“Do you live next to Obama?”
“Why do you write that way?”
“Do you have cheese in America?”
“Do you have any kids?”
“Why do you sing funny?”
Welcome to my previous life as an elementary school teacher in France. I taught English from 2011-12 in three different schools, to 160 kids. It opened my eyes to teaching, our education system, our culture, and my singing skills (seriously, the kids thought it was the most hilarious thing ever when I sang the “Itsy-Bitsy Spider”).
Teaching was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. It was incredibly touching to see the excitement on the students’ faces when they got 100% on a quiz, or when they were counting down the minutes until English class. As a teaching assistant, you have the chance to make a real impact on young students, especially in a country like France, where the English program is lacking. In many cases, you will be the first Anglophone they meet and you could inspire their future interest in foreign languages.
If you have a love for languages, culture, and education, I would highly recommend this program, but you do need to know a couple things going into it.
Here are three of my most important pieces of advice for being a teaching assistant in France:
Be prepared to be the teacher, not the “assistant”
I participated in the “Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF)”, the teaching program sponsored and organized by the French Ministry of Education. In my experience, this is the most popular and common way to work as a teacher in France. But, the name of the program can be misconceiving.
In theory, you should be an assistant who helps the main English teacher. In my case, I was the sole English teacher. The main teacher would step out of the room or sit in the back and grade papers while I was left with the students for 50 minutes. I was expected to prepare the whole lesson plan each day. And, apart from a two-hour “information session” at the beginning of the program, I had no help at all.
I’m not saying this to scare you at all — quite the opposite. It is a million times better to be prepared and aware so you can research lesson plans and ideas the summer before you start. And, this may not be the case for you. I think the English curriculum at the elementary school level is not as robust as the high school level, and it can also depend on if you’re teaching in a modern, big city or in a small, rural city. Either way, you should know that there is a chance you will be the main English teacher.
Choose wisely which grades you want to teach
In the application process for TAPIF, you can decide whether you want to teach elementary, middle or high school. You’re not guaranteed your first choice, but this selection process is still super important as it will shape your whole experience.
Like I’ve mentioned, I taught at the elementary school level. That was my first choice as well on the application, and I chose it because I wanted to focus on my French proficiency. As an elementary teacher, you are speaking French 95% of the time. You need to be able to explain all your lessons in French, write quizzes and worksheets in French, and answers any and all questions. You should be fluent or almost fluent, in my opinion.
On the other hand, teaching at the secondary level (our equivalent of middle and high school), you are speaking 100% English. From what I have heard from my friends who taught in high schools, you are mainly leading conversation groups. You take 5-10 students aside and your main goal is for them to talk. My friends would come up with fun conversation topics, like “celebrities and Hollywood” or “American stereotypes.” This is less about the “teaching” and more about prompting conversation (so you should be a natural talker!)
No matter what grades you end up teaching, you should be prepared to spend an adequate amount of time outside of the classroom creating your lesson plans. You’re not working a ton in the actual school – 12 to 15 hours a week – but it takes research and organization for that time to be successful and enjoyable for you and the students.
Spend time organising your lessons
I didn’t have much teaching experience before I moved to France. I was a tutor and helped out at a preschool and elementary school, but I worked very hard on organising my lessons.
Once I got accepted and found out my placement in late-July 2011, I went to many bookstores to find workbooks and ESL teaching books. I Googled any questions I had and found a ton of great blogs and teaching resources. There are never any dumb questions to research and, chances are, you will find many other people who have had the same concerns as you.
When I first started, it was really helpful for me to sit down and write a broad overview for the teaching year (what I would teach and when). I started off by writing in all the holiday and season-specific lessons, like Halloween and Thanksgiving. Then, I’d think about the lesson plans in terms of difficulty. You obviously want to start with the easy lessons at the beginning and end with the hard ones. So, for the first month of teaching, I decided I’d teach the alphabet, counting and animals. For the second month, we’d go to weather, family members, and feelings. I did this very roughly for every month, and it really helped organize my thoughts and allowed me a 5,000-foot view of my whole year of teaching. If I ever got stuck and had no idea what to do with my kids, I could look at this master plan and get inspired.
And, voila! These are three of the most important things to know about teaching English in France. As long as you have the right mindset and are ready to be thrown into anything, you’ll have a blast. You will meet some of your greatest friends, eat delicious, fresh pastries, and walk away with a whole new perspective on the world.