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”

Touring France for the Holidays: Part 1

I’m back!

Honestly I thought I’d have a lot more time to write on the road…silly me. I don’t think I got my computer out for more than ten minutes the whole time. That is FINE by me, though! Now I’ve got a lot of adventure stories so I’ll try to spread them out.

Part 1 : Enquête Exclusif à Rennes

My journey began on Saturday morning at 5 AM, when I woke up to catch my train from Valenciennes to Lille. In Lille, I caught my train to Rennes, for my first cross-France journey. Here’s an estimated map (because I took a train instead of a car!).

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Rennes is the capital of the Bretagne region of France, and a notorious student city. Roughly one fourth of the population is students, actually. It makes for a great night out — or so I’ve heard, but unfortunately I arrived the day all the students left for the holidays. Lise said that there was a marked difference between Rennes with students and Rennes without.

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The city wasn’t destroyed in the war like most of the North and some of the West…so there are still buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries everywhere! Historical charm: check! It was also misty and rainy and mild most of the time, which fit my image of Bretagne (I figured the west coast is the west coast everywhere…I felt right at home).

On my first full day, we did one of Lise’s favorite things — the Planetarium! There’s a science center in Rennes with a fully functional planetarium, and we watched a 3D tour of the galaxy. It was so unexpectedly meditative. I almost fell asleep, and when I got out I felt incredibly calm and peaceful inside. When you see the galaxy like that….it’s impossible not to feel like the smallest thing in the universe, and that’s a really relaxing thought. If we are small, all our problems are even smaller. Perspective!

We emerged from the pitch black peace machine to find ourselves in the Foire d’Hiver — the winter fairground. French fairs are much like American ones: total overstimulation. To go from drastic understimulation to drastic overstimulation so suddenly made us laugh. All we could do at the fair was people watch and stare at all the terrifying-looking rides…

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Later, we went to another of Lise’s favorite places… A Vos Mousses, a self-serve beer bar. Stick your card on the sensor, and you can fill your glass with as much beer as there are euros of credit (and as it will hold, obviously). What a genius idea for a bar, was my thought — you can imagine the money to be made when a bunch of intoxicated people get their hands on a self-serve beer card. We only had one, this time ;).

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We stumbled across a light show on the way home. This is one of the things France does during the holiday season: they have light shows projected onto buildings, usually the city hall, that are strikingly realistic. Lyon has a famous Fête des Lumières which I eventually hope to see, but apparently Rennes has one as well! They’re quite a spectacle.

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The next day, we went to the park! I love French parks. This one has been around for ages, and used to be the leisure activity scene for the bourgeois elite of Rennes. Its elegantly groomed grass and gardens and fancy fountains betray its high-class past. It was a lovely escape from the city!

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Now for the Enquête Exclusif  reference: one of the nights, Lise and I watched a TV program that was discussing American universities and the hazing, alcohol, and prostitution which characterize them. It went on for almost an hour on the seedy sides of university life, interviewing an idiot kid on spring break and numerous women who’d chosen to become escorts to pay for school. At the very end, it said “the university system has some positive aspects as well,” talked for 15 minutes about research, and ended.

I have two conflicting reactions to things like this: “wow, some things that happen in my country really make us look bad,” and “how dare they only look at the negative.” News is biased, but that doesn’t mean that these things don’t happen. It’s one of the challenges of being in a foreign country: you see your own with brand new eyes. My goal is to never become too critical of one or the other. All countries are extremely diverse and have good and bad aspects…and I don’t ever want to dislike the U.S. or dislike France. They’re just different.

I had a BLAST catching up with Lise! It’s been about a year since I’d seen her, but for foreign friends…we’ve seen each other once a year since we’ve met, which is pretty great. Sending our love to the former French house and friends, we missed you! And a big THANKS from me to Lise for being such a great hostess!

Next up is Part 2, concerning two friends and three Christmases in my new favorite region.

Touring France for the Holidays: Part 1