GoAbroad Interview

Helen Watts - Director & English Teacher

Helen Watts - Director & English Teacher

Helen studied languages at university, and after working in London and Geneva, settled in the French Alps in a beautiful town called Morzine. She set up Alpine French School in 2003 and the school has expanded to offer a wide variety of courses including outdoor activities with French programmes.

Skiing in Morzine-Avoriaz in France

Helen skiing in Morzine-Avoriaz with students.

What was the impetus for you starting Alpine French Schools in 2003?

I saw that there was a demand for people to learn French in and around Morzine. Having worked at International House in Geneva, I had learnt a lot about the management of a language school and decided to set up the school. We started small, but have expanded year on year.

What does your day-to-day work look like as not only the Director for Alpine French School, but also one of the English Teachers?

I juggle a lot of things! I do a lot of the marketing for the school as well as managing the accounts and the general smooth running of the school as well as overseeing staff and students. My business partner Christelle is Director of Studies and oversees the pedagogical side of the business and manages the teachers. But, I still love it as much if not more than when I started the school!

Your academic background is in European Studies and French, and you grew up learning French. How did your degree impact your interest in teaching?

I taught throughout my degree and even before and it has always been an interest of mine to encourage others to learn a language. I enjoy learning about different cultures too, and teaching languages enables you to meet people of all nationalities which is really interesting.

You have a wealth of experience teaching in various countries, what was the most important thing you learned as a teacher prior to starting Alpine French School?

I would say the importance of the communicative approach, keeping students involved in the lesson, and getting them using the language so that they are active and not passive in their learning.

Alpine French School Directory with the Morzine Project Manager and Mayor

Project meeting with the Mayor and Morzine Project Manager.

Alpine French School was originally called Lost in Translation, what prompted the name change?

The original name was a play on words, but as we started to appeal to more diverse nationalities, we decided that we needed a more straight-forward name, one that “does what it says on the tin”.

You’re fluent in both English and French, what are the top five benefits of speaking more than one language?

  1. Being able to live in a different country and having a maximum possibilities open to you
  2. Learning and understanding other cultures
  3. Once you learn one language, it is much easier to acquire knowledge of others
  4. When you travel, life is easier and you meet a more diverse mix of people
  5. Speaking several languages opens up more professional avenues

You run the Alpine French School with only seven permanent teachers and several other helpers. What is the student to teacher ratio? What makes this successful?

We have small class sizes (a maximum of 10, but an average of seven students per class) and we try to keep the school a human size which enables us to personally keep track of our students and solve the rare problems that arrive expediently so that everyone is happy. We have high standards for teaching and pastoral care that very large schools find it hard to maintain.

What types of students are attracted to this particular type of language learning environment where adventurous activities are incorporated outside the classroom? Where are the majority of your students from?

The profile of our students is generally young, outdoor lovers, and sporty types. The majority of the students are between 16 and 35 years old, and the older ones tend to be active and young at heart which makes for a nice learning environment. Students meet each other and bond during the activities, as well as at the school, and also it gives them a great opportunity to practice French outside of the classroom in situation.

Mountain Triathlon near Morzine

At a mountain triathlon near Morzine.

You’ve been the owner and manager of a variety of different businesses while living in France, how have these experiences helped you better understand the French business culture?

French business culture is very unique, so the other businesses that I have run in France have given me a huge advantage in running the school. France is an amazing country to live in, but the cost of employing staff is very high, the amount that businesses have to contribute to the welfare state is considerable, but there are also benefits to this type of economy and as long as you understand this in the beginning, then this helps in running a successful business.

You’ve been living in France for over 15 years, what makes Morzine and the Rhône Alpes Region so special?

The Rhône Alpes is a beautiful region with mountains, beautiful lakes with sandy beaches, great towns and cities, and amazing natural beauty. The seasons are distinct with snowy winters and warm summers, enabling you to get outside and enjoy the area you live in.  Morzine is a small but lively town and a nice manageable size. Building laws are tight so it has kept the traditional chalet style of architecture and the commune invest year-on-year in local infrastructure to make it a great place to live.