Yep, you heard correctly. After only 2 weeks in my new position as an English teaching assistant (otherwise known as the English teacher), French schools are on break for “Les Vacances de Toussaint,” for the next week and a half. “What is Toussaint?” you ask. It’s All-Saints Day. Because, even though modern France is pretty secular, the country did emerge out of Catholicism and its Catholic roots are still very visible in the culture. For example, while the USA has embraced (and commercialized) Halloween as our October holiday of choice, France actually made Toussaint a national holiday, giving their citizens a reason to take an extra day off (or, in the case of schools, 8 days off).
Since “assisting” has proved to be way more involved at the elementary school level than I’d anticipated, I’m very grateful for this break and the chance to relax, regroup, and maybe (hopefully) even come back to school in November more prepared to share my language and culture with my students! I’ll be spending 5 days (from Tuesday-Saturday) in the South of France! Specifically exploring Nice and as many surrounding towns as we can journey to using public transportation.
Next Sunday (October 3oth), I come back to real life in Compiègne, giving me 3 full days to accomplish the following: (1) organize my lesson plans for the week, (2) get more organized with lesson planning in general (i.e.- how many weeks am I actually teaching and how many topics/vocab/grammar do I have to teach in that amount of time), (3) Start watching French television on the TV in the common room, (4) look into places/ways I can study French as a second language while I’m here, (5) Find a yoga class! (6) Get a library card! (7) Start researching travel prices and booking cheap weekend trips to neighboring cities/countries!
… Of course, I may add to this list in the next week, but this is a start. I’m determined NOT to waste this great opportunity that I have been given. Sure, this is almost like an extended vacation and it would be easy to waste time reading novels and catching up on American television.
BUT, I’m not here to relax and be lazy (!!) – I’m here to improve my French, to really experience the culture, and to improve myself and my situation at home. My teachers, the Ministry of Education, and my “responsable” are all constantly telling all of us assistants to “profitez!” One of my new favorite french words, a basic translation of “profiter” is “to take advantage of a beneficial situation.” “On doit profiter!” has become somewhat of a mantra to me. I’ve given myself a few weeks to get adjusted to my new surroundings and situation, but next week I’ll have been here for a month and it’s time to get busy!
Yes, the pictures have all been fine and good, but some of you may have started to wonder – “but when do you actually start this teaching assistantship we’ve heard about?”
The wait is over! I started last Monday and now have a whole week of “assisting” under my belt.
Whoa… I had NO idea what I would be in for when I applied for this post and neither orientation nor my “responsable” adequately prepared me for what I was to face.
First, the term “teaching assistant” is incredibly misleading… At least for the primary level assistants in Compiègne. A more appropriate term for us would be the “English teacher.” A little bit of warning that our task would be more… intensive than we had been led to believe would have been nice, but most of us in Compiègne were simply thrown into the deep end without notice.
As for myself, my “responsable,” P, took me to all 3 of the schools I’d be working at on Friday, October 7th. I did not have an opportunity to meet with each of the teachers I’d be working with, but I did meet with the directors (like the principal) of each of the schools. They looked at the schedule P had prepared, told me what time to show up my first day and where to go, and that was that.
On Monday, I walked to my first school with nothing really prepared. Based on the information I’d been given, I thought that I would spend most of the first week simply observing the teachers’ English lessons to the class. What I didn’t realize is that no English was being taught in any of my schools (save for one) before I showed up. After all, the teachers at the primary level are just general teachers. They aren’t trained to teach English, and in fact most of them don’t even speak it.
My first class was, therefore, quite a surprise. I walked in and the teacher, M. P, introduced me to his class as the new English teacher from America, who would come in twice a week to teach. He asked me what I had planned, and on the spot I said I could work with the class on introductions, if that was alright. This first school, Robida, does actually have an English workbook that they are letting me use, and the M. P made copies of a page with basic exercises on “What’s your name?” “How old are you?” etc… Then, he turned the class over to me. (Yikes!)
For 45 minutes, I worked with 26 10-11 year olds on “My name is…” I come from…” and “I’m … years old.” After introducing myself, I went around the room and had each of the students introduce themselves, and then they completed the worksheet. I tried to speak to the students only in English, but they know so little English that I often found myself switching to French to try and explain what I wanted them to do, and anytime a student had a question, they asked in French. It was stressful, I was not prepared, and after the first class, I repeated the process again, in 4 more classes at 2 different schools…
Needless to say, by Monday’s end I was completely exhausted and overwhelmed. My classes span 3 different age/grade levels, in every class the students’ level of English is a bit different, and in every class the teacher treats me a bit differently. Most of the teachers are really nice, but most do not speak a word of English. For the 45 minutes that I’m in their class they retreat to the back of their room and work on other things. There are no English textbooks, and whenever I’ve asked for a curriculum or lesson plans, the teachers have given me a 4-page word document that outlines the vocabulary and sentence structure each year is expected to know/learn. At the end of every class, I’ve asked what they would like me to do for the next lesson, and for the most part, I’ve been given free reign to teach whatever I want.
It’s very chaotic and unstructured, and was definitely overwhelming at first, but after a week of teaching, I’m warming up to it. Yes, I certainly embarrass myself in French several times a day talking to the teachers and the students, but on the bright side, I get a LOT of practice in French. The teachers are nice about my poor French speaking skills and I feel like I’m setting a good example to the students, by not being afraid of standing in front of a classroom and speaking a foreign language, even when I make some mistakes. The lesson planning is more work than I expected, but I’m finding a lot of resources on the internet and I’m trying to plan the same lessons (only varying the degree of difficulty) for all of my classes.
But what about the kids, you ask? The kids are AWESOME! They are all adorable and really eager to learn. As soon as I am spotted by one of the kids I teach, I am greeted by choruses of “hello! hello!” and I’ve already been surprised by the little things they remember (one remembered the spelling of my name, another remembered that I’m from Atlanta, etc…) They are eager to please and they love showing off the English they know. They are really the best part about what I’m doing and they make my 45 minute lessons fly by.
In sum, after being thrown into the deep end unawares, I’m pleased to report that, I think, I’m going to swim. (Or, at least, tread water for the next 7 months to survivve).
And without further ado, here are some pictures of Compiègne! Because there are quite a few, I’ve attached them all as a gallery (if it worked). I’m sure there will be more to come as I get to know the town better, but hopefully these pictures will help you build a mental image of my surroundings. Enjoy!
1. Food tastes better here. I have no idea why that is, but so far, it holds true for everything I’ve tried (except for Beer – beer, so far, has been too expensive here to taste better).
2. I prefer walking/public transportation to cars. Compiègne is a very walkable city. None of my schools are farther than a 25 minute walk away, and the town is pretty flat. I’m not sure that I will continue to enjoy walking quite so much when it gets cold, but for now, I love it. The trains run on time (except for when they’re striking, more on that later), but driving, from my very limited experience, seems to be more trouble than it’s worth. First, you have to know how to drive a stick shift, which I don’t. Second, as can be expected, French road signs are completely different from American ones. Third, gas costs about twice as much here as it does in the USA (around 1.50 Euro/liter). Fourth, there are more toll roads. And Fifth, the French stick their street signs on the side of buildings, and sometimes there are none to be found at intersections, so unless you really know the city you’re in, it seems like it would be difficult to find your way around by car.
3. The Orientation for the organization I work for, at least in my acadamy (Académie d’Amiens) was AWESOME. I’ve been hearing horror stories about completing paperwork in France for YEARS, and so far (knock on wood) my experience completing said paperwork has been super facile (easy), thanks to my académie. My “responsable” helped me open a bank acount, and at orientation yesterday, there were representatives from OFII (French Immigration) and MGEN (social security) to help us complete the necessary paperwork and answer any questions we had. I got all my paperwork turned in, and once my medical visit is completed on the 20th, I should have the stamp I need to validate my visa for the term of my stay here. My sécu information should arrive in about 10 days or so, at which point (I think?) I’ll have French medical insurance!
4. The French “jeunesse” get drunk and do stupid things, just like Americans. When I stayed in Amiens the other night, we walked by a group of college-age kids (mostly guys) engaged in what looked to be some kind of French frat-boy hazing ritual. They were SO loud, at first I thought it WAS a group of Americans, until we got close enough to hear that they were all yelling in French. Two of the boys jumped into the nasty, foul-smelling canal, and swam out to a statue of a man in the middle. There, they proceeded to strip down, dress the statue in some of their clothes, and engage in lewd dances with the statues. Finally, they stripped down to nothing, danced a little bit more with the statue, and jumped back into the foul water to swim naked back to shore. There may be more cultural similarities between the French and American youth than I had thought.
5. “les Grèves” (strikes) really are a way of life here. Yesterday, a bunch of assistants got stuck in Amiens after all of the trains went on strike. Seriously, all of the lines just stopped running. “Pourquoi?” You might ask. Well, I haven’t been able to find any English news articles about it, but someone attacked a controller on a train between Lyon and Strausburg yesterday morning. The train employee was stabbed several times and is in the hospital, though they’ve pronounced him stable. The French articles say that this was not a real strike, but all of the trains conductors/employees left their posts yesterday in response. So, none of the trains were running, though I believe some have started back up now. Here is an article from Le Figaro about the attack.
I’ve taken a bunch of photos around Compiègne, and will post some of them later. For now, I need to run to the cell phone store before it closes. Its only 4:14 PM here, but stores in France tend to keep much shorter hours than their USA counterparts.
à tout à l’heure!
As promised, here are some photos of my new digs. It’s not much, but it’s cheap and I have everything I need.
Okay, now that I’ve shared that awesome news, on to my surroundings…
This building is used as administrative offices.
So, this is where I live. Note that the kitchen has 2 full size refridgerators, an oven, a 4-burner stove top, AND a microwave!!! Also, there is a coffee maker, so I am really set here. I can even cook, as soon as I get a bit more comfortable in the supermarkets.