Lectrice Life: The First Week of School

You know in L’auberge espagnole when Wendy, the English girl, doesn’t understand why Xavier calls his university the “fac”? Well, I work at “la fac.” It’s a public university – I work in “la faculté des langues,” the language department.

This week was my official back-to-school week. I actually have classes and students now! (What was I doing up until now? Lesson planning. Let’s say I was lesson planning.)

The last time I had classes and students was in May. Then I went on vacation.

Just kidding. I graded a zillion handwritten translation finals and invigilated exams. ( I think we’re supposed to say “proctored” in American, but it’s kind of an ugly word, and “invigilated” sounds like a Harry Potter spell.)

Then I went on vacation.

I’m happy to be back at work, though. I’m teaching almost double the hours I did last year, but I still have good balance – a few early mornings, and a couple mornings where I make coffee, read, and do laundry, and teach in the afternoon or evening. (I love being at home in the morning with the washing machine running. It’s so cozy.)

And I do like teaching when I’m gifted with a reasonably attentive and inquisitive class. I hate discipline. (“Wear a tie and look mean,” the head of the department joked. “It always works for me.”) I love thinking about words and talking about language. I love when students ask questions that make me think about my native language in ways I never considered.

For example, two students asked me the same question this week: when we use “they” as a gender neutral singular pronoun, do we change the verb conjugation to singular? So, we normally conjugate verbs like this – I eat, you eat, he/she/it eats, we eat, they eat. Right? But, these girls wanted to know, when we use “they” as a replacement for he/she/it, which has become increasingly common, does the verb conjugation change accordingly? Do we say, “they eats” because “they” is now singular? Well, no, we don’t. I never even thought about it. But it was a reasonable and logical question, and I love when students ask me things like this.

What? Pronouns are cool and interesting.

On the whole, the first week went smoothly, better than I could have expected. I was ready to lay down the law about chatting in class – French students tend to be very chatty, and it drives me crazy. Then when I get mad, they have no idea why I’m upset, and I get the, “Mais j’ai rien fait!” (“But I didn’t even do anything!”) But this week I had class after class of attentive twenty-year-old angels who listened (and laughed at my jokes, bless them).

There was that one class where I fell off the stage because the whiteboard is longer than the platform in front of it, but the students were kind enough to make me at least feel like they were laughing with me, not at me. But otherwise, I did my best to be a good teacher and stay out of trouble.

And then there was Thursday. Thursday is a long day for me. I start at 8 a.m. and I finish at 8 p.m. My classes get zanier as the day goes on.

In the morning, I have three first year classes, and I actually have a couple students that were in my classes at the lycée where I was a language assistant! Isn’t that cool? But it makes me inexplicably nervous. It’s a little like how performing in front of a huge crowd isn’t as nervewracking as being on stage when you know someone in the audience.

I get a break for lunch, thank goodness, and in the afternoon they have me running back and forth to opposite sides of the building for every single class. PLUS I have to stop and pick up a video projector for one of the classes smack in the middle because the classroom isn’t equipped with technology.

Naturally, that’s the wild card class because I haven’t taught it before and I know nothing about first year history students. Or history. By the time I picked up the projector and walked what I can only assume was a mile and a half to the other side of the building, I was ten minutes late, and after we all shuffled into the classroom and the students crowded themselves into seats against the back wall, I realized I had no idea how to work the damn video projector. I looked at it dubiously and poked some buttons on the top.

“Any of you guys know how to work this thing?” It wouldn’t be the first time students have rescued me from dysfunctional technology. They look at me like I’m a weirdo. I give them a writing assignment while I try to figure out the projector box thing. It takes me twenty minutes to get it to work.

Getting behind schedule results in a domino effect; I’m ten minutes late to every class for the rest of the day. In my next class, second year translation, the first slide of my PowerPoint is “Come to class on time.” #fail

Halfway through the class, I notice my laptop battery is at less than 10% and I have no power cord. Why didn’t I bring a charger on a day when I’m at school for twelve hours straight? Maybe I thought the laptop faires would come help me out, I don’t know. It wouldn’t be so bad, but this isn’t my last class of the day. I have one more second year class, and the whole lesson plan is in a PowerPoint. Merde.

In the ten minutes before I show up late, I try to figure out how I’m going to get through a 90 minute class with no materials. I can do the introduction without it, and I can do the grammar activity without it. The problem is that the bulk of the lesson revolves around two videos that I now can’t show.

I fell back on a packet of grammar quizzes in my bag that I had intended to do with an earlier class, but then I’d changed my mind and decided grammar on the very first day might be off-putting. I was worried about how it would go over, but it ended up being a good refresher. They did pretty well on most of it, which I hoped helped build their confidence, but they were stumped by “either” and “neither” (I sang them a little Ella Fitzgerald and got blank stares) and phrasal verbs (Throw the sandwich? Throw out the sandwich? Throw up the sandwich?)

I went home feeling energized and exhausted at the same time. Sometimes Thursdays are bad go-home-with-a-migraine days, but this one was pretty good. If the rest of the semester goes as well as the first week, I have no complaints. Even though I have less time to work on projects I started over the summer, it’s nice to be back into the routine of teaching.

Well, I say that now. Talk to me in a few weeks when I’m grading 400 midterm exams, and I might tell you a different story.

Are any of you teachers (or students)? How was your first week of school?

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Get a $50 discount at the International TEFL Academy

Hi there. If you’re not interested in getting your TEFL certificate to teach English abroad, then you’re welcome to skip this post. Maybe you’d like to read about travel or stupid things I’ve said in French instead?

If you are considering getting your TEFL certificate, I want to let you know that you can get $50 off your course with the International TEFL Academy, my TEFL alma mater. You can check it out here. Make sure to mention my name and the alumni referral program in order to get your $50 discount. I get $50 too for referring you. I hope that’s cool!

I took the full-time level 5 certification in Chicago three years ago. You might have heard of CELTA – this course is similar to that in terms of material covered. ITA offers the course in cities in the U.S. and around the world (Istanbul, Florence, Honolulu, Rio de Janiero, and Phnom Penh are just a few), and you can take it online as well.

I had been out of school for a couple years and I was geekily excited about learning and studying. I was that nerd with lots of questions and answers (even though in college I only spoke up in class when goaded). My teachers, Gosia and Jan, were experts, as well as really good teachers, which not all experts are.  I remember Jan teaching us a lesson entirely in Czech to show us what it’s like to have class in a foreign language, and Gosia explaining differences between British and American English. (North Americans, did you know that in the U.K. it’s correct to say “at the weekend”? Brits, did you know we don’t say “in hospital”?*) She had an anecdote about coming to the U.S. from the U.K. and being bewildered by a compliment on her pants (which, if you don’t know, means underwear in British English).

We studied a huge range of topics, including different pedagogical approaches, teaching kids versus adults, cultural differences, and good old English grammar. We also had student teaching practicum at the school, so we planned out lessons and then actually taught them to small groups of ESL students. I think there were about twelve of us in the class and we all got along well, which made class more fun. A lot of my classmates went on to do cool stuff like teach in South Korea and Budapest. (#facebookstalking)

I worked in the writing center for three years in college and grammar talk didn’t phase me, but it’s amazing what you learn when you think about language from the perspective of a non-native speaker. I had never noticed that the past tense verb conjugations don’t change in English and it totally blew my mind. (I ate, you ate, she ate, we ate. See?!) I had also never really noticed how many phrasal verbs (verb + preposition) we use in English, and how tough they can be to learn. Like, there’s a big difference between “throw,” “throw out,” and “throw up,” right? But it’s so innate to native speakers that we don’t think twice.

Teaching is not easy and I think it really takes years of study and practice to be fully prepared. However most ESL teachers, especially those of us who aren’t going to be teachers forever, often just get thrown in the deep end when we start teaching! I was glad that I had at least taken a thorough TEFL course first.

Having a TEFL certificate has helped me get hired over here in France, although it’s not a requirement for the TAPIF program. I don’t think I would have my current job without it. If you have a significant amount of experience and a Master’s degree, you might get by without a TEFL certificate in France, but in some other countries it’s a requirement to teach English.

Right, getting a job! The majority of alumni seem to end up in Asia, because that’s where a lot of the demand is, but there are ITA alums teaching all over the world. Everyone working in the office has taught English abroad, everywhere from Chile to South Korea. My advisor at ITA was Christie, who is awesome! You meet with your advisor to talk about where you want to teach, how to find a job, etc. and they help you with your CV and cover letter. You also leave with a letter of recommendation, which is always nice.

One thing I appreciate about ITA is that they clearly strive to provide their students and alumni with the most accurate information possible. There is a wealth of alumni interviews on their site sorted by country which address things like getting a job, how much they earned, what it’s like living in that particular country, etc. (Mine is outdated and a little embarrassing! I’ve updated it so I hope the old one will be replaced soon.)

There is also an enormous alumni network. There are active ITA alumni Facebook groups for each country, which I think is a fantastic resource. Have a question about teaching English in Spain? You can get in touch with people who are currently teaching there.

I chose to get my TEFL certificate at the International TEFL Academy because it was a top-level accredited program (meaning it meets international standards of British Council and the like), and out of all the programs I researched in Chicago, it had the best value for the lowest price. I remember being disappointed that they didn’t have a magic solution for teaching in France, but honestly, there isn’t one. Ultimately I was happy with my choice of TEFL program, and I’m glad that I can still benefit from the alumni network over three years later.

If you have any questions about my experience with the International TEFL Academy, please let me know and I’ll do my best to help.

ITA did not compensate me in any way for this post. They don’t even know I’m writing it.

*Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and other lovely anglophones, we didn’t study the particularities of how English is spoken chez vous, but I’m interested to learn about it if you’d like to share! Canada and Ireland, it seems like you guys get lumped in with the U.S. and the U.K. respectively. Does that get annoying?

TAPIF: My favorite ESL games and lessons

I receive a lot of inquiries about teaching English in France. My most popular post to date is on preparing for TAPIF, followed by Things I Wish I Had Known About Teaching English In France. Currently I’m seeing a lot of visitors from English-speaking countries around the world, and I’m guessing that a lot of you are future TAPIF language assistants. I don’t write a lot about TAPIF because there is already so much great information out there, but know that you’re welcome to contact me with questions or requests for a blog post. I had a ton of questions before I was an assistant and someone was nice enough to help me out (thanks Shannon!) so I’m happy to pay that forward. Today I’m sharing some of my favorite games and lessons that I’ve used many times in my three years of teaching English in France. I hope this will show you the kinds of things you might teach as an assistant, and maybe give you ideas for lesson plans you can cook up on your own.

Continue reading “TAPIF: My favorite ESL games and lessons”

Preparing for the TAPIF language assistant program in France: What to do, and what not to do

Hello future language assistant. If you’re getting ready to come to France for the next school year, I’ve got some tips for you. I was an assistant in a lycée in Lyon in 2013-2014, and although I initially had my doubts about the program, I ended up having a great experience. Even though I had already been living and teaching in France for a year before I went, I reached out to past assistants to get tips from them and they were delightfully helpful. I hope you’ll find some useful ideas or resources in this post!

Do practice your French

In my opinion, the better your French is before you move, the easier it is to improve while you’re there. Before moving to France, I used Conversation Exchange to do a French/English language exchange. I also used Meetup to find a French language group in my area.

When you watch French movies, challenge yourself to take the subtitles off if you can, and watch French videos on YouTube. Try Golden Moustache Videos – they are hilarious and you can put on subtitles. (I know I just said to take the subtitles off, but you may want to have the option with Golden Moustache – their jokes go by fast, and subtitles can help you learn some of the slang they’re using.) The best one is the longest one, Le Fantôme de Merde. There’s also Norman fait des videos and Cyprien. You can also watch Quotidien in French, and for something a little more serious, C dans l’air.

The number one thing I wish I had known about sooner? Comme une Française TV. Géraldine makes great videos demonstrating expressions and cultural quirks that you just don’t learn in the classroom. I’m fluent in French and I still learn new things from her videos all time. Even if you’re a dude, it doesn’t matter – most of the topics are gender neutral.

French words
Note: do not call your waiter “garçon” in French.

Don’t overpack

You probably don’t need as much stuff as you think you do, and you are going to have to carry it all. You know you’re going to be going home with more stuff than you came with anyway!

(As I wrote in another post on teaching English in France, the dress code tends to be on the casual side, so don’t worry too much about bringing dressy clothes for work.)

Do connect with other assistants in your region

There should be a Facebook group for your city or region – find it and join it. Even if you really want to spend your year making French friends, not other anglophone friends, it is nice to have that online network when you have a question about lesson planning or opening your bank account. You don’t necessarily have to hang out with other assistants, but it’s a good idea to stay connected in the anglophone community. Sometimes being a foreigner is rough, and we have each other’s backs.

Do get in touch with your school

There’s some information you’re going to want sooner rather than later – will your school provide lodging? What will your schedule be? Will you be teaching your own classes, or having small conversation groups? You have no control over when someone gives you this information, and chances are no one will be in touch until the end of August or September because of les vacances, but at least if you send them an email (in French!) you’re opening the door for that communication to begin.

Do bring some props from home

You’re going to be talking about where you come from and your culture as much as you will be teaching English (more, in some cases). It’s great to have visual aids to present. Depending on your responsibilities and teaching style, you might want to have real English-language materials, like magazines, etc. to bring to class. Tip: think about presenting your city or region rather than (or in addition to) your country as a whole, especially if you’re American.

Don’t be too nice

If you’re responsible for a class, even if there are only eight students, be prepared to lay down the law from the start. Decide what is and is not acceptable in your class, and what the consequences will be if a student is uncooperative, and be consistent. If you don’t follow through, they will never take you seriously. Ask a teacher what the school rules are and what your options are to discipline, since you probably won’t be grading them.

Don’t mess up your consulate appointment

Going to the French consulate should be a million times easier than any French bureaucratic process in France. If you schedule your appointment ASAP, get all your paperwork lined up (there should be a list of requirements on your consulate’s website), and show up on time, there’s no reason it should go wrong.

Do feel free to tell the consulate if you have a reason to stay in France after the end of your contract

Your visa status is “travailleur temporaire.” You can have a visa with this status for up to a year. An assistant contract is usually seven months, and the visa is often valid 8-10 months – it depends on your consulate.

When I was getting my visa at the San Francisco consulate, the woman asked me if I would be staying in France after the end of my contract. Since I live in France and am annually plagued with visa obstacles, I wanted my visa to be valid as long as possible. That didn’t seem like the right thing to say at the consulate, though. I explained that my friend was getting married in September (true), so I needed to be able to stay in France until then. This kind sweet lady sent my passport back with a visa valid for 12 months. Woohoo!

Note: the 12 months start the day you arrive in France, not when your contract begins. That’s why you have to have purchased your plane ticket before your consulate appointment.

Of course, this all depends on which consulate you are at and who you speak with, but it can’t hurt to ask as long as you present a good reason!

Do get a new copy of your birth certificate with an apostille and don’t wait until the last minute!

You’ll need this to get a social security number and healthcare. They should accept a copy (color is better) at your appointment, but better to have the original on hand in case you need it. When I went to the Assurance Maladie, they didn’t require a translation for a birth certificate in English, but many people recommend that you have one done by a translator certified by the French consulate. (Note: L’assurance maladie is sometimes finicky with American birth certificates since they vary by state. Be persistent. You can read about my ordeal here.)

Do start looking for housing before you arrive

Finding somewhere to live can be a challenge. If your school offers lodging, I recommend that you take it. It will most likely be the cheapest option, and you can always move out if you find somewhere you’d prefer to live. Otherwise, network with other assistants and expats and search on leboncoin.fr (like French craigslist – it’s your best bet for finding a place.) It’s not necessarily likely that you’ll actually have somewhere to live when you arrive, but at least you’ll know the lay of the land. However…

Don’t get scammed on Leboncoin

Just like Craigslist, use caution on Leboncoin! There are tons of legit offers on the site, but if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. Of course, never send money or personal information ahead of time. You might be tempted to wire a deposit if you’re in a panic about ending up homeless, but don’t do it! You will not end up living on the street. Okay?

Do have a credit card with no international fees, and do find out where you can withdraw cash with no fees

You’ve got to set up a bank account in France to get paid (but you need an address first!) but in the meantime, you still need money. Having a credit card with no international fees is a no-brainer, and you also want to check with your bank to find out where you can withdraw cash without getting charged (you gotta have cash!)

For example, in the States, I have an account at Bank of America. I can withdraw cash at BNP Paribas ATMs without getting charged per transaction (but I do pay a small percentage fee). I also have their Travel Rewards credit card, which I love a) because there are no international fees and b) because it has the little European chip in it, which makes it easier to use over here. (You literally have to show people how to swipe a credit card in their machine here, unless you’re somewhere with a large influx of non-European visitors. It is a completely foreign concept.)

Note: Even if you have a credit card with the chip, there are still some places it won’t work because it’s a foreign card, like the SNCF train station automated machines.

Don’t forget to tell your bank and credit cards where you’ll be so that your account doesn’t get blocked!

Because that is no fun for anyone.

Do have enough funds to last you a month or two when you arrive

You’re not going to get paid until the end of November. You might get an advance of a couple hundred euros at the end of October. You will still have to pay for stuff.

Euros

Don’t expect everyone to speak English

The English teachers at your school will speak English (right?) but the administration and the other teachers probably won’t. Some people will want to practice their English with you, so if your goal is to speak French, figure out a polite way to communicate that (just continuing to respond in French often does the trick.)

If you struggle with speaking French at first, that’s okay! Look up a list of necessary vocabulary before going into new situations. For example, if I go to the doctor, I make sure I have all the words I need to explain what my symptoms are, and if I go to the préfecture, I make sure I have a long list of profanities handy. (…Kidding.)

Good luck!

I’ve written more about teaching English in France (including lesson plans, types of visas, and getting a TEFL certificate) here.

Have you been a language assistant in France? What advice would you give?