Andrew P. Sykes: Career To Date

The following is a extract from Along The Med on a Bike Called Reggie and I use the opportunity of my visit to Nice in the summer of 2013 to explain a little about who I am and what led up to me becoming a French teacher in a British secondary school:

“The reason I knew Nice so well was that I had lived in the city for six weeks while training to be a teacher of French. My metamorphosis from graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics to fully qualified teacher of French in a British state secondary school had been lengthy, although rarely arduous. I had stopped studying French formally at the age of 16 when I finished my ‘O’ level in the subject. At the time (which isn’t that long ago), combining the study of a language with that of the sciences was (shamefully) frowned upon, certainly in the school where I was educated. This resulted in my continuing to study the sciences at ‘A’ level, which had a knock-on impact upon what I chose to study at university. Thinking back, I lacked imagination when it came to my academic choices and I now look with envy at the vast array of courses that are open to prospective university students in the 21st century. But I always considered that whatever I ended up doing in life, a second language would be of use. I still believe that, it’s just perhaps a pity that I don’t currently do anything much with my language skills apart from trying to teach French to the teenagers of today. My own school French teacher, Robin Barrett (whom I considered to be my only teacher with a skill worthy of my envy and who spent his lunchtimes in the dining hall chatting away in French to one of his language teaching colleagues, much to the bemusement of every pupil and probably most teachers) had faith in my linguistic skills however, and he supported me informally throughout the period of the sixth form with the occasional text, which I would read and return to him. At university, I spent my Wednesday afternoons not on the rugby or football pitches but at the Language Teaching Centre of York University, honing my skills and then, during my failed attempts to become an accountant in the early 1990s while working in London, I attended evening classes at the City Lit College in Covent Garden. After a day in the dusty office of a small-to-medium-sized company trying to work out which ledger was which and not particularly caring whether invoices had been correctly processed, I was in heaven at the City Lit doing something I wanted to do, in an exciting location and with interesting people from all walks of life. It was the highlight of my week for over two years of my life in my early twenties. It was probably also the reason why my score in a professional tax exam was just 13%; I had spent the previous evening not caring a hoot about the fiscal intricacies of taxation policy and everything about the irregular declension of French verbs at one of my lessons. My fellow trainee accountants couldn’t understand my folly when I explained to them where I had been the night before, as we queued for the exam outside that bastion of free-market economics, the Trades Union Congress in the West End of London. (It had a large hall.) I knew my days in the world of finance were numbered and had already found a job for the following summer, working on a campsite in France as a courier for a large, British travel company. My employers in the City were only told that I had a ‘bad fail’ in my exams. The accountancy partner’s reaction, when I requested that he not give me the opportunity of retaking the exams, was to ask, “Just how bad can a bad fail be?” Shortly after my revelation about the percentage score in the tax exam, I was on my way to a more fruitful future where my linguistic talents were prized over my financial ones. After two long, summer seasons working for the camping company, during which I criss-crossed France in a white transit van putting up tents, looking after the British middle-classes and then taking the tents down again in early autumn, I found a job in the Loire city of Tours, teaching English as a foreign language. It would have been easy to spend the rest of my life in Tours; it was a lovely city, I worked with friendly and interesting people, but I became increasingly worried about the prospect of not having a ‘proper’ job by the time I hit 40. The Internet intervened and one of my first online searches was to find out if it was possible to train as a secondary school teacher in the UK without a degree in the subject you wanted to teach. Much to my surprise, it was, although the choice was limited to just two courses: one at my old university in York and one at the University of Reading. At the time, language teachers in Britain were in short supply and various schemes existed to entice people with the right skills, but not necessarily the academic background, into becoming teachers. I applied to both universities but the York course closed before it started due to lack of interest, leaving me with the option of just Reading. It would be a two-year, postgraduate certificate in education with the first year spent making sure my language skills were up to scratch and the second year the traditional PGCE. And to finally bring our story to the point, as part of my first year, I was required to fly to Nice with my fellow students and spend six weeks experiencing life as trainee teacher in France. It was the least arduous part of all.”

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