Optimization

That title actually made me think of something completely different than what I’m going to write about. Or is it different? One of the Roman emperors, in legitimizing his supreme authority, called himself “Optimus Augustus,” which basically means the BEST Augustus of all the Augustuses (“Augustus” being a title of a Roman emperor in the late Empire).

Why do I know this, you wonder? I’ve been taking Ancient Roman History this summer for funzies, and also for my new job as Latin teacher (which starts Monday!). I just finished up that class and another which I was teaching, and I’m officially on summer vacation….for two more days.

Anyway, the best of the best Augustuses, Optimus Augustus, relates to my post because I was going to write about this interesting tendency I’ve noticed in myself: the need to optimize.

I guess it’s both a larger societal trend and a pervasive social and cultural pressure in our nation of individualistic entrepreneurs. I mean, we are constantly under pressure to compete for the coolest “Insta”posts, the best vacations, the hottest body, the best job…you name it, we want to optimize it. I guess I knew this, but I’ve been realizing that I also do it in my head, to myself. I want to be a better person, a better teacher, set new goals and challenges for myself, succeed in new and different ways. I think this drive is super important for my future success. And yet…

Sometimes, I think there should be more said for accepting people, places, and things for what they are. The problem with wanting to improve everything is that the already-great things don’t get enough appreciation or credit for how great they are. I don’t get to enjoy the small moments of gratitude for what I have, if I’m focused on where I’m going next. I don’t get to appreciate what’s in my life for what it is, if I’m thinking of how it could be better.

Furthermore, who’s to say that there will ever be an Optima Anne, the best of the best, with the best life and the best people in it. I don’t even like to think that there’s an end to self-betterment, because that makes it a linear, rigid process. With that mentality, I guess I won’t be the best until I’m nearly dead…

So in the meantime, here’s to celebrating all of the journey – meaningful or not, pleasant or not, optimal or not. It’s all worth learning.

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Optimization

Life in Parallel

A year ago today, I was in Carbonne, France, in the Toulousain countryside, being hospitably welcomed by a friend’s friend. It was one of my favorite and most bittersweet weekends. I had just finished my TEFL course, a 4-week intensive on how to teach English which had reinvigorated my teachery enthusiasm. I soaked in the sunny Southwest — the hills, the little houses, the farms, the village landmarks — and prepared myself for the inevitable end of it all.

I didn’t really anticipate how vividly I would relive the experiences of the past year. In Fall 2015, I was busy adjusting to the new teaching job and new schedule — too busy to really think about what I’d been doing during my first few months in France the year before. But, as of December, the past was a constant presence. I will partly thank Facebook for this one, with a special mention for its handy “a year ago today” tool which automatically reminded me of where I’d been. But, even offline, I would pause and think “last year at this time, I was…”

The common misconception is that living in the past meant I wasn’t loving the present. That isn’t true — I’ve loved a lot about this year, and I feel like I’ve been living in the moment as much as I did in foreign lands.

It felt more like I was loving two moments at once, and one life was running parallel to the other. The two experiences don’t even approach each other. There is almost nothing similar between the two years. But, by remembering so vividly what past Anne had been up to, I was able to enjoy the both of them. It was a positive nostalgia, life-enriching and comforting.

It kept my friends close to me as well — friends from last year, if you’re reading this, I feel like even a year later, and even if I haven’t talked to you, we could have a Val McDo picnic and things would be just as lively and convivial and full of friendly bonding (and eating and drinking, obvi). I still feel close to you, and maybe it’s because that past was always in my mind instead of far away. I can feel the presence of new people I love, wherever they are — just like I felt the presence of old people I love while I was abroad.

This parallel life also serves as a constant reminder of all life’s possibilities. Yes, I can go away again, pursuing something new and different from what I’ve done before. Yes, there are friends to be made and communities to be found, stories to be written and reflections to be pondered, places to visit and good things to eat. There are so many different ways of eating, drinking, living, thinking, and being. Through my parallel past life, the largeness of the world was in the forefront of my brain.

I think it will always be there, just as my past will always be there. It’s both a memory and a tantalizing future possibility. I had to be introduced to it to want more of it. Right now, I will content myself with the knowledge that my life was an adventure, is an adventure, and “adventure is [still] out there!”

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Life in Parallel

Looking Forward

10 Things I learned as an assistant teacher in bilingual kindergarten

  1. Expect the unexpected. It’s a cliché that very much applies in a classroom of 5 year olds. This week, one of my students came in from recess with her shoes tied together. Another recounted the tale of the rat skeleton his family found in the attic. You never know what’s coming…
  2. In kindergarten, kids contemplate the big questions (“Anne, how long will I live?”). I’ve heard them discuss gender and sexuality, marriage, politics, religion, and the weather. They make complicated things simple in the most beautiful way.
  3. Don’t wear white to school. Clothing must be fingerpaint -, cleaning product – , and snotty hand – proof.
  4. “Sit down and raise your hand” must be rule number one. Otherwise, I am accosted by small bodies with loud voices, all with the expectation that they are my first priority. If I could have more hands and another brain, please, that would help.
  5. In my class, there are children raised by the rules of one culture, of another culture, of a mix of cultures. There is an actual difference between children raised strictly in French and children raised strictly in American. Neither makes a perfect child (but they are perfect to me).
  6. Play. The best class is full of humor, and nothing motivates or pleases children of any background like games.
  7. Read. Books are the most important thing to child-brains. When I have kids, words will be magic and stories will be magic come to life.
  8. Smile. There is no better way into a child’s heart. Except perhaps candy, or showing animated films (such as these).
  9. I have made unparalleled use of my multi-tasking abilities. I can simultaneously pour paint, help someone spell a word without giving the answer, prep snack, clean countertops, and empathize with a child who’s hurting from a bobo.
  10. People who teach kindergarten are straight-up superheroes. The creativity, the energy, the organization, the patience, the people skills…I can’t think of another job I’ll ever have which requires the same level of each all at once. I will miss it.

Why will I miss it, you ask? I have a new job for next year. It may require very similar skills. It may be just as challenging, and will hopefully be just as rewarding. It’s an almost total change of gears.

I’m going back to my second home, my alma mater, to teach upper and middle school Latin. I couldn’t be more excited. I’ll be following in the footsteps of one of my favorite mentors and teachers, I’ll be in charge of my own subject, I’ll still be teaching language, and we’ll have a lot of fun bringing a dead language to life.

Au revoir aux enfants, and salvete discipuli!

As the sun sets on this chapter, I’ll be climbing new mountains.

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P.S. Seattle is beautiful.

Looking Forward

Playing Teacher

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There’s what “playing teacher” used to look like.

I guess now I’ve been a real “teacher” for two years: first of French high schoolers, then of some rambunctious bilingual kindergarteners. Although those experiences were entirely different, one thing remained the same: I feel like a teacher who still thinks she’s a student.

This week, my head teacher left for a teacher training in California, and I was the head teacher for three days. I was nervous about it, having never been responsible for the learning of a class of kindergarteners. I shouldn’t have been; everything was prepared for me, and the only real work of a teacher I had to do was being present, engaged, and organized enough to lead the class through the days and hope they learned something.

Turns out, being present, engaged, and organized takes a lot out of me. It’s hard to describe teacher fatigue. I’ve tried in other posts, but the only real way to empathize is to be there. The little expectant faces, the way they all scream “ANNE! ANNE! ANNE!” at me until I acknowledge them, even if I’m talking to someone else…the way they bring me cookies and watch me until I eat them, the way they glow when I praise their work, the joy I feel when I see them mastering something new, and the patience it takes to explain something five times and five different ways, all while being pulled and tugged and poked and otherwise distracted…it really is a job in its own category.

In high school it was obviously not the same — they stayed at their desks, they didn’t yell out in class…they didn’t talk much at all. Responding in English class was probably social suicide. But there were similar moments of inspiration and learning — when I decided to teach them about country music and they all started singing along, for example… when I taught them philosophy and I saw the scrunchy puzzled face turn into a comprehending smile.

Regardless of the context, I still feel like I’m playing teacher. I’m too young, I’m too inexperienced, I haven’t encountered enough situations to know how to handle them all, I don’t have enough education, I don’t have any natural authority: all of these are things I’ve thought to myself in the past two years, over and over again.

I realized, this week, that teaching isn’t really about any of those things. It helps to have experience, which comes with age and encountering situations, and it helps to have education and natural authority. But most of being a teacher is about being present, engaged, and organized enough to  lead a class through a day, or a period, and hope that they’ve learned something.

I just found this perfect quote:

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I want to become an educator, and the only way to learn how is by playing at it. Sometimes, I’ll get things right.

Playing Teacher

Being a Teaching “Assistant”

I’ve now been in France as a TAPIFer long enough to have drawn some conclusions about being in France as a TAPIFer — namely, about being an “assistant,” and what that really means!

My school experience, first of all, has been about as excellent as I could have hoped. I know full well that not all assistants are as lucky; some are placed in schools which are unused and/or hostile to the idea of having an assistant. Mine was very welcoming, and my teacher reference is kind, helpful, and communicates well with me in regards to my responsibilities. Score 1 for my lycée!

So, instead of speaking about my school exclusively, I’ll explore the question:

What does it mean to be an assistant?

It means that you don’t control your fate, firstly and foremostly. It’s hard (/impossible?) to get your dream schedule, your dream classes, your dream location, etc. This is actually even true for French teachers; they get placed wherever they’re needed and not necessarily where they want. Accepting subjection to an alien system is part of living and working abroad, so just know that it will be alien and perhaps it will be easier to accept!

Almost everything stems from that first point: you don’t get control over how you’re set up, but you also don’t get control over your daily life. I would say that an average of two of my classes are cancelled each week, sometimes with no communication of that fact to me. This usually results in me working fewer hours, and spending more time sitting around in the staff room at school. This isn’t always a bad thing — I think that because I’m hanging around a lot in my time off, I’ve been able to get to know more of the teachers and been developing stronger relationships with them due to my ubiquity. I have had to learn how to “go with the flow” and make the most of the time I unexpectedly have to read for pleasure, plan for classes, etc.

It’s hard to plan for classes. First of all, they aren’t my classes, which means that often I will have a lesson plan or subject given to me to prepare, with specific instructions from the teacher. This was really helpful when I was first starting out, because I didn’t know the classes or their capabilities in English at all. Now that I’m getting an inkling as to their preferences, levels, etc., I’m starting to crave more freedom. It’s hard to teach something that I didn’t choose, because sometimes it doesn’t mesh with my style or interests as well as something might if I had planned it all. Here’s a picture of a worksheet I made up for my junior high class this week (I enjoyed it because I got to prove my freehand map-drawing abilities and also I got to be creative!).

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In case it’s not clear, it’s a map to fill in as a geography exercise and a list of stereotypes and/or recognizable monuments to match to some of the major cities that I labeled on the map. I’m hoping it will be entertaining enough to captivate and educate my 13/14 year olds.

One of the privileges and challenges of being assistants is that we aren’t full-fledged teachers. We are sometimes neglected or forgotten because of this, and sometimes we are given more than we can handle because many of us have never really been trained. But, this is also a privileged position. As a teacher, there are grades to give. There is a certain amount of relatively specific curriculum to get across. There are parents to contend with. There are more hours to work. As assistants, we’re basically given the best part of teaching : the inspiration part. Yes, it’s incredibly difficult to “inspire” a room full of jaded high school seniors to suddenly want to work really hard and learn more english. I have to count my little successes : the one student that comes up to me after class with loads of questions, the ones that I manage to engage for the first time with a new activity, the ones who are patiently and quietly watching me as I try to explain something difficult in class, and then the light turns on.

At the end of the day, if I have managed to make one student think that there’s a whole wide world out there that maybe they’ll want to explore one day, then I have done my inspirational duty.

The other thing I’ve learned is that it’s hard to constantly work to be satisfied with small moments of success. I am very often frustrated and exasperated, to the point where I’ve begun to think teaching high school in France is not going to be my thing forever. But I’ve resolved to learn as much as I can from it while it’s still my job, because I definitely won’t be here forever!

I miss my cozy liberal arts university classrooms, where learning was the common goal and everyone was engaged and invested. It’s an intellectual community like that that lights my mind on fire. Maybe (definitely) one day, I will return. Until then, I will cheesily conclude that the world is my classroom! It’s true, though.

Being a Teaching “Assistant”

New Year, New Home!

I’m sorry the adventure stories (TFH 1-4) are over…but not as sorry as I am that the adventures are over. The first week back (la rentrée) has been a little bluesy. I’ve heard tell that January is the hardest month to be abroad if you’re away for a year, and I can sort of maybe see why already?

However, one great thing about coming back is that I moved!

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Here are some shots of my room, which is nice, plus I also have a kitchen, a living room, and two lovely housemates! IMG_0663

Essentially, the friend who had my room decided to move to Lille, and I seized the opportunity to get out of my tiny, moldy, noisy apartment-room and into this beautiful house with two of my favorite people!

I’m happy that I moved but also happy that I waited until the perfect situation arose. I think had I moved into a colocation (housemate situation) at the beginning, it would’ve been more risky because i wouldn’t have known my housemates first! In this case, it was a no-brainer considering how much time I spent at their place anyways. I am also convinced that my old place was bad for my health. There was actually black mold on the window, and the two nights I spent there when I got back gave me a cold…

My advice to future TAPIFers: if you want to move mid-year, do it! It’s not nearly as difficult as the first time, and 4 months is a long time. I’ve got more time left in France than I’ve already spent here!

Oh, and one more update — I’ve been accepted to a month-long intensive training program to become a certified TEFL teacher (teaching English as a foreign language), so I will be living in Toulouse for a month after my contract ends. I’m excited to experience life in yet another part of France, even if it’s only for a short time!

Bonne année à tous!

New Year, New Home!

Study Abroad vs. TAPIF: A Comparison

Many things in these first few months have made me think about this question:

What’s the difference between studying abroad and doing TAPIF?

I think this question is relevant to a lot of people, so I’ll use my experience to answer it for myself, and maybe it will resonate with someone!

First, some important background:

Then: Paris, lived in a homestay, went through a program organized by an American university with 45 other students, stayed for one semester. Studied (12 hours of class + homework). First time abroad.

Now: Valenciennes, live in a tiny room-apartment, went through the TAPIF program (organized by the French Ministry of Education), staying for almost a whole academic year (7 months). Working 12 hours/week.

I’ll make this comparison in list format, because it’s an internet trend but also because it’s organized and pretty

Pre-departure Differences

  1. The application process: This part is actually fairly similar. Both study abroad and TAPIF require everyone to fill out an application with some of the same material listed. One of the major differences is that the TAPIF application requires you to essentially translate your CV into French, by listing all your activities and extracurriculars in French instead of English. TAPIF is also much more competitive these days.
  2. The visa process: This is EASIER for TAPIF than it is for study abroad. They didn’t require nearly as much paperwork, and the French government paid for the visa fee. Unfortunately the trip to San Francisco is still required for people from my neck of the woods.
  3. The packing/panicking process: There’s no “things to bring” lists or advice or people to talk to if you’re in a panic when you do TAPIF. There’s Carolyn Collins, who sends out some e-mails throughout the summer, and the Guide de l’Assistant de Langue en France. I read all the things, and none of them particularly prepared me or helped in moments of panic. In my study abroad program there were lots of helping hands in case we got stuck or panicky, between the study abroad liaison at Whitman and the directors of the Paris program.
  4. Leaping into the unknown: Nobody knows where they’re going or what it will be like before they leave. This was a HUGE difference, because with study abroad programs there are usually past participant testimonies, a general structure to the program that we know ahead of time, and we plan out things to do and everything before arrival. Including housing.

Lifestyle Differences

  1. Speaking French: In my study abroad program, we were required to speak French on school grounds, and also generally had to use French to talk to our host families and the professors and administration at our French schools. All of that goes away with TAPIF, depending on your situation. In my case, I live alone, hang out with English speakers, and most of the people I know at my high school are English teachers, so it takes a lot more effort to speak French. Sometimes it’s possible to find a host family, so if that’s a concern for you, explore your options.
  2. Helping Hands: With TAPIF, you are at the mercy of kind souls in your school who may or may not want to help you get set up, find a bank, find a house, get a phone, etc. There isn’t a conveniently located center for the program with advice and deals and all the answers. If there are no kind souls, you do it yourself! I was fortunate and my teacher contact helped me out a lot with the bank, but for most things I was on my own.
  3. Work vs. School: You are no longer a student when doing TAPIF. You have a job, and having a job means being professional, interacting with colleagues, and setting a good example for the students you teach. Living a student life in Paris, nobody was expecting me to be anywhere or do anything or interact with them professionally in a work capacity. Here, I definitely feel watched at school, and there are many expectations. On the flip side, I’m not actually in school very much, and I live in a different town so I don’t worry about running into students outside of class. And I like having a work life and a home life!
  4. Location: In study abroad, I was in Paris! And now I’m in Val. It’s like going from magical fairy wonderland to the woods. Magical fairy wonderland was a new adventure full of shiny things to see and learn every single day, and the woods are basically the same all the time. But the woods are more natural and teach me survival skills, so I’m happy with it. But: don’t expect the woods to be magical fairy wonderland! Appreciate them for what they are.
  5. The ex-pat community: There is a different community of people awaiting with TAPIF. In my case, my friends are not all American study abroad students…they are European, American, South American, Canadian lecteurs (English teachers at university level), assistants, and students. And even some French students, teachers, and families. It’s great for French sometimes, not so great other times…but in my case, I feel like I’ve found some people that share my passion for cultural exchange, just as I did during study abroad!
  6. Living conditions: In Paris, my friends and I were generally housed in home stays or student foyers. Now, it’s everyone for themselves, and the conditions range from single-room shared-facilities to 3-story house.
  7. Making a salary (!?): Now, I make money! In Paris, I didn’t. That being said, the salary is barely enough to live on, even in a less expensive area!

The most important difference to me personally is that before, I was going back somewhere — Whitman, my home away from home — to do something determined. So, the whole semester had a magical feel to it, my first experiences not at home and in a country that I’d dreamed of visiting for so long. I left feeling like I had unfinished business.

Now, I am officially launched into the world, so this is like my debutante ball. I am living MY life! And I’m trying to decide where it’s going next. Who knows where my business will be finished?

Anne in Paris, 2013!
Anne in Paris, 2013!
Study Abroad vs. TAPIF: A Comparison