Coronavirus: French teacher's Hebridean lockdown

By Andrew Thomson
BBC Scotland

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Image source, British Council
Image caption,
Mathilde Forgeritt arrived in Lewis in August last year

A French language assistant who remained in the Western Isles during the coronavirus lockdown has been praised for the unique contribution she has made to young people's education.

Mathilde Forgerit arrived in Lewis last August for what was her first experience of teaching French abroad.

During the pandemic she has been able to use the islands' digital learning facilities to deliver classes to young people in other parts of Scotland too.

She said that despite being far from her family, the kindness of islanders stopped her from feeling isolated.

'So friendly'

Mathilde admitted she did not really know what to expect when she arrived in Lewis, but she was quickly made to feel at home in Stornoway, which is about the same size as her home town, Les Essarts, near Nantes.

She said: "The people here are just so friendly. They will welcome you into their house and are always asking if you need something, if you need help, so that is really nice.

"I have explored all the touristic places like the Callanish Stones, and went to some lovely beaches.

"I am used to beaches in France with a lot of people and here when I came to the beach I was like, 'oh we're the only people'. Is it normal? 'Are we allowed to be here?'."

Image source, Mathilde Forgeritt
Image caption,
Mathilde enjoyed trips to Lewis' beautiful, quiet beaches

Mathilde was the first language assistant to come to the Western Isles in many years and provided face-to-face lessons to pupils at Laxdale and Tong primary schools.

She also taught online through the local authority Comhairle nan Eilean Siar's digital learning e-Sgoil to many other primary and secondary schools across the islands.

Mathilde said: "It was the first time that some of the kids had met someone from outside Scotland whose first language is not English.

"I am quite young. I am 21, so the pupils were maybe more at ease with me. Maybe we understand each other more than the older teachers."

She added: "It was nice just to see the kids enjoying French but at times it is more about the culture. They can ask me questions about France, weird questions like do you eat snails and frogs' legs and things like that."

Image source, British Council
Image caption,
Mathilde only returned home to France last week

Then the pandemic changed everything. Lockdown happened in France before it did in Scotland and Mathilde said the uncertainty made her consider going home.

"It was a really strange time. But I am happy to have stayed in the end," she said.

"I think that was a good option, because I could still deliver online lessons from my place. I already knew how it worked because of the online e-Sgoil lessons.

"I thought it was going to be harder, being here during lockdown, but I have been quite happy.

"And when you are not feeling good, you can still talk to all the teachers and everyone and they are listening to you. I didn't feel alone. It was like I had a Scottish family here."

'Re-energise language learning'

Mathilde returned home to France last week, but the comhairle said she had left behind a positive language learning legacy across island schools.

Senior education officer Mary Clare Ferguson said: "She proved to be such an asset and a natural teacher.

"The pupils loved working with her and gained so much insight from a young person about her life in France, her culture and language. She really motivated them to improve their language skills."

Image source, British Council
Image caption,
Mathilde has been praised for her work with schoolchildren in Lewis

Gerry McIntosh is the consultant at the British Council responsible for the language assistants programme.

He said: "We had a few language assistants stay in Scotland during lockdown, but Mathilde's story is probably unique in the whole of the UK.

"What really struck me when I saw her teach was that the schools, the teachers, the young learners had made her feel one of the family. She had integrated phenomenally.

"She has also been in a very lucky situation to cope with the change from classroom teaching to virtual teaching."

He added: "The kids absolutely love her. They'll be heartbroken that she's gone back to France."

What Mathilde will remember most is the smiles of the children when they were learning French.

She said: "When I arrived at school in the morning and they were saying Bonjour.

"I taught a Gaelic class so I had to say Madainn Mhath. They were happy to teach me too. It was a two-way process."