Every Friday we feature a member of our staff in our Staff Spotlight! This week, we spoke to French and German teacher Cathy Maxwell about her teaching career.
What interested you in teaching?
Teaching was something that I fell into almost accidentally, it just kind of happened. I always loved languages and school, and so I knew I wanted to do something with languages. When I started in university I studied French, German, English and Anthropology and while I found it really interesting, Anthropology wasn’t something I wanted to pursue as a career. I focused on French and German, which I’d studied since 1st Year in school, and I really enjoyed the literature and translation aspects of studying the languages. But after university I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I had no plans to do a post-grad, so when I got the opportunity to become a language assistant and teach English as a foreign language I thought I’d go ahead and give it ago, and that’s how I fell into teaching. I taught in Vienna and Portugal as a language assistant for a few years and really enjoyed it, was quite good at it, but I knew that I always wanted to come back to Dublin. So when I got back to Ireland I had a few friends that were teaching and I thought I’d give it a go as well, since I’d enjoyed being a language assistant. I thought I’d teach for a few years and see how it went, and 30 years later here I am still teaching!
What makes teaching German and French exciting for you?
I especially love teaching French and German because I love the subjects and the variety, and I love knowing that it’s a subject that is really useful and helpful to students. There’s so much depth in teaching languages because as the world changes, language also changes and so we’re constantly reinventing our materials and texts to keep them authentic.
I also love when students come into 1st Year and they know absolutely zero French, or German, and then after 6 years with us they are able to read, write, have a conversation in the target language, and that progression is brilliant. I love sharing the culture and the country with students as well. Sometimes people ask me if I prefer either French or German, but I really cannot decide, I love them both for many different reasons. I do hate when people say German is difficult, or doesn’t sound nice, because it doesn’t have to be difficult and it can be beautiful. Each language is a window into a different world, their cultures and histories, and can give you different insights.
Are there any other languages that you speak, or would like to learn?
I’ve learned a bit of Portuguese and Spanish through my time teaching and travelling, but I’d love to learn Spanish or Italian more formally at some stage. One of my favourite things about languages is that while it became my focus, it can also be something that people do on the side or alongside other subjects, like languages and law or business.
Why did you choose to teach at Alex?
Everything in my life just seems to be an accident, but happy accidents! I taught in Monaghan for a few years and it was great, but I wanted to come back closer to home again. So I sent my CV to a few schools in the area, and was called for an interview by Ms Ruddock, and she said “Can you start tomorrow?” so that was that! It was initially supposed to be maternity cover, but turned out to be longer term and I loved it. I really love the school ethos and community we work in; I’ve worked with many colleagues over the years, and the community has always made me feel welcome and made me feel lucky to be a part of it. We also have such an international cohort amongst the students, and that’s often lent a very realistic aspect to teaching languages, which has been great.
How have you adapted your teaching for Covid-19? Is there anything you think you’ll continue going forward?
Access to language and the world that we teach is so much better with technology. When I was in school I had to go to Easons to get a French language newspaper; now it’s just a few clicks away. You can do a tour of the Louvre or the Brandenburg Gate from your home, and that was even more evident during the pandemic. Technology was already a part of our lives, and we were lucky that we had educational technology in place when the pandemic hit.
It was difficult for both students and teachers; operating on Zoom or Google Classroom is hard enough in your own language, but it’s even harder in a foreign language and so there were definitely challenges. One thing that I found is that technology has actually made it easier to be a bit more organised and share work with students, which I’ll definitely keep going forward. One of the other things that changed was that you had to actively reach out to people for help and ideas and support since everyone was isolated. People were very generous with their time and ideas not just within our own school, but also in the wider teaching and modern language community. I feel that I’ve connected more with people outside our school community, which has been very helpful.
What has been the highlight of your teaching career so far?
There’s never any single highlight because there’ve been so many great things along the way! It’s always a highlight to see the progression of students as they learn the language, and seeing those who continue on with their language, even with other subjects, is always amazing.
I think a highlight as well has been not just teaching in the classroom, but also getting to know students outside of the classroom through extracurricular activities or trips. I’ve been very lucky to go on a number of trips to Peru, France, Zambia, or America with both languages and other subjects and you really get to know the whole student, see their strengths and weaknesses, and learn from them as well. It’s impossible to pick a single highlight when I get to do a job that I love.