TAPIF – Visiting the schools

Before the school year officially began, I visited each of the high schools I would be working in to introduce myself to the teachers, figure out my transportation situation and fill out all of the necessary paperwork.

It was overwhelming, but I felt incredibly welcome.
Let me introduce the two schools where I have been working for the past several months. First, Lycée Descartes is a general high school, meaning that students learn the same subjects that American students learn in high school (math, science, foreign language, history, etc.), but it has a special track for athletes playing handball and table tennis. Although the architecture resembles a space station or airport, it looks a lot like an American high school.

Once I arrived, I sat down immediately with the secretary and they had me fill out paperwork. They were so nice and welcoming. One of the secretaries was a French assistant in Britain a year or two before, so she helped a lot (a lot) in making sure I understood what I was doing. Probably the funniest thing that happened was when the secretary asked for an ID number. She said it would be for my healthcare. I thought that was a little weird, but I figured, well she does this every year, so, I handed her my father’s Blue Cross Blue Shield card which was printed in the early 90’s and had their old name printed on it. About five minutes later, it dawned on me. She needed my American social security number. In France, that is issued through the healthcare system. As we don’t have a nationalized healthcare system like theirs, ours is issued through another agency. A beautiful moment of innocent cultural misunderstanding…that would have probably caused a significant backlog in my paperwork. Other than that, I met an overwhelming number of teachers, was shown around the staff room, etc. and got my schedule for the year. (The schedule was like a “golden ticket” at the time as almost none of the assistants knew their schedule.)

The other school is Lycée Professionnel Marie Laurencin, a professional high school that focuses on technical training in fields such as cooking/baking, theater, store sales and management, restaurant management and fashion. Although this school looks similar to an American high school on the inside, it has some unique features. Lining the hallways are mannequins featuring student creations. On the first floor, there is a full-service cafe and restaurant. Since this is a technical school, they have all of the necessary equipment to teach their students the real-life skills they’ll need to get a job after they graduate.

After being introduced to some students, my main teacher (who picked me up at the train station), other teachers and setting my schedule with the administration, the most notable experience during my first day there was being treated to a lunch at the school’s full-service restaurant. It was five courses and you could order wine (yes, this was at the high school). I had the other teachers help me order. First course: a coleslaw-type salad. Second course: ratatouille. Third course: chicken. Fourth course: a yogurt dish. Fifth course: a dessert with pears and chocolate. Naturally, there was as much bread as you could want. It was, DELICIOUS.

With great introductions, I left both schools excited, even if I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing. (Which became clear the next week, when I misread my schedule thinking that all of my classes started on the half hour, not the hour, making me late for the first one before figuring it out, and when I went to the wrong rooms for the first few classes because I didn’t have the right rooms for the first week printed on my schedule…)

Oh, one more thing. Almost all of my classes were visibly and audibly excited to learn that I am American. That felt pretty great.

TAPIF – The “work” part

As the end swiftly approaches, I realize that I have said very little about the schools yet in this blog. This part, I admit, wasn’t what I expected. The hours? Well, that may have ruined 40-hour workweeks for me. Forever. Let’s start with the basics. I work 12 hours per week. I have been assigned to two schools in the cities of Riom and Cournon d’Auvergne. These are relatively small cities just outside of Clermont-Ferrand. One of the schools I work at is a general high school (Lycée René Descartes) and the other is a vocational high school (Lycée Professionel Marie Laurencin). Those 12 hours break down into 9 hours at Lycée Descartes and 3 hours at Marie Laurencin. At Lycée Descartes, I work primarily with the “terminale” students (the seniors) to help them prepare for the baccalauréat exam, the exit exam for French students to graduate from high school. At Marie Laurencin, I work with two fashion classes and a class for students entering the retail business. The students at Marie Laurencin also have an English portion of their version of the baccalauréat exam, but I am mostly there to give them access to a native speaker to improve their comprehension and encourage them to speak. Here is my schedule: Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 1.21.22 PM Pretty sweet, huh? So, what do I do as an assistant? It really varies based on the teacher. With a couple of teachers, I take part of the class, either for the full hour (every other class) or a half hour (each class), and teach a supplementary lesson, often using a topic they are studying in class and either going more in-depth, talking about the American perspective or focusing on conversational English. For other teachers, I speak to students one-on-one or in small groups for anywhere from 5-50 minutes either evaluating them and giving feedback or simply talking to them (to get them comfortable with speaking). For a couple of other teachers, I work alongside them and assist in the lesson. Generally, I have freedom to do what I want in my lessons, but am lucky to have suggestions and guidance from my teachers. Overall, I don’t have to do a lot of lesson planning (a couple of hours per week, every other week) which is nice. What surprised me? First, I expected to see the same set of students more than once a week. With the way that the student’s schedules are designed, this just isn’t possible. They often only have two hours of foreign language per week (compared to the five hours per week a student in the U.S. would have). Some of my students, I see once a month or less depending on the structure of the class. For those I don’t see on a regular basis, it is a little more difficult to establish a rapport with them…and I haven’t been able to learn their names (which makes me feel terrible!). Second, I expected to be conducting all of my own classes, responsible for specific curriculum and planning a lot of lessons. To some extent, that is what I do, but not in quite the structured way I thought. However, I like my current set-up better. I don’t have to plan a lot of lessons and can really focus on the ones I do. Also, I’m not chained to a curriculum so I can use the guidance from the teachers and add my own creative flair to the lessons. As it turns out, the one-on-one time is so interesting and fun when I am working with a really engaged student. I was worried that evaluating them would be impersonal, but have truly enjoyed learning about their interests, hope and dreams, answering their questions and hearing their opinions on a variety of topics (including the Charlie Hebdo attacks). Third, I expected to have more access to technology to show videos or presentations. I wasn’t able to bring a lot of resources with me and banked on having that available. It hasn’t been always available in the way I hoped. However, whenever I have asked to use a projector or something, the teachers always find a way to make it happen. They never act like it is an inconvenience, but I worry that it is. I’ve had to be a little more creative with the classes where a projector isn’t available and it has worked out. Although I haven’t heard of many assistants with terrible experiences, I feel fortunate with my placement. The students I have are, for the most part, respectful and interested in learning English. The only “problems” I really have are those that every high school teacher has, just getting normal kids to pay attention for as long as you can (especially when you are only talking in a foreign language) and that not every kid is going to be enthralled with English. The students say hi to me in the hallway, some have even spotted me in town and made a point to say hi and talk to me. Several of them prepare questions in advance so they can ask me about the United States, particularly politics and sports. Before Christmas, many of them asked if I was going home to the U.S. and were sad/concerned when I said that I wouldn’t be able to spend Christmas with my family. In certain classes, if it is getting noisy and I stop to wait for them to be quiet, the students will tell their peers to listen. While there are certainly glitches and moments where I have been as much an improv actress as a teacher, it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me.

TAPIF – The Training

Orientation marked the true beginning of our time as teaching assistants here. For me, I expected and hoped it would calm any nerves and answer all of my questions. Over the previous few months whenever I encountered a problem, “I’m sure I can figure it out at orientation” or “I’ll figure it out at orientation” became nearly an automated response – an easy way out of really solving my problems before I left. Buried deep, I had subconsciously believed orientation could and would solve any and all of my problems. Orientation was to be the all-knowing oracle and me, the innocent child, wide-eyed and ready to take copious notes and follow any instructions.

We gathered first thing in the morning, checked in, were handed bags with brochures and things and then found our seats. I sat with a few other assistants with whom I’d had drinks the night before and we chatted briefly until the program started.

It started late, as I have learned most things around here do. There were brief introductions from the different supervisors and then they began. Full. Speed. Ahead. All in French. Let me say that again. It was ALL IN FRENCH! In a flash, all of the hopes, dreams and questions I’d planned to take care of during my perceived miracle orientation were gone. On top of that, I immediately felt guilty for my vain ethnocentricity. Why in the world would I think this orientation would be in English? With assistants from all over the world, speaking multiple languages, OF COURSE the common language would be French, not English.

So it began. 0/1 for the stupid American.

The first question off the bat (at least I think it was because I was already drowning after two words of French) was if everyone had found housing. It took me a good minute or more to comprehend what they may have asked. No one raised their hands. Now, I knew for a fact that I was not the only assistant with pending homelessness. Facebook had been blowing up with people as desperate as I to find a place to live. I had also been communicating in-person with the band of potentially homeless. Yet no hands were raised. Either no one else understood the question, or more likely, they (like me) didn’t want to risk having to speak any French in front of the ENTIRE group of assistants. In a blink, the Académie thought the problem was solved while the rest of us sat in silence. Awesome.

My score as of 8:05 AM: Kristina-0, France-2.

Next, they gave us a presentation on the philosophy of education in France. You know, important stuff! I scribbled furiously transcribing each slide with the plan of inputting it all into Google Translate once I got home. I quickly gave up. All I understood was there were general high schools, professional high schools, middle schools and elementary schools. Also something about religion which I assumed was the right not to discuss religion in class. Oh, and they mentioned something about the baccalauréat, the high school graduation exam (which I had at least heard of in high school).

Following the presentations about the school system, they brought in the people to teach us about our healthcare. Again, this was important stuff. Probably one of the most important things we needed to learn about in orientation. No one, none of the assistants I had talked to seemed to get how this worked. As it was in…all together now…FRENCH, I got nothing. I sat through the entire presentation with my eyes glazed over in a petrified stare. Luckily a couple of the assistants understood what was said. We had the option to buy supplementary insurance from a “mutuelle” (the organizations that administer, I believe, the nationalized healthcare system), but either way our paperwork had to be turned in to them to get the standard, but elusive and mysterious Carte Vitale, key to the French healthcare system often demonized in the United States. And, if you had an address, you could save yourself the hassle of going to their office or the post office and hand it in directly to them!! However, I had no such permanent address, so I just folded it up and stuck it back in my envelope.

Let’s update the scoreboard, shall we? Kristina-0, France-3.

Then, the immigration people came in to talk to us. Now, this may make me sound stupid, but I didn’t realize these were separate entities. Before coming to France, I couldn’t quite understand why I had to make two copies of everything. I figured social security translated to be the same in France as the U.S., but it doesn’t. In France, your social security number is issued through the healthcare system not immigration. (Whereas I thought you get your social security number and healthcare in one swoop because it would all be administered directly by the government.) Back to my burning questions…I mean, I didn’t want to face both deportation and homelessness. So, was I supposed to get two birth certificates? Two translations? Translate my apostille or not? My questions were quickly answered, I’m sure, but again, as it was in French. Nada. At least it didn’t really matter as I didn’t have an address anyway so I couldn’t actually turn anything in and begin the immigration process (complete with a weird chest scan for tuberculosis – more on that in another post).

Well, folks, that brings us to Kristina-0, France-4 with France really pulling ahead with the lead.

At this point, we broke for lunch. With the morning success, for me, this was the main attraction: free lunch. Although not everyone agreed, I thought it was good. Filling, multiple courses, dessert included…what more could I want? At this point, I met more assistants and socialized. It was fun.

After lunch, we returned for our training on how to be teachers. (Because in all of my time at school and watching friends complete their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education to be teachers, I knew that could all be boiled down to one afternoon.) We split into groups based on the age group we would be teaching and the type of school were we would be working. For the first hour, I attended the training for English Assistants working in professional high schools and would spend the second hour in the training for the general high schools.

Since it was going to be just us English Assistants and our training was presumably critical, I thought they would throw us a bone and speak in English. They didn’t. (To be fair, they said since everything from here on out would be in French, we might as well get used to it.) We introduced ourselves, we exchanged emails and then the teacher explained about the “lycée professionnel” (professional high school). They are technical schools for trades in everything from electrical engineering to fashion. Apparently, they are tough. The students are there because they don’t like school. Most of them neither like English nor see a point in learning it. Without exactly saying it, she insinuated that we were all in for a rough time (as in, “I don’t want to scare you, but good luck”). We spent a short period of time then discussing potential activities to do with our students. Equipped with a list of activities, I felt completely prepared bring the joy of English to high school students with behavior problems and no interest in learning.

I’m not even sure why I’m keeping score anymore: Kristina-0, France-5.

The second hour I spent learning about the general high schools. Although the students are perceived to be more motivated, the teacher commented that their English level was often still rather low. She gave examples of how the students might be obstinate when speaking. For example, the following sentence “She didn’t forget to go to the store, she just decided to go somewhere else. She went to the park instead.” might be read as, “SHE DEEDN’T FOEGET TOO GO TOO ZEE STOE SHE JUST DEECIDED TO GO SUMWHERE ELZE SHE WENT TOO ZHE PARKUH EENSTED,” (with a strong French ‘r’). She also gave us ideas/instructions on how to correct them and activities to try. She also introduced us to the idea of notions, the piece of the baccalauréat exam that would occupy most of our lessons. She was dynamic and entertaining and I did honestly feel a bit more prepared to enter a general high school. One comment I thought was interesting was that she felt like it was a pity they spent so much time on the notions. They prepared their students to speak about complicated philosophical ideas, but often the students left high school unable to have the basic conversations which would be useful if traveling to an English-speaking country (which for most will be the only time they use their English). That was an interesting note to leave on as it marked the end of orientation.

With two hours of training, mixed expectations and a list of activities, we were sent forth to teach English to France’s future.

Let’s tally up the final score: Kristina-0, France-6.

  • Important tasks completed: 0/6.
  • General comprehension: very low.
  • Understanding of responsibilities: low.

Oh well. On y va. (Let’s go.)

Lost in Translation: Language Update

Alright folks, another language update. Since we last spoke on this, I have made what seem like baby steps, but in reality are leaps and bounds. I am not and nowhere near fluent. However, I am proud of the progress I have made. For example:

  1. I can generally understand what people are saying about superficial topics for about 5 minutes straight before I get lost. This is up from 5 seconds (if at all) from when I arrived…so a lot better.
  2. I can answer most basic questions without having the person repeat the question more than once. This is up from them having to give up and switch to English to get an answer from me.
  3. I can understand conversations happening around me as I am walking in the streets. This is up from walking in nearly total silence from blocking out literally everything said because I didn’t understand it anyway (a defense mechanism perhaps to prevent a complete system overload).
Right now, I would specifically like to improve the comprehension of my “I can’t hear you because of the loud music” French. I have discovered that when speaking in English, I almost entirely lip read in those situations. Turns out I can’t do that in French.
As far as speaking goes, it’s not quite there yet. I feel like I’ve moved up from grunting, Neanderthal French to more Homo sapien French (maybe not the guy walking completely on two legs, but not the guy beating his chest for dominance, French).
It is hard though. There are many times where I think to myself, wow, I would have a really good, articulate answer for that question in English, but since we are speaking in French, I guess I’ll just go with a solid “oui”, no elaboration and a smile. Then I feel really stupid. I want to say, “in English, I’m not stupid, just in French,” but I don’t know how to say that which illustrates my point, but only to me and then I become silently engrossed in sipping my drink.
Another thing. Sometimes my French will just drop out on me. I’ll be talking with someone, following along, following along and then…nothing. It just disappears like someone cut the power to your house. Lights out. Total darkness. Luckily, I will get a good amount of time before this happens – typically I find this happening at night. If I personified my French, it would be like a stubborn and mischievous child that locked herself in the bathroom. You can’t figure out why they are there nor can you coax them out. At this point, I know I’m done for the night. Everyone is going to have to repeat everything and you’ll be lucky to get a “oui” out of me. All that’s left to do then is admit, “that’s all folks” and make my departure.