hour. Because they used the same teaching materials, they could share experiences based on what they were doing in class or in lab. Since they also switched groups in the middle of the year, they could even compare their experiences with and their opinions of the different students.

The students’ reaction

Laura Lerner: And how did the students react?

Marianne Raynaud:
From the point of view of the students this system worked exceedingly well. Each year of study was different, and students knew they were all following the same curriculum with the same exams and the same workload regardless of the teacher they had or even the level of their group.

Laura Lerner: But weren’t the students divided into groups according to their entry levels? How could such a system work where some students were practically fluent and others had barely done 3 years of English? You must have had some who had been absolutely allergic to English for over 9 years!

Marianne Raynaud: Of course I did! And I still do! First year engineering students can be fluent which is the case of graduates of international high schools where half of the teaching is done in English or, as you say, be near beginners or what the French call "faux débutants" or "false beginners". I prefer the term "eternal beginners".

Laura Lerner: So how did you manage with these "false beginners"?

The Core Curriculum Allowed Us to Individualize the Teaching

Marianne Raynaud: Amazingly enough the core curriculum made it possible to individualize the teaching and thus cope with this great diversity (to speak euphemistically) when it comes to levels. Occasionally, I have been confronted with the odd student who considered himself too good for a "core curriculum" and who was disappointed at not being in a special more advanced group. This kind of student is rarely the true bilingual who speaks English like a native, but rather the "good" student who speaks up often in class and who has become used to being treated as "superior to others" and thus entitled to special attention. Often, in actual fact, the grammar or vocabulary skills of such a student are quite disappointing when you listen "word for word" to what he really says. But since he has never been told his language skills would require almost complete "cleansing" to become 100% correct, he keeps using all through his engineering school years a very "fluent" but approximate, Frenglish type of English. (Frenglish is English based on a word for word translation from French into English that sounds like French!) This term “Frenglish” is similar to the term “Spanglish”, which is used to define English practiced by Spanish speaking people, in other words English based on a word for word translation from Spanish into English that sounds like Spanish. Here we are not referring to “ franglais” which is French full of English words.)

Coping with students who speak “Frenglish”

Laura Lerner: So what strategy will you use with a student speaking “Frenglish” as you call it?

Marianne Raynaud: A “Frenglish” speaking student will protest for a week or two, but since the pace speeds up very quickly; he will soon see the course is indeed difficult even for him. With the individual coaching he gets in the tutorial sessions his teacher will confront him with the mistakes he is making. If he is intelligent (which is most often the case), he will realize his language is incorrect, he will make amends and finally he will make really progress.

We mustn’t underestimate the capabilities of our students

Laura Lerner: But coming back to the "weak" students or your "eternal beginners", isn’t it cruel to place students with great difficulties in a course where they will obviously have a hard time keeping up?

Marianne Raynaud: There again I will surprise you by saying "no". I simply believe that we mustn’t underestimate the capabilities of our young students who have tremendous learning resources. It is really a pity to allow students of this intellectual caliber to waste their time sitting passively in language classes. I have always believed any student who works hard and finds an effective method that works for him can learn how to speak English. I am not talking about becoming bilingual or being able to act as an interpreter at international conferences. I am talking about a kind of teaching that will make each student "operational" in normal circumstances that require skills in using English properly. We shouldn’t set our goals too high, but on the other hand, we should never say that teaching English is an impossible task. It is all a question of motivation…

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