In the fairer months, I bike to work. The rest of the year, I battle my way through storms of rain, snow, and ice using public transit. I am grateful that I live only a few kilometres from school, because Montreal has notoriously difficult commutes.
I work at Dawson College, which is part of the collège d’enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEP) system. In Canada, this system is unique to the province of Quebec, but is similar to the sixth-form college system in the UK. Students here attend elementary school for Grades 1 to 6, high school for Grades 7 to 11 and then CEGEP for two to three years. They choose from a wide variety of pre-university programmes such as business, science and social science – or career programmes such as civil engineering, 3D animation and nursing.
Dawson CEGEP, located in downtown Montreal, is the largest CEGEP college in the province, with 12,000 students.
I have been working as a pedagogical counsellor in the academic skills centre here for four years. A typical day involves teaching academic writing to second-language students, moderating English language fluency groups and appointments with students who need help with various academic skills.
'Highly motivated and respectful'
My academic writing “labs” are 75 minutes and there are up to 12 students in each group. The focus is on grammar and academic style, but I enjoy a lot of autonomy in how I plan my lessons, enabling me to tailor my teaching to the students’ strengths and needs.
The students in my labs have agreed to work with me to help them integrate into the mainstream courses. They are highly motivated and respectful, so I rarely have to deal with disciplinary issues.
My students are all either francophones or allophones – a term specific to Quebec, used to refer to a resident whose mother tongue is neither French nor English. They are attending English school full-time for the first time.
Teaching English in Quebec is inextricably tied to politics. A somewhat controversial law named Bill 101, put into place by French culture and language preservationists in 1977, limits access to public English education in the province. This law ceases to apply once students finish high school, which means there is a high demand for CEGEP-level English education. It is the first opportunity that many students – especially immigrants – have to access full-time English schooling.
In autumn 2017, the Parti Québécois, which advocates national sovereignty for Quebec, debated extending this law to CEGEP, should they gain a majority. This would have potentially reduced my school’s attendance and funding, but as it stands we are operating at capacity. The job market in Montreal is bilingual, but obviously the global job market favours English skills and many students wish to attend English-language universities.
The greatest challenges faced by my department translate into our greatest successes. I value the opportunity to interact with young people from both Canada and abroad. I spent autumn 2016 working with a 16-year-old boy from Syria who had only been in Canada for a few weeks, when the refugee crisis was an international topic. In the middle of all the political commotion, it was refreshing to see how similar he was to most other teenagers I’ve worked with.
I hope that the CEGEP – with its multitude of coexisting cultures striving for a common goal – can continue to have a positive influence on Canadian society.
Patrick Bennett is a pedagogical counsellor in the academic skills centre of Dawson College in Montreal, Canada