FOR THE DIEHARD Francophiles who spent a semester of their junior year in Paris and who dream of returning, the French government’s teaching assistantship program seems like a great way to spend a year or two after college.
The program, which offers native Anglophones between the ages of 20 and 30 the opportunity to teach English by working as an English Assistant in the public school system, gives young adults the chance to gain teaching experience and to live a poor student’s life in France, all for the whopping sum of 793€ per month, or just enough to pay rent and eat baguettes.
I’m in my second year of the teaching program, which has financed two years of study-abroad in Paris, and I’ve certainly gained experience and perspective from teaching in another culture. But many of the assistants I’ve met applied for the program and arrived in France without some important information about the realities of the job. Since you already have your list of reasons for wanting to apply, my point here is not to bash the assistantship program, but to make you aware of some potential disadvantages you might not otherwise anticipate. Here are nine things to consider while applying to the English assistantship program in France.
1. They can and will put you anywhere in France.
The program can place you anywhere within one of the three regions you select on your application. The urban academies in Ile-de-France are among the most requested, and there are many assistants in the Paris area, but in provincial areas, you could be in the middle of nowhere. It is very unlikely that you will be placed in the major city in your academie. Some assistants are left to fend for themselves in small towns without public transportation.
2.Your assistant visa won’t allow you to stay past the end of your contract or to do anything other than teach.
If you obtain the free assistantship visa, you must leave the Schengen territory when your contract expires, or if you leave your job early. If you can, try to enroll in classes and get a student visa, which will be much more flexible.
3. You don’t have to speak French to apply, but it will help you to discipline your students and communicate with your colleagues.
Be aware that if you don’t speak French, or if your French isn’t very good, you’ll have a very difficult time making yourself understood to students, who can take advantage of you, and to your colleagues, who may not make the effort to communicate with you.
4. You don’t have to have teaching experience, but again, it will help.
Experience teaching or working with kids – anything that will help you to take charge, get organized, and maintain some semblance of order – will be very helpful. Since French schools often stress discipline more than American schools, it can be hard to get students to pay attention if you’re not imposing enough. That doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your own style, it just means you have to be creative and in-charge.
5. You can be assigned to any level.
On the application form, you can rank your preferences for primary school or secondary school, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll get your choice.
6. You can have a lot of responsibility, or very little.
If you’re placed in a middle or high school, you’re generally responsible for taking a few students at a time out of their regular English class and working with them on speaking exercises. The teachers you work with may have you create your own lessons, or may give you topics to cover to review for the brevet or the baccalaureate exams.
In primary school, some teachers will teach the class and have you help out or work with a few students at a time, or they may expect you to take charge of the entire class and teach it with your own lesson plans. It all depends on the school and their experience with assistants, so you won’t know what you’ll be expected to do until you arrive.
7. Your contract is for twelve hours, but you may work a lot more or a lot less than that.
Some high school assistants are assigned twelve hours, but sometimes their students don’t show up for class or they have to prepare for exams with their regular teacher. In primary schools, you may be given up to twelve hours of classes and be expected to teach them all yourself. In both cases, you may have to stay at the school between classes, which can be spread out, and you’ll have to prepare lessons on your own time. This year, including transportation, breaks, preparation, and teaching, I teach ten hours but work over thirty hours per week, for a salary based on twelve hours.
8. You might not get paid right away.
The program tells you that if you file all of your paperwork by mid-October, you’ll get an advance on your salary at the end of the month. While this is true in many cases, be prepared not to be paid until the end of November, just in case. In some academies, they can’t finish all the paperwork even if it is in on time.
9. Teaching English in France can be tedious.
Anyone who’s studied any language knows that you have to put in a lot of effort to see serious results. The impression I’ve gotten by teaching English in France is that the French like to have learned English, but don’t want to bother actually learning it. Some of them are still wounded by the fact that their language has been replaced as the language of diplomacy, some don’t feel they need to speak English, and some, for all their efforts, just aren’t good linguists.
Accept that you don’t have a magic wand, and that if your students don’t put in some effort too, they can’t make very much progress. Remember that being a language teacher is a really hard job, that you’ll make mistakes, and that you’ll learn a lot along the way.