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.)