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”

Some Americans in Paris

In the middle of Thanksgiving week, my best friend from college came to visit Paris. I’d been looking forward to his visit for months; he found out he’d be coming during summer, and I knew that by November I’d be dying for visitors from home. By chance, last week was my week when I have Tuesday (and Wednesday) free, so after school on Monday I took the train to meet him in Paree.

It was a bit of a shock — in a good way — to be among Americans again, and to be in a family! John’s aunt and uncle and cousins were so welcoming, and I’m so lucky that they invited me to stay with them.

Paris still has a special place in my heart, and it was great to be a tourist there. We went up the Eiffel Tower (which I’d never done before) and splurged on a glass of champagne. 

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We also went on a boat cruise on the Seine, hit up the Musée de l’Orangerie, walked a LOT and ate many, many pastries. 

I had never been in Paris during the holiday season, because I arrived in January last year. It’s just as charming as you might imagine; every street is decorated with its own light display (this one says: “the businesses wish you happy holidays”). We ate dinner on Rue Cler:

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We even saw the president’s motorcade leave the Invalides the next day as we were trying to get across a bridge.

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Every time I go back to Paris, it’s with a different person and is a whole new experience. I think part of its magic IS that everyone experiences it in a different way. But now, when I go back, my favorite thing to do is just to wander. No plans means no expectations, which means no disappointment if things don’t go as planned (which they often don’t).

John and I also had a conversation about “France Anne” versus “American Anne.” When I originally came back from study abroad, the splitting of the Annes was how I dealt with the shock of moving between places and feeling different in each one. But I am forced to rethink that conceptualization of myself as I spend more time here, in a very different capacity. There is just one whole Anne; she is both French and American influenced, because she has “lived” in both places. But this time, I have no idea when I’m going back or what I will be going back to, so “France Anne” is not temporary — I’m being changed by my experiences in a more permanent way, because I’m learning how to live in the world as a non-student, as are many of my recent-graduate peers in the States. I’m growing up separately from old friends now, and that’s incredibly hard to come to terms with when it’s not something you’re used to.

But there was this moment — we were walking along the Seine talking utter nonsense to one another and overcome with laughter — when I thought, with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and luckiness, that my best friends will always be my best friends.

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Some Americans in Paris

In the In-Between

I met with a professor from one of the local universities the other day, and he articulated something that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

We were talking about language teaching. When teaching your native language to non-native speakers, you are constantly being asked to explain why your language is constructed the way it is. To you, your language is constructed instinctively — you have a linguistic feeling that helps you choose which words to use when and in which order, and that’s why it’s so different to learn language in school than to learn it at the beginning of life. Explaining why that feeling exists to people who don’t already have it is one of the biggest challenges in language teaching.

But, this teacher put it so brilliantly — when you’re forced to explain it, you begin to examine your own language from a distanced perspective: you see it not as your community of native speakers sees it (because they never have to examine the linguistic systems that they’ve always employed), but as a community of non-native speakers understands it.

This distance, he argued, means that instead of speaking the way you have always spoken (out of instinct), you are more intentional about the way you speak. In other words, you start to form your very own language, which is not wholly determined by the cultural and linguistic community that surrounded you from birth.

I find this to be linguistically true (I’m picking up both British-isms and French-isms already in the way I talk, which people at home might find bizarre), but I’ve also been thinking about it as true of the Self.

When I went on study abroad, I envisioned myself as a living organism being plucked from its natural habitat and plopped in the middle of one that’s entirely new.  Everything that my identity depended upon in my Whittie, Walla Wallan, Washingtonian, Redmondite communities (what I studied, who my friends were, my extracurriculars and leadership positions and what people knew of or assumed about my personality) no longer applied. I could reinvent myself if I wanted, because I became the only one responsible for inventing myself and articulating me to others.

It was an incredibly scary step into the dark, to alienate myself from my safe, warm, and loving linguistic and cultural community. Just like I maybe am becoming estranged from Instinctive English, I became estranged from my old self. And I’ve done it again.

In Paris, my identity was somewhere between Tourist and Inhabitant, and it was my distance from both, being in-between, that helped me figure out where my niche lay in my life there. Now I’m sort of in one of life’s in-between spaces. I’m in between my educational career and my future as an adult in the working world. And there is no more congruous space to occupy, in this place in my life, than (once again) a linguistic and cultural in-between. I’m an American living in France, and I’m being forced to think about American-ness and French-ness, English and French, and who I’ve been and who I’ll be, all at once. I’m uncomfortable in almost all the roles — in one, and the other, and the in-between — but it’s when I’m uncomfortable all the time that I find I have the most to think about.

And I find that when I’m not in a community that I naturally know how to fit into, I begin to understand myself in new ways. Being distant from what I’ve always known gives me that same distanced perspective on myself that I have on my language.

Part of growing up is gaining a sense of identity, I think. Communities, both cultural and linguistic, give their members that identity, and mine has been profoundly shaped by where I’ve come from. But, where I am now is making me think about who I want to be next as only the destabilizing new identity of “foreigner” to a rich new community can.

And thus, as we’re all shaped by our language, finding my autonomy in my language is helping me find my autonomy in my identity. I’m growing into an Anne of my own intentional creation. And I will continue growing in this way, forever. So I guess it’s best I learn how to do it, right now. And how to never let it stop!

In the In-Between