19 Things I’ve Learned So Far as a Teaching Assistant in France (Part 1)

[Note: I haven’t been able to update the blog in a while (still no wifi connection in my apartment, and limited high-speed data on my phone), so not only is this post long-awaited, but it’s also very loooooong. As such, I’ve decided to start with just the first part today … which is still really long. Enjoy my ramblings, anyway!]

I’ve been working as a teaching assistant for about two months now, and let me tell you what a journey it has been! Before arriving in Domfront at the end of September, I had zero teaching experience, no knowledge of how to manage a classroom whatsoever. Many, if not most, of the English teaching assistants in France are in the same boat as me; a teaching degree is not one of the prerequisites of the TAPIF program. Still, the thought of standing up in front of a classroom full of kids and conveying the assurance of a qualified teacher was more than a little nerve-wracking, even though I was looking forward to trying my hand at it.

Now, near the end of November, I’m still finding my footing in terms of the whole teaching thing. I’m settling into both of my schools, getting to know the students and staff better, and gaining confidence as a teacher, and yet each day presents new challenges. At the same time, teaching is perhaps one of the most entertaining things I’ve ever done, and I never finish a day of teaching without at least one funny story to tell. My experience so far has been a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, and it will be interesting to see where it takes me over the next five months!

For now, here are a few of the many things I have learned as a teaching assistant in France …

  1. French classroom rules are completely different than Canadian ones.

In junior high and high school in Canada, I always took it for granted that I would be able to get up and go to the washroom during class if I needed to. Some teachers didn’t allow food in the classroom, but others did; it was not uncommon to see a coke, a piece of fruit or a bag of chips open on someone’s desk. A few of my teachers were very strict, using rigid discipline and even a touch of fear to keep the classroom under control, but most of them were warm, approachable, and even funny, all qualities that made us respect them. In comparison to Canadian schools, French schools seem like military schools or even prison! Discipline and rigidity seem to be the accepted methods for managing a classroom, and some universal rules seem to include:

  • Absolutely no going to the washroom during class.
  • Absolutely no eating or drinking during class.
  • You must line up outside of the classroom until the teacher invites you to enter.
  • You must stay standing at your desks until the teacher gives you permission to sit.
  • You must not get up from your desk unless the teacher gives you permission.
  • You must remove your coat, put your bag on the floor, and take out your workbooks immediately.
  • You must not pack up until the teacher gives you permission.
  • You must say hello and goodbye to your teacher at the beginning and end of each class.

Even now, I am still getting used to some of these rules. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve invited my students into the classroom, turned away to get something ready, and then heard a “Madame, may we sit down?” and realized that the entire class is still standing and waiting for me to give them permission to sit!

2. The orientation session for teaching assistants is absolutely, totally, 100% useless.

The orientation session for my académie took place in Caen on October 9, and ok, I’ll admit that it was useful in one way: I got to meet other assistants from l’académie de Caen, including some that live in towns close to Domfront! In terms of actually helping us become better assistants, however, the orientation was totally useless. After a short presentation welcoming us to France and presenting all of the different countries that this year’s assistants come from (for English assistants, most seem to be American, though there are also some from Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even India and Jamaica), we divided up into small groups according to whether we had been assigned to a collège or a lycée. Each group had a French facilitator, who basically just talked at us from 10:30 AM until 4:30 PM. Our facilitator gave us such valuable advice as:

  • “Don’t plan any activities that are too easy, but don’t plan any that are too hard.” (Thank you, that has really helped me with my lesson planning …)
  • (In response to a Scottish assistant who mentioned an activity she had organized to teach her kids about Scottish traditions and culture, such as kilts) “Yes, I suppose you can teach them about kilts, but make sure you tell them that not all Scottish people wear kilts!” (I think that’s probably evident?)
  • “You must make sure not to teach students stereotypes, but you can tell them about cultural differences. For example, French people take coffee breaks because they value leisure time, but Americans don’t take coffee breaks because they only care about making money.” (Ummmm???)
  • (In response to my palm reading lesson plan to get students to practice the future tense) “That’s an interesting idea, but make sure you tell them that they won’t really die young.” (How gullible does he think French students are???)
  • “Male students will try to seduce female assistants, and female students will throw themselves at male assistants. What, none of you have experienced this?” (None of us had.)
  • “In France, students are not allowed to get up during class without permission. Make sure you enforce these rules or you will lose their respect forever!” (So why exactly do they hold this orientation session two weeks after our teaching contract begins instead of telling us this before?! I guess I’ve lost my students’ respect forever …)

At the end of the day, he told us that we could write down suggestions to improve the orientation session and that it would be 100% confidential. He then proceeded to collect our comments, read them out loud to the group, and get all affronted and demand to know who wrote them. Sigh.

3. You will be asked to do things that are not in your teaching contract.

Officially, as teaching assistants, we are never supposed to be alone with the class without the teacher there; we can work with the entire class with the teacher present, or work with half the class at a time while the teacher works with the other half, but we are never supposed to assume the role of the teacher and take over the entire class unsupervised. Nevertheless, since the beginning of October, I have been asked to take over the class several times due to illness/accidents/meetings/appointments. I don’t mind too much, but for any future assistants, don’t be afraid to speak up f you’re not comfortable doing that. I’m terrible at thinking on the spot and consequently say “yes” to things automatically, which is why I think having something prepared beforehand is useful – that way, if you’re asked to do things that you’re not comfortable with, you’re not caught unawares.

4. You will only “officially” work twelve hours per week, but lesson planning takes longer than you think!

In the lead-up to my departure date, I read a ton of blogs about the teaching assistant program, and they all seemed to agree on one thing: as a teaching assistant, you will have sooooo much free time. Teaching assistants in France only work twelve hours per week, so all of these bloggers strongly encouraged future assistants to find a hobby, anything to occupy the endless hours of free time. While it’s true that I do have a lot more free time than I’ve had in years, I find that my free hours goes by quickly, because lesson planning does take quite a while! I put in a ton of extra work each week making worksheets and flashcards, researching lesson ideas, finding videos for listening comprehension and transcribing them, etc. My hours are also quite spread out, which makes it seem like I work longer because I have to factor in the walk to and from school for each hour that I work. Also, since most businesses are only open a few hours per day (and usually during the hours that I teach), I’m often running around trying to make it to the bank/grocery store/library before they close. All of that combined makes my life seem busier than the phrase “12-hour work week” would have you believe. I’m not complaining much, though – I mean, I get paid to live in France!

5. French teachers can come off as intimidating in the classroom …

Like I said, classroom rules are strict, and the teachers who enforce them are stricter! Teachers expect order in the classroom, and when the students are unruly, even the most soft-spoken teacher in the staff room becomes truly terrifying. Shouting at students seems to be the way to deal with disobedience, which I was totally unprepared for; on my first day of work at the collège, even I was quaking in my boots! Additionally, some of the comments addressed to rule-breakers sound exceptionally harsh to Canadian ears. One 11-year-old girl who had forgotten her notebook at home was told that she was a “horrible little girl,” while a boy was asked “What are you, two years old?” when he pointed out to his teacher that someone had left their pencil case behind (since apparently he was so “easily distracted” from the lesson). Any of these things would probably have reduced me to tears when I was that age! I guess French students are made of sterner stuff than I was, but sometimes I still just want to give them all a hug!

6. … but don’t let the “mask” fool you!

It turns out that behind the scary exterior, all of the teachers I work with are very warm-hearted, generous, caring people. They are always interested to know how I am making out in Domfront, they volunteer to give me rides to and from the train station, and they even invite me over to dinner. While their teaching methods are not what I’m used to, they do care about the students and want them to succeed. One of my roommates, a Spanish teacher, explained it well to me over dinner when I mentioned to her how much stricter French teachers seem in comparison to Canadian teachers; she said that she has a “mask” that she puts on when she is in front of a classroom, because as much as she’d like to let her guard down and be her “real” (and very sweet) self, doing that is very dangerous because the students will exploit you if they can. I am really lucky to be able to work with such kind colleagues and to benefit from their experience!

7. Most of the time, nobody will understand anything you say and it will be awkward.

I don’t know what I expected before I came to Domfront, but I think I had this idea that when I spoke English to the students, they would ask an occasional question about unfamiliar vocabulary, but they would understand the majority of what I was saying. I can’t tell you how far from the truth that is! In reality, whenever I speak, the students (regardless of their level) seem to understand maybe 20% of what I say, and the rest goes completely over their heads. When I ask a question, 90% of the time I am met by blank stares. I have now learned to talk at the pace of an Ent and am improving my miming skills every day. I am not usually one to rely on body language for communication, but future assistants, crude sign language is your friend.

Confused
My students whenever I speak.

Fellow teaching assistants and teachers out there, has your experience been the same? Let me know in the comments!

3 thoughts on “19 Things I’ve Learned So Far as a Teaching Assistant in France (Part 1)

  1. Hi! I was placed in the district of Caen as well, but I still do not know where I will be teaching. In hat other towns/cities in Caen are English teaching assistants placed? I have other questions and would appreciate anytime you have to respond to them! Please let me know 🙂

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    1. Hi Dora! I would be happy to answer any questions you have. I also have a map that I was sent when I was accepted, which shows the location of all of the lycées and collèges where you could be placed. I’ll send you an email since it’s probably the easiest way to communicate 🙂

      Julia

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