Preparation and first impressions
As soon as I received the details of my placement, I sent an email to the head teacher of the Lycée who obviously forwarded it on to my responsable. That was the first contact from her I received and I doubt whether she would have contacted me first if I hadn’t sent the email. She answered all my questions and was able to point me in the right direction when it came to finding somewhere to live. She also gave me the contact details of the previous assistants who I contacted for more practical advice, such as bank accounts and the students’ expected level of English. Upon arrival and receiving my timetable, it was clear that I wouldn’t be seeing her that often and wouldn’t actually be working with any of her students. Therefore, it seemed that if I had any problems with the students, I would be talking to the appropriate teacher, rather than my responsable. I was told that the majority of my students would be boys and to make sure I dressed appropriately for working with teenagers. When I arrived and started, whilst I did have lots of boys in my class, it wasn’t anywhere near the 80% I was told to expect. At the end of the first half term there, I was settled in and felt like a respected and integrated member of staff within the English department. My responsable would check in with me about once a week, or whenever I saw her in the corridors and between classes, but otherwise, I was pretty much left to my own devices. I didn’t see this as a bad thing, in fact it encouraged me to work much more independently and after receiving lots of praise and encouragement from the other members of staff for my lessons’ content, I wasn’t bothered about not receiving more help as I knew I could do it myself. This was a big confidence boost and I’m looking forward to planning more lessons, hopefully to the same standard and reception.
After just a couple of weeks at the school, and being pretty ill and getting homesick, it was clear to me that there was one teacher in particular that I could call if I ever got stuck or needed medical advice and she would look after me. During the Tous Saints holidays, she invited me over for dinner with her family and I felt as though I had a second family in France that could and would look after me whenever I need it. I feel as though I have made some friends for life with some of my work colleagues. As for the support I received from the various members of staff I worked with in during the whole experience, I always received support and advice when I asked or needed it. With regard to preparing lessons and access to materials, my responsible lent me a load of books with exercises in which I was free to use at any point. She also helped me plan my first big lesson and find appropriate video material to support it. When I explained my other lesson ideas, she helped me pad out the ideas so that all that I was left to do was do the research for the actual lesson content. I spent the first week at the school observing the different classes I would be working with and was pleasantly surprised at the general level of English. During the training, I was given the impression that many of the BTS students wouldn’t be able to speak any basic sentences, nor use basic tenses. I found this shocking as I know the French start learning English in primary school which is very different to my experience of learning French. By the time I left high school to go to college, I could competently use 3 tenses and give my opinion on certain topics, so learning that students of 17+ wouldn’t be able to do that, I was shocked. I was even more shocked when the abilities of the students had been massively underestimated. Whilst there were common and multiple errors when speaking freely, the students knew and could understand the corrections and were able to give their opinions, however basic in understandable and often fairly fluent English.
Before leaving, I decided it would be a good idea to make a list (surprise, surprise!!) of all the things I think are my strengths and all the things I think are my weaknesses:
· Strong willed
· Able to communicate clearly in both English and French
· Able to work in a team
· Willing to try new sports and skills all the time
· Tire easily
· I can find it difficult to motivate myself
· No experience teaching English
· Scared of the unknown
· Can be controlling/OCD
· I can be really impatient
· I have little patience for people unwilling to try
· I don’t like not being good at something.
· Expect everyone to be at the same level I am/was
· Very high, sometimes unattainable expectations
I then decided to evaluate my current level of language skills on a scale of 1-10, where 1 is not confident at all and 10 is really super confident.
· Speaking at various levels (e.g. with friends or colleagues, formal or informal. 7
When it comes to speaking, I think it’s pretty much a given that I could talk the spots off a leopard in my native language. I like to think I can do the same in French but I know I’m not quite there. At the moment, I suffer massively from anxiety when speaking in French as I’m constantly obsessing over grammar, agreements and syntax, not to mention my vocabulary is limited to subjects taught in school/university. I lack synonyms and quite frankly, the “cool” way of saying stuff; that’s to say the everyday way of saying something, rather than the really old-fashioned way you’d say it when talking to a member of the royal family or a really old person. Boo!
· Public speaking or presentations to smaller groups in the foreign language). 7
Same as above, but anxiety is magnified when giving a presentation.
· Listening in various contexts (e.g. in conversations with group, listening to talks, instructions, radio, TV, theatre etc.) 6
I can generally follow a conversation, and seem to do well in exams. I have a good gut instinct regarding what a conversation is about, whether or not I understand every word. As I have little to no experience in listening to conversational French outside of university, where everything is spoken slower than normal and “Frenglish” is the norm. That’s nothing against what we do at uni, it’s just hard to have real life conversations and watch French news in the comfort of your own home when in England. I’m sure my ability to distinguish French sounds and individual words will improve over the 7 months - a year I’m in France.
· Reading (what do you read?) 5
I’ve only read one book in French which was compulsory for a unit at university. I want to read the Harry Potter series in French. I think that in order to become more fluent and to expand my vocabulary, I need to read more, as watching French films just isn’t enough. I’m planning on buying any novels on my Kindle as I’ll be able to download a French dictionary which will enable me to search for any word I don’t know instantly, thus helping me to learn synonyms and improve my comprehension skills.
· Writing 8
I love writing in French and feel quite confident when I do so, as I can take as much time as I want to be an obsessive perfectionist and write to as high a standard as possible. I still need to work on tenses and agreements, as well as more complex structures and expanding my arguments. I think that my writing will improve if I read more as I will be seeing the complex structures that I want to use in practice and will also be able to get some inspiration and ideas of good phrases and idiomatic structures.
Finding accommodation was perhaps my biggest worry as I didn’t know how or where to start looking for a place to live 700 miles away. Some of my friends were planning long weekends to go and have a look in the town they were assigned to, but I had neither the time, nor the money to do this. I sent an email to my responsable asking if she could help. She was unable to give me specific letting agencies, but did point me in the direction of some university accommodation which was a ten minute walk from the school and would cater to all my needs. I decided to start by renting there and if I didn’t like it, I would look for something with a friend when I had got a little more settled. As it turned out, the university hall were perfect for me and cost me about the same as renting an individual property or room closer to the city centre. All my bills are included and it even gets cleaned for me once a week. I know I wouldn’t get a deal as good as that anywhere else!
As for preparing to leave, I don’t really know what to do. The only thing I've been told to prepare so far is a short introductory presentation for the first few lessons so the students can get to know me a bit better. After that, I think I’m on my own! I have a couple of ideas of subjects that I want to cover, but I think I’m going to play it by ear and ask the students what they want to know and discover about England.
Highlights and Low points
On the 1st and 2nd of October, we had compulsory training sessions in Autrans. This did very little to make me feel confident about what we were going to be doing for the next 7 months and left me feeling deflated and disappointed at the fact my expectations of the level of English at post GCSE level had been so high, when in reality, I was told to expect little to no comprehension of my native language. I spent the rest of the week observing and meeting some students, and then started for “real” on the 8th October – My birthday! This is still one of my favourite memories from the whole experience. I started by introducing myself and telling them my birthday was the 8th October which then lead to the checking of watches and phones to check the date and choruses of “’Appy birfday” in very cute French accents. This continued for the rest of the week and totally made not being able to celebrate with my family for the first time ever totally worth it! The week ended with my grandparents taking me to Milan for the weekend which was beautiful and brilliant as well as frustrating as I didn’t speak the language. There’s nothing I hate more than not being able to understand what is going on around me. I need to add Italian and Spanish to my list of languages to learn… We got back fairly late on the Sunday afternoon and I had some lesson planning to do for the following week and whilst I had enjoyed my weekend away with my family, I was also really looking forward to getting stuck in again at work and seeing the students.
The rest of October was pretty quiet, nothing spectacular to report. I decided to stay in France for the 2 week Tous Saints holiday as A) I couldn’t afford going home and B) I wanted to make the most of my time abroad. I ended up doing nothing for the 2 weeks apart from lazing around and eating and drinking with teachers. My responsable took me to Chartreuse where the monks make the liqueur and I had dinner with 2 of the teachers where I got to practise speaking French. Before I left, I thought I would be speaking French all day, every day, but upon arrival and in reality, this isn’t the case at all. I spend most of my day speaking English with the students, and often with the teachers too. Because of this, I really enjoyed the meals with the teachers as I was forced to speak French with their families.
During the half-term break, Guy Fawkes Night came and went with no pretty colours or annoying “bangs” from outside my window. I was both disappointed and relieved! It was also clear therefore, that the French didn’t know about the tradition in England, or the history behind it. Hello lesson idea. Once I’d done all the research, I sent a copy to my responsable who suggested us meeting at some point to go over what I had found and how I could get the students more involved with the lesson. Overall, the students were generally interested and participated well in the lesson. I only had one surprise from a student who was not happy I had singled him and his friend out to repeat the “Remember, Remember” on their own as they hadn’t done it with the rest of the class. This led to him getting upset and saying he didn’t like the rhyme or English and me telling him he needed to have more respect for me as a teacher figure. I told him if he was having trouble understanding me or if I was talking too fast, to simple let me know. The boy was so worked up by this point he stormed out of the classroom calling me a “bitch” in the process. I was stunned; the class was stunned and concerned for how I was feeling. They explained that the boy struggled a bit with English and was something of a “problem student”. I went and found the teacher for the class and explained to her what had happened. She checked that I was ok and not upset and to be honest, I’ve been called worse and wasn’t upset at the fact he’s left or called me a bitch. I was stunned by his reaction and it came as a shock that students do that to teachers- something I would never have dreamed of doing at school. He did come up to me at the end of my lesson and apologise and I told him I understood his frustrations. Since then, he has been a delightful student and always participates and wants to answer questions. This fact has turned what could have easily been a demoralising event into a positive thing and I have loved watching him improve and progress and even want to talk to me outside of the classroom.
Another of my absolute favourite lessons was when I got the students to compare and extract form the book to the corresponding extract form the film of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, and then later using the same extract when talking about English slang. Brilliant and hilarious all in one! I got the students to listen to the extract as they read through it and underline any words that they didn’t know or understand. I enjoyed this as it helped me learn some new words too, some of which I’m determined to use in my final year oral presentation! Moreover, it got the students to listen to an extract read at quite a fast pace so was useful for their listening skills. I then made them listen to the film extract, without the picture so they really had to focus on what they were hearing and make notes on it so that when they watched it for a second time with the picture they could compare the film to the book in quite a lot of detail. Overall, this was a really enjoyable lesson for everyone included and I even had teachers telling me their students were fighting over whose turn it was to come with me for this lesson! RESULT! I had a literature group of students, and with them we worked on various parts of the book for three weeks which included them doing a piece of homework for me in which they had to write up the diary of Harry after his first day at the zoo where he discovers he can talk to snakes. I asked if I could mark this piece as I was really looking forward to seeing how well the students could connect with Harry and how creative they were; I was not disappointed! This was by far my most versatile lesson plan as I managed to get three different lessons out of one idea. The most useful for the students was the one where we talked about the different ways of spelling “there”, “their” and “they’re” as well as “to”, “two” and “too”. My favourite was when we revisited on of the earlier scenes in my last week with the group when I taught them some English slang. I got them as a class to help me re-write the argument between the Dursley’s and Hagrid using slang in the appropriate places. I must see if I can find the copy I have of this as it still makes me giggle.
I had only two classes over the entire 7 months where I left the classroom feeling demoralised and as though the classes had been unsuccessful. The first was just before Christmas where I decided to do something a little more relaxed and fun and would get the students to debate the existence of Santa Claus using their own arguments and those presented in the 1994 film “Miracle on 34th Street” (which happens to be my favourite film of all time). The class I had was one of the classes where I either had really good students or students who were particularly poor at English so I split them into two groups where the level of English was averaged. It was clear after 15 minutes of asking the group for arguments for and against the existence of Santa that it was not going to be successful. One student turned to me and told me she didn’t think this was an appropriate way of teaching her English as it wasn’t a topic she was going to use very often. “Ok, I hear you, but I decided that the last week before Christmas we could do something that was fun and not so serious” was my reply to which I got a dark look and the reply “why then, are you asking us to debate it as if it is a serious topic?” Clearly, the whole idea of the lesson had got lost in translation and once again I was shown that English humour does NOT translate well into French. Poop. When I asked her what she would rather be talking about I got the reply “World Politics”. Well damn girl! In England it isn’t cool to talk about politics, let alone debate them with your peers! I resorted to asking what they would be doing at Christmas and as soon as the lesson ended told the teacher what had happened. This led to a meeting with the two ring leaders of the “we want politics” rebellion, the teacher, the head of the girls’ year and lil’ ol’ me! I held my ground, managed to do the whole meeting in French and I think me and the girls all left with a little bit more understanding about what would be happening in the lessons from that moment on, as well as respect for each other’s abilities.
The other lesson was perhaps the 3rd week before I finished my placement. The group wasn’t one of my favourite groups. It hadn’t taken me long to decide which groups I preferred taking and looked forward to seeing as they were the groups that made me laugh and enjoyed participating in my classes and always asked “why?” This class was one of the worst; never wanting to participate, always giving me blank looks which told me they didn’t understand, no matter how many times I tried to re-explain it both in English and in French. I’d already had problems with this particular group and their teacher had told them that they needed to try harder to speak in English, as that was the whole point in my being there. So, it’s Friday morning, everyone would really rather be in bed, but I’d just had a good class with the group before so I was pumped and ready to go. In come sullen, grumpy group and I can tell from the look on their faces it’s going to be a tough one. I decide to be nice and offer them a choice of subject: graffiti or media piracy. Either way, the lessons had gone down a storm with previous groups and I knew there were a lot of opinions which could be expressed. 5 minutes in, I realised I was pulling teeth and trying to get blood out of a stone and very nearly walked out on the group. They were ignoring me, talking over me, talking to each other in French when I had asked them not to and were generally uninterested and unresponsive to anything I was trying to talk to them about. I was very close to crying with sheer frustration with them and had told them so. No reaction. In the end I stuck it out and told their teacher who told me, next time I should walk out. The next time I was going to see them was my last lesson with them. Not what I was going to do. Luckily, the last lesson was a whole group lesson; we ate cake and generally relaxed. Happy days.
So, all in all, it was a very positive experience. Were there days when I wished the cane was still allowed in school? Hell yes. Were there days when I seriously hated the French school system for deciding that 8am-5pm was a good idea? More than I thought possible. Would I change any of it for the world? Not ever. I know its cliché, but I really have lived my dream for 7 months and I am totally inspired and excited for what the future holds. I can’t wait to get back to university and finish my studies and go on to be the best teacher I can be. Whilst there have been days when I wished I had my boyfriend to come home to or my mum there for a cuddle only my Mama can give, I wouldn’t change any of it. It has made me much more independent, confident and sure of what I want to do. And after all, 7 months of bread, cheese wine and the Alps, who would want to go back to rainy England?!