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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Working in France: Lectrice Q & A

Most Americans in France know how hard it is to get a visa and a job. If you don’t have EU nationality, a French spouse, or a rare and in-demand professional specialty, job opportunities are slimmer than the supermodels France recently banned, especially if you weren’t educated in France.

There are a couple solutions. You can work part time on a student visa while going to school (check), you can be a language assistant in a French elementary, middle, or high school (check), and, if you have the required education, you can be a lecteur or lectrice in a French university (check!)

(Other ways to live and work in France include being an au pair and getting your visa sponsored through the Franco-American chamber of commerce. If you’re Canadian or Australian, you may qualify for a working holiday visa.)

I’m about to embark on my fourth year in France and my second as a university lectrice. Here are some insights into my experience as a lectrice so far.

Continue reading “Working in France: Lectrice Q & A”

The préfecture: the end?

You’ve been holding your breath waiting for me to finish my story about the préfecture, haven’t you? If you missed it, I’ve already been once in Vienne and once in Lyon trying to renew my visa. (FYI, I have a job contract specifically for a foreigner like me which gives me the right to live in France for the duration of the contract, so it’s not a legal problem – it’s a bureaucracy problem.)

To cut a long story short, I flew back from Barcelona a few days early specifically to do this whole thing over, because who doesn’t love waiting on the sidewalk for hours while the sun comes up? I brought snacks this time.

Continue reading “The préfecture: the end?”

Things I Wish I Had Known About Teaching English in France

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.

I was as innocent as this delicious juice.
I was as innocent as this delicious juice.

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

I taught in this shiny lycée.
I taught in this shiny lycée with the TAPIF program.

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!

Teaching English in France isn't always a bowl of cherries
Teaching English in France isn’t always a bowl of cherries

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?

Why you should go straight from the bar to the préfecture (and other practical advice)

Remember when I told you about going to the préfecture in Vienne? It didn’t go so well. So I decided to try again… in Lyon. (Note: I had to change my address on paper to change préfectures.)

Unlike in Vienne, I knew what to expect at the préfecture in Lyon. My awesome expat friends gave me the inside scoop, so I knew I had to get there early and bring something to keep me busy.

I went so early that there were still people out from the night before.
I went so early that there were still people out from the night before. (Note: this is Hotel de Ville, not the préfecture. I imagined that the préfecture would look like this, but it doesn’t.)

I took the bus over around 5:30am. I worried that I was too early. What if there was no one around and I didn’t feel safe?

Ha. Ha. Ha.

There were over sixty people in line when I arrived. It was 5:45am. The préfecture doors open at 8:30am. By 6:15am, the line had doubled, and by 6:30am, it stretched the length of the entire block and around the corner.

So I settled in to wait. I wished I had something to sit on. I wished I had something to eat. I wished I had a latte and a blueberry muffin. But what I did have was a smartphone and a book, and so two and a half hours went by faster than you’d think.

At 8:30, the doors opened and the line moved forward. I showed my passport and visa and they gave me at ticket – number 64. Everyone rushed into the préfecture and tried to grab a seat before they were all taken. There are about 30 guichets, or windows to talk to a person, about half of which were open, and ticket numbers popped up on a screen with a bing-bong sound to show when it was your turn and which guichet you should go to. I jerked my head up every time a new number bing-bonged onto the screen, as though 64 was magically going to appear after 11.

image (6)
This means that sixty-three people got to the préfecture before 5:45am.

It was 10:02am when 64 bing-bonged onto the screen. I jumped out of my chair, shaking, and rushed over to my guichet. It was almost over, and the man seemed nice. Everything was going to be fine.

He asked for my documents one by one. Copy of your passport? Work contract? Birth certificate original and copy? Last pay stubs? They piled up on his desk as I slid them through the slot in the window.

Justicatif de domicile? This is the paperwork that proves you have an address. I was worried about this one. I didn’t have a recent bill because I didn’t have access to one, but I did have a lease, which I had used before without a problem. I thought unless I got stuck with someone really mean, it would be fine. I had even brought my bank statements to prove I did have the means to rent an apartment and wasn’t living on the street. That’s the point, right?

He peered at the documents I handed over.

“I can’t accept this. Do you have anything else?”

I tried to explain that there were no other documents available, that I had used the same ones before with no problem, that I was leaving on a plane the following morning and couldn’t come back (excuses, but all true.)

He wasn’t mean. He wasn’t unfair. He simply said, “Ma’am, your dossier is not complete and I cannot accept it. It won’t do any good to cry.”

I knew I had lost, and I knew I should have known better. There was nothing I could have done about it, but I knew that unlike the woman in Vienne, he was just doing his job. And he was right.

I walked out into the sunshine in a daze. I had come to Lyon specifically for this at an inconvenient time, rushed to get my dossier ready, waited for hours on my feet as the sun came up – all for nothing. And I was leaving for Barcelona the next day and wouldn’t be back in Lyon until after my visa had expired. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I sobbed shamelessly as passersby stared.

Normally when French bureaucracy gets me down, I go to the boulangerie and get my favorite pastry, pain aux raisins, but this wasn’t a frustration that pain aux raisins could fix. So instead…

IMG_4803
…we went to Starbucks.

One latte, one blueberry muffin, and a lot of love and deep breaths later, I was ready to pick myself up and carry on.

And by the end of the day, I had schemed a Plan B.

To be continued…

If you ever find yourself at the préfecture in Lyon, here is my advice to you:

Triple-check your dossier

Bring all the documents listed, and anything else you think the might need. I was asked for a document that was not on the list, so it’s better to be prepared. Have originals and copies whenever possible – they won’t keep the original, by they like to see it. It’s a good idea to organize your dossier so that you can find the documents easily – that way you aren’t shuffling through everything at the guichet. You can see a list of required documents for your particular situation here. (If you’re outside of Rhône, check with your préfecture.)

Go early

The later you get there, the longer you’ll wait, and if you’re too late, they will run out of tickets and you won’t be able to get in at all. I’d recommend before 6:30am. If you’re a party animal, just skip going to bed and go straight to the préfecture from wherever party animals party at 3am (I really wouldn’t know). Try to lure your friends along to keep you company with snacks and whatever you drink at that hour of the morning (limoncello?) The other people in line will be so happy you’re all there.

Bring something to sit on

The sidewalk is not the nicest place to sit. It’s dirty and uncomfortable. It’s perfectly acceptable to bring a folding chair or a stool to sit on.

Bring snacks

If you get hungry in the morning, and I do, bring something to snack on. That means get something the day before, because nothing will be open when you’re on your way there. Starbucks opens at 7am here. Beverages are at your discretion – a mug of coffee could be nice, but remember, you’re going to be waiting in line for three hours at least and you can’t leave to go pee.

Bring something to do

Anything that will keep you entertained for a few hours that you can do standing up! (unless you brought that chair) I was pretty jealous of the girl with her iPad watching a movie next to me. I watched over her shoulder until I started feeling like a creeper. Cell reception isn’t great inside the building, so make sure you have more than your smartphone!

Bring your patience

You’re going to be there for a while.

Do you have a bureaucracy horror story?