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?
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.
Do you know how to count down to a big day in French? I learned this shortly after I moved to Paris from Chicago. I was teaching in a language school near Saint Lazare, and I had an adorable student about the same age as me. She was planning her wedding.
One day, while telling me about her upcoming nuptials, she mentioned “D-Day.” Wait, hold on. D-day? You’re calling your wedding day “D-Day?”
I frequently receive questions about teaching English in France. I try to answer honestly but recognize that what was true for me may not be true for everyone.
I came to France with wildly unrealistic expectations. Actually, no. I didn’t really have clear expectations. I didn’t know what to expect.
The problem was, it was hard to get accurate information on the reality of teaching in France, and I think that’s because the reality can vary so much. I read that you had to fly over here, knock on doors until someone offered you a teaching job, and then fly back home with your work contract to get your visa. I’m sure this has happened to a handful of people in the history of teaching English in France, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say THIS IS A LIE. In my opinion, the only way this would work is if you used the Franco-American chamber of commerce to sponsor your visa (they have an exchange program for professionals under 35 with a college degree). And you certainly could do that. If you can find a teaching contract that meets the requirements.
My TEFL program set the record straight on visas, but while they gave me an idea of what it was like to teach in France, I still didn’t really know what to expect. Before I launch into my list, let me give you the rundown on what I’ve done here: I’ve been a teacher in France since 2012. I taught for Business Talk France and Les Petits Bilingues in Paris, I worked as a TAPIF language assistant in a lycée in Lyon, and I’m starting my second year as a lectrice at a university in Lyon. I’ve taught pretty much all ages, all levels. I’ve even “taught” babies and stuff. (What? It was less stressful than teaching teens, and I’m handy with a tambourine.)
No, I’m not an expert – a few years of teaching does not an expert make! However, I’ve had a taste of a variety of teaching situations in France, and I sure know a hell of a lot more than before I came over here – thank goodness.
Before moving to France, I wish I had known that…
Teaching contracts aren’t full time, and your hours aren’t fixed
You’re going to laugh at me, but I thought if a language school hired me, I would work 35 hours a week. That’s a full French work week, right?! And I thought, if I work 35 hours a week and get paid 18 euros an hour (which is a common hourly rate), I’ll make 2500 euros a month! Anyone who knew anything about work in France was shaking their head and going, “No girl, just… no.” But I honestly didn’t know how it would work. So here’s the deal.
No one teaches 35 hours a week. No one. (If you do, please tell me your story!) In theory, you could if you worked two teaching jobs. But a full time teaching contract isn’t 35 hours anyway, because you need time to prep and lesson plan (which you will not be paid for, FYI.) The truth of the matter is, that while there are jobs out there that will offer you enough hours to live on, most language schools only offer part time hours as they have them available. For example, I started out working fifteen to twenty hours a week with a language school in September (which is probably the busiest time of the year), but in January, there were fewer students to teach and so I only worked ten hours or less with that language school. I interviewed with quite a few other language schools to see how they worked, and most of them offer students as they become available, a few hours a week at a time, and won’t guarantee a certain number of hours. This means you could go from being able to pay your rent to living on your savings and eating 99¢ pasta. Eek. That’s not what you want.
Bottom line: if you’re paid hourly and your hours are prone to fluctuate, you better hustle. Most teachers have more than one job.
Salaries are lower in France
I did have some co-workers who had full-time contracts. They were paid a monthly salary instead of hourly. (It’s often easier to negotiate this kind of contract with your current employer if they know you, like you, and want to keep you.) Their salary was about 1300 euros per month. To give you another example, Les Petits Bilingues is a language school for kids, and center managers work full time teaching and managing and earn 1800 euros per month. A French teacher in a French school earns about 1800 euros per month. A marketing professional might earn 2000-2500 euros per month, and an assistant or receptionist might earn 1300-1800. Minimum wage is higher compared to the United States (about 9-10 euros/hour) and government benefits are great, but overall, the payscale is lower than what you’ll find in the US. (If you have more examples or a different opinion, please tell me! This is based on my observations and personal experience, and certainly it can vary depending on the job.)
Sometimes, employers lie
Look. Not all language schools are bad. But sometimes, employers promise things that don’t turn out to be true. I’m sure that their intention is not to mislead teachers, usually. But the fact is, if you end up only working half the hours they promised you, you get screwed, whether they meant to lie to you or not. This happened to me with two language schools and it sucked a lot. If it’s not in your contract, there’s no guarantee. Have a back-up plan.
The dress code is on the casual side
When you’re moving to France, what do you pack? I didn’t know what I would have to wear to work, especially because I didn’t have a job yet! There are some situations where you want to look sharp – interviews of course, and when a language school that sends you to the student’s professional office to teach. In general, casual is fine as long as you still look nice. Business casual is okay, but jeans and a sweater are usually acceptable too. I like to dress up a little for classroom teaching because I look younger than I am, but some teachers dress more casually. If you’re working with kids, all bets are off. When in doubt, pack versatile clothes that you can dress up or dress down, but know that you won’t be expected to wear a suit or heels to work. It would actually be pretty weird if you did.
Classroom management is more important than your teaching skills
I’ve been working in the ESL field for over six years, and I love teaching adults and private lessons. You know what I suck at? Classroom management. With business language schools, this isn’t a problem because you teach grown-ups who have chosen to be there and presumably want to learn. With the TAPIF assistantship program and with schools like Les Petits Bilingues, it is a huge issue because you have to manage groups of kids, and they could be anywhere between three years old to eighteen years old. (Note: sometimes, language assistants aren’t responsible for their own classes – they might help the teacher in class or work with just a few students at a time. It completely depends on the school you end up in.)
In fact, although Les Petits Bilingues was impressed that I had a TEFL certificate, they were much more concerned with my experience managing groups of kids, for good reason. There’s no lesson planning involved with that particular company because they have their own materials, so corralling the kids is truly the toughest part of the job (seven year olds are the worst.)
The hardest part is this: you really have to discipline them in French. I don’t find that English is effective for discipline in most cases; they just don’t understand. And it is not easy to discipline kids in your second language.
Truth: I am not a scary person. I am small and smiley and baby-faced. If you are more intimidating than I am, or simply more comfortable and experienced in classroom management, this may not even be an issue. Good for you!
Visas are a big deal
I knew that I needed a visa to work in France. I knew that an employer was unlikely to sponsor me. But I didn’t realize how big a deal these legal things really are. Sometimes you even need legal status to work with a family privately, because they can get tax benefits by hiring you. You can work up to 20 hours a week on a student visa in France, and many people go this route (I did my first year.) No one is really calculating the number of hours you work, and some people say it’s an average of 20/week over a period of time that matters. I think this probably matters most if you are filing taxes, and I’m not sure what would really happen if you exceeded the limit (by working for two employers, for example) although I don’t recommend you break the law.
When employers find out that you’re not European, their first question will be about your legal status. Some of them are wary of student visas. When I had two months left on my visa, many schools wouldn’t even interview me. “Give us a call when you take care of your visa,” they said. Since schools can hire UK citizens with no extra paperwork, it makes it tougher on Americans looking for work. Canadians and Australians can get a working holiday visa in France, but that program doesn’t exist for Americans. Most job postings will say “must have the legal right to work in E.U. or don’t bother applying.”
Luckily, school is cheap here, and if you plan ahead you should be able to enroll as a full time student. Be warned that if you don’t actually go to school and pass your classes, you won’t be able to renew! I wish I had had this guide about enrolling in school in France before I came.
Christie was right… the TAPIF program is the way to go
Christie was my advisor at the International TEFL Academy in Chicago. Christie is awesome. And she told me that they really advise people who want to study in France to go through the TAPIF language assistant program. But I didn’t want to do that. No, I said, the pay is so low (about 800 euros per month net.) No, you don’t have any control over where you’re placed. No, I would have to wait until the following year to apply and I want to go to France now. (What a brat.)
Let me tell you, if you’re not studying in France, if there’s no exchange program with your home university, if you don’t have a European passport, I really believe that the TAPIF program is the way to go. I’ve done it both ways, and it was much easier being an assistant than it was doing it on my own. It can be a bit luck of the draw in terms of where you end up, and not everyone has a good experience. But at least you know you have 800 euros coming in every month, you have plenty of time to work another job on the side (assistants work 12 hours per week), and the visa process is easy-peasy. Sometimes schools even offer housing for cheap. Dana and Jill are former assistants who have written a ton of helpful posts about this program.
The most important part of your job is to get your students to use the language
Yes, grammar is important and you should know your stuff. Yes, private students may have individual needs that differ from each other, yes, it can be hard to incorporate oral activities in a large class. BUT. In general, the French school system drills verb tenses into their students’ brains, but many people are not confident speaking. In the vast majority of everyone I have taught in France, the written level is much higher than the oral level. This is normal when you learn in the classroom, and it was certainly the case with my French before I moved here.
When I tested grammar levels, my students knew all the irregular past participles and found written exercises too easy, but struggled with oral communication. Just getting them to use the language is huge, and if you’ve studied a foreign language yourself, you know how essential this is to making progress.
If they are prepping for a test like the TOEFL or TOEIC, it’s a different story, and of course you want to know your stuff so you can offer helpful grammatical explanations and help your students expand their capacities for expression in written and oral English. Many schools have their own curriculum they want you to use, which takes lesson planning off the table. (Less work for you, but also less freedom.)
But in general, I find over and over again that practice listening and speaking is what students need most, and where they have the least confidence. More likely than not, they know more than they think they do, and just never have the opportunity to put what they know into practice.
Note: If you’re a language assistant, this is the whole point of your job. Your students already have English teachers for learning grammar and taking tests – you want them to have fun using the language so that they like speaking English and want to continue to progress!
Some disclaimers and caveats:
This is my perspective, based on my personal experiences. Not everyone shares my perspective, so please take it all with a grain of salt (feel free to add tequila and lime if my ranting has left you depressed.) I wanted to write it because I had a hard time finding honest personal accounts of what it was like to teach in French language schools in particular before I moved. There are many bloggers writing about the TAPIF program, which is great!
If you disagree with me, I’d love to hear your story! If you’ve experienced something similar, well, I also love it when people agree with me.
Have you taught English abroad? What was your experience like?