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”

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

En Train

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Valenciennes, my home, is three train stops (a ~20 minute ride) from Somain, where I work. When I first arrived, I told my temporary hosts how miraculous I think the SNCF (France’s train transportation network) is, and they laughed at me — “Wait ’til there’s a strike,” they said. It’s a terrifying prospect, because if there ever is a strike I’ll be basically done for, unless I can find a teacher to give me a ride; the train is my only way of getting to work.

There’s also the newly discovered inconvenience which is: there are no trains between 2:09 PM and 4:45 PM. This means that if I get off work at 2 or 3, I’ve got quite the wait until the next train home. Waiting is one of my very least favorite activities. I’m an incredibly patient person, except when I’ve had a long day and can’t wait to eat and crawl into bed and Netflix before sleeping. I need a commute book.

I’ve started to measure distance in trains, also. I am 42 minutes by train from Lille. I’m 1h45 by train from Paris. I’m a few hours away from London. I’m about an hour from Brussels. (My location is like, !!!!)

The title of this post is part of a French expression used to communicate being in the middle of doing something; Je suis en train de lire  = I am in the middle of reading, Je suis en train de voyager = I am in the middle of traveling, etc. It’s basically another version of present tense; it’s the idea of continuous movement, an activity that’s still going on. In French, the idea of this expression and the idea of being physically in a train would be distinguished from one another via prepositions — “in the train” is not en train but dans le train.

However, I like thinking about the intersection point between trains and this expression: the idea of continuous movement, and of being perfectly positioned to head off toward an adventure of my choice. My life goal right now is to put myself in a place that enables me to go where I want to. If I’m at the appropriate station, I can choose the train that’s hurtling toward somewhere I want to go.

So far, I think I’ve been pretty successful at that. I’ve picked things to do that engage me while I’m in the middle of doing them, taking me a station closer to finding my eventual route through life. I went to a fabulous school which my gut said would make me into someone I wanted to be (thanks, Whitman). And now in France I’m positioned to learn more about things I know I love — education, people, and French — and discover more things I didn’t know I’d love. New experiences are in close proximity.

There’s a lot of post-college nonsense about having a concrete plan for the rest of life, as if that is going to magically be handed to you with a degree in whatever happened to be your undergrad passion. But after surviving these first few post-grad months, and after talking to more seasoned post-grad friends, I think it’s much more about the present than the future. Yes, have goals. But have goals in order to inform your present, not predict the future. Have goals like “go here,” “learn more about _____ that I’ve always been interested in.” Be self-aware and reflect. Engage with new communities. I am a die-hard optimist (and a believer in people) who thinks that everyone finds their niche, but not without putting themselves in the ideal position to find it.

In whatever you are en train de faire (in the middle of doing), make sure you’ve boarded a train heading somewhere. And if you realize it’s not, hop off at the next stop and find a new one.

Sometimes, there will be a strike, and you might be stopped in your tracks. But the world (and especially Commuter Anne) needs you!!

En Train

Do you like ‘amburgerz?

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.

Some highlights: 

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 🙂

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Do you like ‘amburgerz?

Cats, Kindness, and Paperwork

Overdue skypes with Mom & Dad this evening reminded me that I have not posted ANYthing about my daily life this week!

Full disclosure: it is not all glamorous adventures.

In fact, there has been much down time, during which I’ve been mostly doing what I would do at home: Netflix (it works in France now! Life changed), books, or just lounging around with the cat.

In her defense, she is pretty entertaining. Meet Moon! (yes, Moon in English)

And she already loves my lap:

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Enough cat pictures. I do not need to make my adoration of felines more well-known to the internet world than it already is. (BUT ISN’T SHE CUTE??)

 

Somain ( hint: it’s not the second one in that wiki link) is a very small town in the North of France. I’m currently there, being hosted by one of the english teachers I’ll be working with! She is amazing. I (very unfortunately) can’t stay with her and Moon forever, so I’m looking for an apartment in a neighboring larger city, accessible by commuter train.

Looking for housing is one of the many administrative and logistical tasks that make up my to-do list at the moment. Here they are:

  1. Find a phone
  2. Find an apartment to rent (accomplishment of today!)
  3. Open a bank account 
  4. Fill out some school paperwork to get my salary on time (with my address and bank info)
  5. Fill out a transport reimbursement form
  6. Get some apartment insurance
  7. Validate my visa so I don’t become illegal in a month or two
  8. Apply for French social security
  9. Apply for French welfare
  10. Whatever else the government comes up with to put us through

As you can see, less than half of these are taken care of. Most of them can’t be done without the others, so it’s sort of a rat’s nest of stuff to keep track of. Real World Boot Camp, I call it. The first three days were the most stressful, as all of the scary looming things suddenly got really real. But I think the worst part is that most of it takes a lot of time (e.g. weeks and months) and is relatively out of our hands. No control = long lists without the possibility of checking anything off? So fun, right?

To pass the time between apartment hunting and other logistical things and sleeping and recovering from jet lag, I’ve been exploring.

Readers, meet Somain!

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Yesterday, I found the market (and my cheese man!!), and POOF lunch:

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I’ve also been wandering around in Valenciennes. Here’s the Hôtel de Ville, and a random cute house:

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Yesterday I attended the Language Assistants’ Convention for the Purpose of Acquiring Free Wifi, aka I was loitering outside of MacDo (French McDonald’s) and ran into everyone that I’d met from TAPIF and then some. New friends are exciting. So is free wifi.

Also, a somewhat unexpected and really beautiful thing about this place: everyone is SO NICE. I mean nice in the fullest sense of the word, encompassing kindness, warmth, generosity, welcoming-ness. The people at my school prepared a folder for me and went through each document in it explaining how to fill it out and what I needed for it. My teacher liaison went with me to my bank appointment to help me get things sorted out. One of the jr. high teachers I’ll be working with offered to drive me to school with him from Valenciennes. And my teacher host has let me live in her house and eat her food for a week, and is going to help me supply my apartment with some things. My gratitude level is off the charts. One of the stereotypes of Northerners is that they’re especially warm; it’s been proven. For other assistants too, it seems!

I’m moving into my new digs on Monday, so this weekend is all about laundry and photocopies and making lists of things to get to make the new appart feel like home. It’s a room — a furnished room — with a sink and a closet and shelves, and I share a kitchen and bathroom with the other people in the building, including an assistant/new friend who I live right above. And it is well below my anticipated budget! My landlady is the most intense person I’ve met here — in a super-efficient super-organized super-on-time kind of way, which are all awesome traits for a landlady so far.

This week, I get to go to the TAPIF orientation, in Lille, to meet all of the other assistants in the region and learn more about how to BE a language assistant. (Important?) Meanwhile, my teacher contact is working out my schedule for my “observation” weeks, which will start right after the orientation day (Thursday I think). I’ll be observing class and introducing myself to students and teachers, and finally getting a feel for what my teaching life will be like!

And, because a post from me would not be complete without a Reflective Thought:

It’s weird to be here and not be supposed to try to be French. In study abroad with Middlebury, it was all about blending in and cultural immersion and becoming part of “la masse” and getting intense French practice. This time, I am here to be American. I’ve been brought here to share my American-ness. So instead of asking myself if I’m French enough, now it’s…am I American enough? Am I representing it well? Am I being a good ambassador? Are people thinking something new about America because of me? This does not mean I am abandoning my goal of learning France. I’m just always asking internal questions. Like a good liberal arts grad 😉

Here’s a good summary of my life! In punctuation form.

!?!!!??:…

Cats, Kindness, and Paperwork

I Speak French

Being in a foreign country has a way of making my brain sloshy with new thought projects.

In this brand new place (which will soon feel old hat), I have re-become a sponge. I am soaking up everything around me like it’s my only purpose in life: a porous repository thrown out into the torrential Northern rains, just to see what happens. Actually, I am a porous repository who threw myself intentionally into the torrential Northern rains, just to see what would happen. And I do see it as my only purpose in life.

I just ascended from the dining area of the house I’m staying in to my temporary room on the third floor (in American floors… it’s the 2ème étage, here) after eating the most perfect homemade crêpes I have ever encountered (although ours were a close second and third, Marisa and La Maison 😉 ) with some Northern beet sugar and my host teacher, her two daughters, and her oldest daughter’s friend. They had what I’m sure, to them, was a completely ordinary conversation about people at school, clubs, extracurricular activities, etc. It’s the kind of conversation my mom, sister, and I would have around the dinner table every day, or with one of our friends, with two notable differences: it was in French, and in France.

The sponge analogy came to me because, even though I didn’t interject in their conversation nearly as often or as fluidly as they could, I was a spongy participant: I was soaking up how they construct sentences, how they shaped their mouths, how they pronounced words and what expressions they chose for each situation. And more deeply, I was listening to what they find bizarre and what they think is cool, what they notice about people and how they think about their lives. My impression, overall, is that there is so much that is familiar in a country/language halfway around the world.

Being a human sponge comes with certain responsibilities, I think, and among the most important is the ability to compare without evaluation. There is a this is better than that approach, and there is a this is here, that is there approach in which the evaluation to be made is how intriguing is this difference, or how revealing is this similarity. There is no value judgment, there is only noticing. 

And in my eyes, one of the ultimate purposes of cultural immersion (and learning other languages, for that matter), is developing empathy. In stepping outside and being a sponge, letting this new place fill me with new things, I am learning how to understand them — not understanding them, but learning how to understand them. Even more complex-ly, it feels like I’m learning how to understand them without ever fully “understanding” them; rather, I’m learning how to accept and integrate what I do not understand into what I think I do (or thought I did). I am being a point of intersection. And this experience of being a point of intersection, of developing intercultural empathy, will in some (unknown at this point in time) way enable me to be of service to the world. I am learning to be a global citizen, part of a larger community.

And I am acutely aware of one thing, one skill that is indispensable to my Important Mission: I speak French.

To be fair, I think that we all do this kind of work, intentionally or not, every day in every aspect of our lives, in English. We are perpetually encountering new things and people and situations that we hadn’t previously known how to understand, and LIFE is a process of learning how to do it.

The only thing that makes me feel it more acutely in this situation than at home or at Whitman is the degree of difference — I have been thrown into the deep end, into this town where only English teachers speak English. Maybe there are deeper ends that I have yet to experience, cultures and languages that are even more disparate than this one. But for the moment, I am trying to intensely engage with where I am. I am spongy but not passive. I am an observer-participant. And all this is made possible by viewers like you.

Just kidding. It is really made possible by having learned French.

If in some terrible black-hole-of-despair alternate future there is no use for French in my life, I have justified my 8 years of study with how much I am LEARNING from being able to communicate with French people.

And we all know how much I am a nerd about learning.

I Speak French

On Growing Up in Communities and Stuff

Several things this summer have reminded me of stuff that is absolutely essential to my being.

#1. COMMUNITY

I’m not sure if there will be a #2 in this post, but I am clarifying that there are other things that are essential to my being. I’m working on discovering them. For now, I want to write about how much I love communities, via specific examples.

This summer, I returned to my true alma mater for a summer job. This phrase is Latin for “nurturing mother,” and most aptly describes what my elementary school is and was to me — both because my mother works there, and, perhaps more profoundly, because it was one of my first and most nourishing communities. Here are some things it gave me, because I’m into lists today:

A. A love of learning, and a commitment to the Whole Child. My school is a Montessori school, and for those of you who don’t know much about Montessori…do some research. It’s a beautiful educational philosophy. Among its key components is a commitment to nurturing the whole child. Montessori kids don’t just learn math and language and science, they learn how to set the table, how to pour juice, how to sew, how to collaborate and compromise with other kids, how to mentor and how to be mentored, how to make choices and take responsibility for them — essentially, how to function in a community. The importance of this foundation has gradually revealed itself to me as I’ve grown up and found new communities. Each new “habitat” requires the same humble curiosity as I learn how to be a part of it, and the process of shaping it and being shaped by it brings me the same joy and sense of security that I felt throughout my formative childhood years at Eton. I learned how to engage in communities with my Whole Self, and I know what it feels like when I am holistically engaged by a community in return.

B. An appreciation for “all God’s children,” as my friend (and also the father in the movie Easy A) would always say. My 8th grade class had a whopping 13 people in it, and they were people I’d known at least since fourth grade. Growing up in a small group can be stifling at times, but it can also provide a super-safe place for being one’s self, without fear of judgment or ostracism…hard to come by in middle school. I learned to appreciate even the people in the group that were most different from me, and how all of our unique strengths came together when we all participated in the community. The school play was a yearly example of that, when all of us transformed into characters — little did they know, we were all pretty out-there characters already. We even tried to write a novel as a class, which was a crazy undertaking, but inventing a story incorporating 13 different people who wrote their own characters and had totally different writing styles and dreams about where the story will go is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. (After a chaotic brainstorm session and DAYS of discussion rounded out with an unruly vote, we ended up calling it: “Troubled Waters”…..)

This idea is on the forefront of my brain because I’ve been so thoroughly reminded of it this summer, by working at my old school AND by my visit to my college town last weekend. I have a lot of friends who are still there for jobs or because they have another year to go, and engaging with them again reminded me why I love communities so much: to me, there is little that is more fulfilling than exchange. Exchange of ideas, exchange of wisdom, exchange of smiles, exchange of hugs, exchange of food and friendship and insights and laughter — and in a community like the ones I grew up in, exchanges are everywhere. Being there made me feel connected, and the interactions I had were so fulfilling that the feeling of connectedness that started forming when I was a little 7 year old playing Guinea Pigs and Unicorns with my best friends at recess remains deeply embedded.

It’s incredibly comforting to know Where I Came From, at the same moment that I prepare to jet off into Where I’m Going.

Where am I going? Geopgraphically, I know. Physically, my body will probably stick around. Emotionally, the forecast is a drizzly PNW morning: a little confusing and shrouded in mist. Linguistically, I’ll probs speak a little French. Ultimately, I hope that Where I’m Going is into a new and different community, maybe one that I get to create myself. But, regardless of what happens now, I am full of gratitude for my dearest formative communities, and what awesome tools they’ve given me to community-build in the terrifying REAL WORLD.

People keep asking if I’ll be coming back…who knows. 😉

(6 days!)

On Growing Up in Communities and Stuff