Why I Became a Teacher – An Essay on Global Citizenship

Beth Marshall is a French Teacher and World Languages Dept. Chair at Riverbend High School in Fredericksburg, Virginia. As a world languages educator, she is passionate about not only teaching her students languages but helping them evolve as global citizens in order to help a more globally conscious world and society.

“Why would you want to be a teacher?” is a question I’m asked often when I say I teach high school French. Many adults can’t fathom the idea of standing in front of thirty or more hormonal teenagers every day. It’s also a question I ask myself particularly often during those last long weeks of the school year in May, during those final exams and standardized tests. I also am reflecting on this again I prepare to go back to school in a few days. I definitely know the overall purpose of my French class is NOT for them to have memorized the verb “to be” in nine tenses by the end of the year, to be able to list the capitals and countries of the francophone world or to identify all the colors…it’s much more than that.

My purpose as a teacher is to give students the tools to communicate with others and connect in a positive way in the target language in our world today. It’s using current events articles, literature, and videos to open their eyes to a new perspective of the global world. Frank Smith said, “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” Good teaching is challenging them to think of themselves as citizens of the world, and the understanding that they’ll grow up in a world that is more connected than ever. Woodrow Wilson said “We are citizens of the world. The tragedy of our times is that we do not know this.” My goal as a teacher is to not repeat this with the next generation. If my students walk out of my classroom in 180 days and have a better awareness of who they are as global citizens of this world and have the tools to make positive connections in a second language, then my teaching has been a success.

Inspiring the Next Generation of Global Citizens

When I decided to talk to my classes about global citizenship this past year, one of the most powerful moments was brainstorming what the word “citizen” meant to them. Many explained to me the word citizen represented an obligation, or an expectation to be an important part of a group, thereby calling them to be aware of how important their actions were in our world today. If I was to create a chocolate factory here in Virginia (one of my own personal dreams!) and I dumped all the waste from my factory into the water, this would not only have a horrible impact on the town but also our Canadian neighbors to the north, our Mexican neighbors to the south, and eventually oceans across the globe. It is my calling as a global citizen to understand the impact of my own actions. The boundaries written on a map between our countries do not stop at that border with what we say or do. As our discussion evolved, I saw many heads in the class nodding in understanding. This was a powerful conversation, and probably much more interesting than when to use the imparfait versus the passé composé!

Another powerful discussion centered around a video we watched in which people across the globe were interviewed as to what rights we all have as citizens of the world. Some of the rights given to everyone on this earth just by being born included the right to live in a tolerant world with clean water, lack of poverty, a sustainable environment, and justice for all citizens. What an amazing thought…that everyone, just by being born, has rights. The sad fact is that some people are denied these rights depending on where they were born. We, as global citizens, have an obligation to fight for these rights. Many students also noted that even in the most remote and poverty-stricken parts of the world, kids their age were playing soccer. No matter where we come from, we enjoy some of the same things. We are all human beings, and we all belong to the human race. These were some powerful conversations!

Some students asked me “Pourquoi est-ce qu’on fait cela dans notre classe, Madame?” Why are we doing this in French class, Madame?” Obviously the idea of global citizenship can be a powerful discussion in science or social studies class as well, but how does this tie into a language class? As a French teacher, it is extremely important for me to show how learning a language ties into being globally aware. For me, it is connecting every lesson I do to our global world. It is bringing the French-speaking world into our classroom, where we can play with the language, explore the visual and culinary arts, and we can talk about how history has shaped the people of the francophone world.

Forging Connections

When we do listening comprehension, sometimes I use music videos to introduce new vocabulary. Students are sometimes shocked to hear that rap from Stromae, a Rwandan-Belgian singer, can be just as interesting as the music that they are listening to at home. To practice their speaking skills, we sometimes Skype with a classroom in France. We take writing assignments and give it a real-life purpose by making them pen-pal letters to our sister school, using vocabulary about their leisure time activities for them to compare and contrast life as a teen in the United States to life as a teen in France. These meaningful connections make current events so much closer to home; it becomes personal to them. When the attacks happened in Paris this past November, the first question that the students had was if our sister school was safe. When they wanted to make a sign to share their sorrow with their pen pals, I knew that we had achieved interconnectedness.

After talking with my classes about what issues we face in today’s world as global citizens, we then moved on to the last topic of what can we do to face these challenges. Travel was mentioned as part of many students’ action plan, which warmed my heart. To me, taking students abroad is the pinnacle of why I teach. It was on a student trip almost thirty years ago to Europe that opened my eyes to the world outside of my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. This curiosity led me to study abroad at the University of Paris in college and lastly to become a language teacher, leading my own trips with students.

There is no greater joy for me as a teacher than to watch my students use the language skills we have practiced daily in class to order a sandwich, to ask for directions to the nearest restroom, or to read a sign on the streets of Paris. As much fun as travel can be, (because who doesn’t love a Paris sunset?) there is more to travel than fun. It is to open the students’ eyes to possibilities, to show them how another culture can be so different yet so similar to their own all at the same time, to show them they can get on that plane, waving goodbye to their parents, and come back a more confident young person 10 days later. It is to start a small fire of a passion for travel that you hope leads to them either studying abroad in college, or even moving to another country in the future. It is giving them the confidence to try to communicate for the first time. Most importantly, it is showing them that they are connected to the world around them, and that it is going to be imperative in the 21st century that they understand how to communicate in a respectful way with others in order for our world to continue.

The World in Their World

What about those students who will never leave their hometown? (or their parents’ basements, for that matter?) Why would they need to learn a language? Will they ever use the French language that I have taught them? It is almost more important that this group who will not have opportunities to travel be able to understand the concept of “It isn’t weird; it’s just different” in regards to cultural differences. This group will more than likely still communicate in another language…some without ever leaving their own homes. Our computers and cell phones allow businesses to communicate with our global world, and it is going to be an important skill to be able to make connections with business partners and be respectful of their differences as our students navigate through their careers. It is my hope that these students will remember to use “vous” instead of “tu” and maybe get rid of the stereotype that all Americans only care about their own culture.

So, now we have educated the students, and they walk out our doors at the end of their four years of high school …what can this knowledge and understanding do for the world of tomorrow? It is my personal hope that I have planted an idea of “what if” within them that will lead them to helping our world become a better version of what it is now. Maybe some of them will join the Peace Corps, or become active in social reform in our own country or abroad. Perhaps even a few will inspire others to change the perspective of American citizen to a global citizen. If I have inspired students to seek out ways to make the world a better place, then I have done my job as a teacher.

This past week, I received a Facebook message from a family who was involved in an exchange with our sister school this past year. It was a ton of work, and I questioned myself “Why am I doing this?” many times during the exchange. After one of my student’s families at our school hosted two French girls this past fall, her American family traveled to France this summer to visit both girls. After the American family returned back from their visit to France, the mother of my student wrote: “Having just returned from our reciprocal visit, it’s very clear why these two (French students) are such a joy…their families are just wonderful! They took such good care of us and although (some of) our French is non-existent, communication was not a problem. We loved every minute…Thank you again, and in the future, if you get overwhelmed or feel like it is not worth it to go through the hassle of arranging something like this again, remember that although it might not be the same for everyone, relationships are built and lives are enriched through your efforts. At least ours were and continue to be.” This week when I start back to school, I will be working to create global citizens…one relationship at a time. So, next time I am asked “Why would you want to be a teacher?”, I have an answer.

This week when I start back to school, I will be working to create global citizens…one relationship at a time. So, next time I am asked “Why would you want to be a teacher?”, I have an answer.

What drives you as a teacher and inspires you to keep on going? Let us know in the comments section below!

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This article first ran in Language Magazine in September of 2016.

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