A Chalet School Exchange
“Ready, Len?” asked Miss Alton.
The tall young woman hesitated, then nodded. “Yes. Yes, thank you, Miss Alton”.
“Good! Then come and meet your form”.
Len Maynard took a deep breath, gathering both gown and self confidence around her as she followed her headmistress. Miss Alton, head of the English branch of the Chalet School, turned and smiled at her newest and youngest mistress as she strode down the corridor towards the Fourth form’s room.
“I know that Hilda Annersley will have talked to you and Jo about this, but I would like to do so myself now” she said. “There is a real need now for the girls to do well in GCE and it means that here in England we can no longer give the precedence to languages we have done historically. We have given up the use of three languages in the way you were used to them to concentrate on good Oxford results. But, I don’t want us to loose our reputation for excellence in languages and so I am keen to push the Fourth in particular before they sit GCE next year. In addition, we have had some problems with staff over the last year and the language teaching has suffered and so, I am afraid, have the girls’ language skills. We have decided that they need to improve again!”
“Yes, I see” said Miss Maynard, “I knew of course that Glendower House had given up speaking English, French and German day-about, and Mamma and auntie Madge thought it was impossible to deal properly with the exam. syllabus if it continued here - especially for the girls who are poor at languages. But I did wonder why you were appointing a new languages mistress in these circumstances,” she added, anxiously.
“The girls still need excellent language teaching and I am afraid that the school’s language skills have slipped further than they should have done over the last few years” smiled Miss Alton “it has been difficult to find a balance between the general exam syllabus and maintaining our students’ languages.”
“Oh, I see that of course” said Len. “I know even in Switzerland, where its very much easier being surrounded by French or German all the time, some people who would be good at maths or science were hampered by trying to work in another language all the time.”
“Exactly” agreed the Head. “So, as you know, you are form mistress of the Fourth form and will take French with all forms except the Sixth, and German with the Third who are the youngest students to take German now.”
Miss Alton saw Len’s need for reassurance and added. “I’ve seen your lesson plans, and observed some really excellent work in your teaching practice. You’ll be fine, Len!”
“Thanks, Miss Alton”, said Len. “I am looking forward to starting – its funny how I would face any form as a prefect, but …”
“Remember to the Fourth you are grown up” interrupted the Head. “Now come and meet your form!”
Len followed Miss Alton into the large room, full of September sunshine. The Form rose at the mistresses’ entrance and stood until Miss Alton nodded to them with a smiling “thank you girls!”. The Fourth sat with only limited chair scraping and shuffling and most looked curiously at the newest staff member. Len noticed that they were mostly bright and cheerful looking but wondered at one girl who had risen more slowly than the rest and now slouched in her front row seat.
“This is Miss Maynard, Miss Maynard, these are the Fourth formers” introduced the Head. “Girls, please help Miss Maynard with anything she needs to know”.
“The bell goes for Prayers in ten minutes so once you’ve registered them it will be more or less time” added Miss Alton in an undertone.
The girls rose again as the Head left the room then sat, most of them looking at Len with interest. Len looked over her form, holding her chestnut head straight and returned their look with the clear eyes her mother always declared reminded her of wood-violets.
“We’ll start with registration, and I will try and learn your names quickly” she said.
Len quickly called over the names, trying to impress them on her memory. As she finished the bell rang and the form immediately rose to line at the door.
During Prayers, Len looked with interest at the assembled school. Most of Len’s school days had been spent at the school’s Swiss branch but she had spent a number of years at the school in England.
None of the girls were known to her now, although she knew that one or two were younger sisters and cousins of her contemporaries. Amongst the staff, again, were one or two old friends – besides Miss Alton, Miss Edwards had taught her in her earliest school days. She noted, too, the brown and flame uniform that had been left for the English branch when the Chalet School in Switzerland adopted new colours. Like the Swiss branch, the school in England had given up tunics a number of years earlier but instead of the dresses adopted in Switzerland the members of the English branch wore skirts and blazers, Miss Alton declaring that they were better suited to the English climate.
After Prayers, Len returned quickly to her form room. It had been explained to her that because, unlike the Swiss branch, the school had many day pupils, the term started immediately with the full timetable and books were handed out by subject mistresses.
Len’s first lesson was with the Fourth for a double French period and she quickly superintended the distribution of exercise and vocab books, New Simpler French Course and Le Petit Prince.
“Now, girls” she said, calling the class’s attention, and speaking of course in French. “You know that I am Miss Maynard. And what is your name?” Len nodded at a sullen looking girl on the front row.
“Jemima” muttered the girl.
Len raised an eyebrow, but felt it too early to comment on the girl’s attitude. Instead, she smiled encouragingly at the girl. “How do you do, Jemima, ” she said smilingly, “and now please introduce yourself in French and tell me something about yourself”.
The girl answered unwillingly and Len passed on to the next girl with a question about the holidays. After around 10 minutes of conversation – with much help and prompting from the mistress – Len paused, much to the relief of those who had not been called on.
“Copy this down, please” she said crisply, beginning a vocabulary list on the blackboard.
Once the last girl had finished transcribing the list Len, reverting to French, told the form to learn the list for preparation and prepare 10 sentences describing the holiday then called on the form prefect to translate.
Robyn Black, a slim, pretty girl translated accurately enough but with hesitation which astonished Len, remembering her own fluency at 14. “I must remember that languages haven’t been taught here as we were at the Chalet” she thought to herself, “and we three had the time at the convent which improved our French no end. The level was bound to be different here. Auntie Madge told me ages ago before I even thought of coming to Glendower House that the languages were slipping in the interest of other subjects too.”
As the first week progressed, Len found that it was the same throughout the school, whilst the girls’ work, on the whole, was excellent, the school’s languages were poor. From her mother and aunt, Len knew that the previous language mistress had not been a success. Joining the school at a time when a decision had been taken that languages could not be prioritised in the way they had been, Miss Chesney had simply not kept the standard high enough. Coming in a year when the German mistress had been in the San. for almost a whole year, the foreign language teaching had slipped far below the standard expected by the school. Miss Alton had acted swiftly once she realised the problem and leapt at the opportunity to employ Len Maynard as assistant languages mistress to Frau Schmit, but there was much hard work to be done to restore Glendower House’s status as far as languages were concerned.
The bright Indian summer weather continued and Len – busy with teaching and, she felt, learning too as she put into practice the skills she had learned on her course – awoke with a shock one morning to realise that September had slipped into October. She washed and dressed quickly before slipping down to the staffroom to finish some marking.
Frau Schmit, the head of the languages department, smiled at her young assistant mistress as she came into the room. “Are your students making progress?” she asked.
“Some of them are so poor” said Len. “Even those who try would benefit from more than two double periods each week – they need to be surrounded by the language in the way we were.”
“Yes, but how to manage it?” asked the older woman. “Miss Alton is quite correct that the girls cannot speak French and German four days each week and expect to do as well in their examinations as one would hope. We must think of other ideas to give them chance to speak and hear more”.
“Well” said Len, hesitatingly, “I did have one idea but”
“But please explain, Len” encouraged her head of department
“I wondered whether some of the girls could spend some time at the Swiss branch and – well – perhaps some of the continental girls could spend some time here which would help their English”
“An exchange?” asked Frau Schmit “I wonder if we could do that?”