As assistants, we have a mandatory 24 hours of “observation” before actually starting to teach. And thank goodness we do. Most assistants have not had a huge teaching career before coming to France, so throwing us in front of the classes to lead lessons would just be cruel.
Throwing us in front of classes to be interrogated by the students, however, is common practice. At our orientation, they iterated and reiterated and REreiterated the fact that we are not supposed to be anywhere near the front of the room during observation, not even to introduce ourselves. Despite this rule, most of my first and second week has involved both introducing myself AND answering many many questions. I actually don’t mind this, because I feel more conspicuous when I sit in the back and everyone wonders who I am than when I get a chance to tell them right off the bat. But I’ve never had to answer so many queries into my favorite things, my activities, my age, my home city, etc. etc. etc.
Do you like hamburgers?
Do you love the Walking Dead? (not just like, love…there was palpable disappointment when I said I’d never seen it. Now it’s on my list.)
Have you met any stars?
Are all Americans fat?
Do you have children?
Do you want children? (I refrained from answering this one)
What do you think about guns?
Are you REALLY an American person!?** (Yes.)
** It’s worth noting that very few students in Somain have extra money to travel, and especially not to go as far as America, so many of them have never actually met an American person.
And of course, anytime I mention Walla Walla, I have to write it on the board, and then everyone in the room has to murmur it to themselves and exclaim about what a weird name it is (French also doesn’t have a w-sound…). And then I explain the origins and meaning and it turns into an interesting discussion.
One of our teacher-mentors at orientation said, about fitting into our school environment and being good role models, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do…but pick the best Romans to copy.” All of the “Romans,” (the teachers at my school) whom I’ve encountered are simply lovely. I’ve gotten offered rides home and advice and travel offers and coffees and had lots of good conversations, in French and English. Usually, when I’m at school for the day (2x-ish a week so far), I eat lunch in the cafeteria — this gives me time to socialize with all kinds of teachers, whether or not they speak english, and it’s incredibly good French practice and a lot of fun! (Also, French teachers get beer, wine, sparkling water, and coffee for free at lunch…can I stay?) I’ve noticed especially that I have a lot in common with the English teachers — we’re all interested in cultural exchange and all linguaphiles, and most of them spent time as an assistant abroad (in Britain…their neighbor, ergo easier to get to than the USA).
Students respond to me being in front of the class in one of 4 ways: there’s the pie-eyed look of shock and awe, the I’m-too-cool-for-you shrug of the shoulders, the eyes-on-the-paper look of fear and/or shyness, and the eager hand raiser who is totally unafraid to make mistakes. The first three aren’t particularly talkative, as you may imagine. The fourth type of student is the one that I’m most looking forward to working with. They seem to get less interested the older they get — the junior high schoolers have hardly any english and so many questions, and the older students probably have questions but aren’t always comfortable sharing them.
I think most of what I’ve observed about my job, in being in front of the students and watching them from the back of the class, is that I’m there to jump-start their imaginations. They’re most willing to participate when they have something they’re dying to communicate, whether that’s because they’re inspired by the subject, or particularly full of energy, or engaged in a heated debate with their classmates. My job seems to be planning activities that inspire that excitement. I know I’ll never get that out of everyone. But as long as they learn something from talking to me for an hour or half an hour or however long we have, I’ll consider my mission accomplished.
Oh, and since most of my commute is done in the dark, wee hours of the morning…here’s the pretty sunrise I saw today 🙂