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Building identity: the teacher's role

Association canadienne d'éducation de langue française (ACELF)

2013-01-28

What if helping students build their Francophone identity were more than just another task added to a teacher's workload? What if it were actually a way to make teaching more dynamic and learning more relevant? This article explores a vital aspect of the teacher's role in a French language minority school: acting as a role model for students.

Why be a role model?

Today, a wide variety of students attend French‑language schools. They make up an increasingly diverse group with vastly different experiences of the French language.

In a French‑language classroom, there are students

  • who have been speaking French since birth;
  • who speak French but prefer speaking English;
  • who spoke no French before starting school;
  • who have little opportunity to speak French outside of school;
  • who have only one French‑speaking parent;
  • who speak a language other than French or English at home; and
  • who have non‑French‑speaking parents.

In addition to helping students acquire, maintain and develop the French language, teachers in French‑language schools also play an important role in helping students build their Francophone identity. Students view their teacher as the person who contributes the most to their awareness of and commitment to the Francophonie.

It is therefore up to teachers to better understand the position of role model that students naturally assign them. One thing is clear: teachers have an opportunity to promote an appreciation of the French language in their students and ensure that French will continue to play an important part throughout their lives.

Understanding the student's day‑to‑day experiences

The best way to get to know students is to chat with them about a variety of subjects that relate to their everyday lives. For example, teachers can talk about meeting with former students who now work in French. They can ask students for their opinions on the quality of a radio program, or for suggestions on buying a music CD for a 15‑year‑old niece, etc.

Noting the students' comments, attitude and feedback can then help teachers adapt their teaching to better meet the needs of the group and of the individuals who make it up.

"I realized that my students had a very low opinion of French music. In talking with them, however, I learned that they have little or no opportunity to listen to music that is geared to their age group."

"I realized that my relationship with my students improved when I began taking a few minutes to chat with them and to talk to them a little—in French—about my life. I don't need to remind them as often to speak to me in French because now they know how important speaking in French is to me. It's become a matter of respect."

Am I a good role model?

Does being a role model mean that teachers must be French‑language and French‑culture buffs? Not necessarily. Every teacher represents an aspect of the current Francophonie, one that students may identify with. The important thing is for teachers to be willing to live a learning experience with their students and to be open to discovering with them the many aspects of the Francophonie.

The teacher's greatest ally: enthusiasm!

Students are searching for their identity and rightly wonder what place the French language will have in their adult lives. They therefore have a natural interest in the connections that teachers have with the French language outside of school.

Teachers' personal interests, favourite hobbies and even opinions on current affairs in the community are all factors that reinforce their image as a role model in the students' eyes.

"Photography has always been one of my passions, even when I was in school. It isn't an activity that I necessarily associate with the French language, but speaking about it to my students—in French, of course—has allowed them to discover a whole new vocabulary related to the field…and a side of me that makes for interesting conversation."

"I went to see a movie that I really didn't like. My students were surprised to hear me speak negatively about it—as if everything done in French must be good! Being a good role model for the students also means being objective and open‑minded."

What about the curriculum?

The learning outcomes on which the academic curriculum is based often integrate content that is ideal for building Francophone identity in students. Regardless of the subject matter, students will be most likely to take an interest in learning activities when teachers establish links with their own experience and with their students' day‑to‑day lives.

Like all those of their generation, these students live in a fast‑paced North American society, and they want the same kind of excitement when it comes to French language and French culture. Today, thanks in part to the digital world, it is possible to discover a Francophonie that has spread out to five continents and implanted itself in a variety of fields. By actively exploring French cultural activities in their environment and throughout the world, students will be able to define a Francophone culture in their image.

Summary of Fascicle No. 6 of a collection titled Comprendre la construction identitaire (www) English Hyperlink Notice, which discusses the basic principles of identity building and various related subjects. The fascicles can be downloaded free of charge.