Sunday, March 8, 2015

Q&A: Teaching English in France

This is the first post in my new Q&A series, dedicated to seeking out opinions -- other than my own! -- about studying, working, and living in Francophone Europe. You can find the whole series here.

Meet Ola and Laura! As seniors in college, both applied to the Teaching Assistant Program in France (T.A.P.I.F.) and were accepted as English teaching assistants for the 2014-2015 school year. Both Ola and Laura are working with elementary school students and have agreed to take time out of their busy schedules to answer a few questions about their experiences.

 

Okay, so first of all -- what are you teaching and where?

Ola: I teach English at two elementary schools, one in Échirolles and one in Pont-de-Claix, which are two small suburbs south of Grenoble. My students range from age 6 to age 11.

Laura: I’m teaching English at the elementary school level. That means that my classes range from CP-CM2 (the French equivalents of first through fifth grade). Teaching elementary students requires a lot of energy, but they’re eager to learn and a lot of fun! They ask some really strange questions, like “How long is the train ride from New York to Agen?” and “Do you know the queen of England?” I live in a town called Agen in the southwest of France. It’s the administrative capital of the Lot-et-Garonne department, but it’s relatively small city with a small-town feel. My town is about halfway between Bordeaux and Toulouse on the train line, so it’s easy for me to visit the city on the weekend if I want a change of pace. People here in the southwest are known to be friendly and to talk with a very unusual accent. Rugby is one of the area’s most popular sports. It’s an important agricultural area that’s known for products such as wine, foie gras, and prunes.

Going abroad for a year after graduation is a big decision! Why did you apply to the Teaching Assistant Program in France? 

Ola: I had been thinking about going abroad after university for a couple of years before I graduated, so that general idea was already in my mind for a while. I heard about T.A.P.I.F. from a French professor I had the last quarter of my junior year and I skimmed a couple articles about it, but it wasn’t until I was studying abroad as a senior that I really decided to go for it. A big part of my decision was influenced by my study abroad experience, which was amazing. And, to be honest, my fear of “real life” after college pushed me towards T.A.P.I.F. as well. I just couldn’t picture myself going straight into a “regular” full-time job. Plus, I wanted to travel and not go broke doing it. I find that a lot of the other assistants have similar stories.

Laura: After I returned from my semester abroad to start my senior year, I felt that the time I’d spent in France was not long enough. I had definitely improved my French during that semester, but I knew that a longer stay in France was necessary to achieve the kind of conversational fluency that I wanted. Besides, who doesn’t want to spend a year in France? It’s been a great adventure, and it’s helped to take the sting out of my graduation from William & Mary.

TAPIF applicants are allowed to rank their top three académies. How did you choose what region you wanted to be placed in?

Ola: As far as choosing my region, it was a really difficult choice. In the end I only put one city, Grenoble, which I had wanted to visit while studying abroad but didn’t get a chance to, and left the other two choices blank.

Laura: When it comes to your placement with T.A.P.I.F., it’s important to be flexible. This is what I’d read time and time again from people who’d done the program in the past. Consequently, I made up my mind not to overthink my choice of department or to get my heart set on living in one specific city. I was placed in the Bordeaux académie (which was my top choice). I chose it primarily because it was a part of France that I hadn’t seen before, and also because the winters aren’t too cold and the cost of living is relatively low compared to other parts of France.


What do your responsibilities as a teaching assistant include? Can you describe a typical day?

Ola: I think it’s important to keep in mind that a “typical T.A.P.I.F. experience” doesn’t really exist. Your experience as a T.A.P.I.F. assistant will vary greatly depending on what level you teach at, how helpful your teachers are, whether you’re in a city or a small town, etc. That being said … I work two full days and a one half day, on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Full days start at 8:50 am and end just before 4:00 pm with a two-hour lunch in the middle (thanks France) and half days start after lunch. (...) My day starts with little French humans shouting my name as I enter the school, and then I go from class to class (at my schools I’m in each class for 35-45 minutes) and teach. During the week I teach 17 different classes between the two schools. At first it was tough working with so many different teachers as they all seemed to expect something different from me, and it took me a few weeks to learn how to adapt the lessons I prepared to their teaching style. For the most part I lead the class and the teacher is there to help if the kids start goofing off or if I have trouble explaining an activity in French, but like I said, each class is different. I have teachers who do practically everything, some who do the warm-up and then hand the class over to me, and some who go to the back of the last class and don’t lift their eyes from their desk until I leave, so it varies.

Laura: My responsibilities change a lot from one class to another. I work with 11 teachers in three schools, and each of them has a different teaching style. There are some classes where I always work alongside the teacher, other classes where the teacher is there but lets me direct the class, and still others where we share the class in rotating workshops. Some teachers do most of the lesson prep themselves, and others let me make my own lesson plans on the topics that they provide. The TAPIF program will only give you 12 hours of class time a week -- this is the same for everyone, in both primary and secondary schools. I have a slightly different schedule every day, and I was lucky enough to get a free Friday with no classes at all.

What has been the biggest surprise about your job? Have you observed any misconceptions about TAPIF that you'd like to clear up?

Ola: I was surprised by how difficult the first month was for me. I found myself speaking French in front of hundreds of little French people each week and it was hard for me to gauge how much I could expect out of each class. A lot of my first few lesson plans ended up being either too complicated and long or too simple and short and left me with awkward free time I didn't know how to fill. I didn't feel that we were trained very well, so I definitely wasn't able to hit the ground running, but I got the hang of it eventually.

One thing that I find surprises a lot of assistants is that there are many teachers who don’t follow the guidelines. According to our TAPIF packets, we are merely assistants and we aren’t expected to fully plan lessons, and in theory the teachers know this. But a lot of assistants find themselves planning full lessons with little to no help from the teacher. On a more positive note, I’m always surprised by how happy the kids are when I walk into the classroom and how excited they are to learn.  



Laura: The T.A.P.I.F. program strongly promotes the idea that teaching is your primary responsibility, but once you've settled into France, you’ll find that you have a lot of free time on your hands. In my case, I feel that it’s a little too much free time. In the beginning I was busy enough with exploring the town and working out administrative details, but lately I've been trying to fill in my excess time with babysitting and volunteer work. Twelve hours is not a lot of time to be at work, especially for someone who’s used to the workload at William & Mary!

What do you like to do outside of the classroom? (More specific questions, if you'd rather pick one of these: Have you made friends with other tutors? Do you work outside of your teaching job? Where have you traveled to?)

Ola: All T.A.P.I.F. assistants work 12 hours a week and most end up having a three-day weekend as well as Wednesdays off, which is quite a bit of free time. Early on I got in contact with a woman who posted on the Grenoble T.A.P.I.F. Facebook page saying she was looking for an American babysitter. I met with her and she arranged for me to meet her friend who wanted an English tutor for her son, who then introduced me to her neighbor who wanted English lessons for her three kids and another friend whose daughter wanted English conversation lessons. So my Wednesdays, originally my day off, have become my busiest day of the week, but I’m really glad it is. It gives me more money to travel and also gives me a chance to see how French people live.

Besides tutoring I meet up with other assistants pretty frequently for coffee or movies or day trips. I’m lucky that I live close to a big city, as there are a lot more assistants to meet. Lately I have been making more of an effort to expand my circle of friends beyond other assistants and have been meeting up with French people I find on Facebook through language exchange pages and going to language exchange events in cafes around the area. I highly suggest doing this, or anything else that forces you to meet people from your city, otherwise you’re likely to close yourself off. A tip: I think you’ll benefit most from T.A.P.I.F. if you also have a side goal, like applying for graduate school, taking classes at a university, learning how to meditate, knitting, etc. That’s one thing I wish I would have put a little more thought into before coming to France.

Laura: I’ve made good friends with a lot of the other teaching assistants in my town. In Agen, we have teaching assistants from America, England, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Italy, and Germany. It was a really nice surprise to find myself with such an international group of people! The pool of teaching assistants is typically like this in any of the larger cities, but if you get placed in a very small town, you could potentially be on your own. The other teaching assistants have been a fun group of people to hang out with, and I’ve learned a lot about their countries. I hosted a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner with some of my friends, and they all loved the food! I even got to visit Italy over the winter break and stay with an Italian family in Tuscany for New Years’. I’ve visited different parts France with some of the other William & Mary alums who are in the TAPIF program.On my next vacation in February, I’ll be traveling around Spain and Portugal with some of the other assistants from Agen.


Speaking a little more generally about life abroad, what have been some of the challenges of moving to and working in France?

Ola: To be honest I was surprised at how well I adjusted to life here. I think having lived in France before really helped. I rent a room with a family, rather than a whole apartment, and that helps as well. It cut down the number of bills I have to worry about paying and lowered startup costs (things like setting up internet, buying pots, pans and salt, etc.), and it didn't hurt living with nice people who were willing to help me when I was confused about one thing or another. Of course dealing with French bureaucracy hasn’t been too fun. There is a lot of paperwork as I’m sure you can imagine. During the first few weeks, I felt like I had a second job taking care of all that. Keep in mind, though, that in many schools the administration will help with some, if not most, of the steps.

I will say, however, that finding housing was definitely the biggest challenge and is hands-down one of the most stressful parts of moving to France. While there are several websites designed to help you find a place, most potential renters often won’t respond to emails, only phone calls. Many assistants wait until they get to France to start looking, which ends up working out for most of them because of this. I was lucky to find something before I left through one of these websites, but even that was stressful as I wasn’t able to see the place before committing to it. Just keep in mind that there are hundreds of other assistants going through the same thing and that they nearly always find something.

Laura: Moving to France is not easy. With TAPIF, the process of getting your visa is pretty simple, but everything that comes afterwards is still tricky. Finding an apartment, opening a bank account, signing up for life insurance, and even setting up a wifi connection- all of this is a lot harder in France, not only because of the language, but also because of all the administrative hoops that you have to jump through. I also find that making friends here in France is not an easy or automatic process. I talk to my neighbors and coworkers on a daily basis, but I wouldn’t consider them to be close friends. It helps to find activities that you can get involved in around town. For me, this has been mostly volunteer work and religious activities. I know other teaching assistants who have gotten involved with choirs and amateur sports teams.


What's next for you? What experiences from T.A.P.I.F. will you take with you in your future career?

Ola: Oh that question. I’m not going to lie; I’m still not sure about that one. I wish I could pick up and move to another country for a while, but for now the plan is to go home and finally get a “real job” and eventually, when I learn what I want to go into tens of thousands of dollars of debt for, go to grad school. As far as what I will take away from T.A.P.I.F.: I definitely want to make sure to keep French a part of my life after I leave. Beyond that, even though I don’t think working with little kids is what I want to pursue long term, the job itself taught me skills I’ll be able to use anywhere: the ability to adapt quickly, think on my feet, feeling comfortable presenting in front of people, creativity, etc. That being said, I don’t think I’m going to fully appreciate how I’ve grown as a person and what I’ve learned by being here until after I leave France.

Laura: I want to return to America once my time with T.A.P.I.F. is finished. I’m in the process of job-searching and have just started sending out the first couple of applications. I’m focusing on French companies or international companies where I would be able to use my French skills. While I don’t want to live abroad permanently, I’m also determined to find a job where I’ll be able to travel and/or interact with an international group of people. T.A.P.I.F. has been a great way for me to ease into adulthood and work on my French skills, while still having time to travel. I would recommend it to anyone who loves France and working with students, even if they aren’t necessarily interested in a teaching career.

Thank you, Ola and Laura! If you're interested in teaching through T.A.P.I.F. or living in France after graduation, you can read more about Ola's adventures on her personal blog. Are there any other T.A.P.I.F. alumni out there? What do you think of Ola and Laura's advice?

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