Friday, October 5, 2012

Reflections on My First Year of Teaching in France: Surviving Month One

It has been a little over a month (five weeks to be exact) since I started my new job as a full-time teacher in France.

Like with any new venture, the beginning proved to be trying, even to the point of constantly feeling a searing frustration boil behind my eyes that threatened to brim at any given incautious moment. I'm not gonna sugarcoat it: teaching can be a difficult profession and I greatly resent anyone who says otherwise.

In the past five weeks, I've dealt with several highs and poignant lows. Some of these lows (particularly during the first half of September) started either the second I entered a classroom...

From the makers of Battle Royale and The Hunger Games comes the Epicest Epic of All Epic tales: Classroom Gladiators!
...or in the middle of a lesson in which I controlled giving in to my instinct of yelling "SHUT UP!!!" when twenty repetitions of "be quiet, please" proved to be ineffective...

...or even late at night when I fret between making the crucial decision of either using my limited time for planning lessons, grading papers, making photocopies or actually getting enough rest to make the now-permanent dark circles vanish from under my eyes. Sleep is no longer a priority. Knowing how to explain the difference between a possessive pronoun and an adjective is.

For example, this Friday afternoon, right after work, I had made plans to use my limited weekend free time to go into town and pick up my brand-new ATM card from the bank followed by a grocery shopping trip in a LeClerc supermarket to avoid the bustling Saturday masses. It was also fortunate enough that this afternoon happened to be an absolutely gorgeous, sunny day so I had no excuses to not run said errands.

I went home, took one look at my bed and flopped straightaway under the covers.

Now, rather than feeling well-rested and relaxed, I am now stricken with remorse and kicking myself in the head because I chose to waste so much time not accomplishing anything vaguely significant today and decided put off getting my money and food for the following day, thereby wasting even more time!

I've also come face-to-face with the reality that when you are a foreigner, life here in Croissant-and-Baguetteland consists of facing daily grammar, spelling, idiomatic and veritable cultural lessons on my part. Very often, I've had my teenaged students correct me when I've made a mistake in French. Such gems include:

"Madame, you spelled 'genre' wrong. 'Gendre' is a son-in-law." (I had incorrectly translated "gender" as "son-in-law.")

"Madame, 'pratiquer,' does not have a 'C.'" (Said when I kept mispronouncing "pratiquer" as "praCtiquer." Practice makes perfect...)

"Madame, 'exemple' is misspelled! There's no 'A' in 'exemple!'"
Me: *sigh* "Yes, I know that. I just spelled it in English."

"Ah, d'accord..."

As for the cultural differences... In regards to France, while it is easy to progressively adapt to the apparent aspects that appear on a daily basis (such as purchasing fresh bread and wishing a store clerk a "bonjour" and an "au revoir"), it's always the minor things that trip you when you are not aware of how things are supposed to be done. The tiny, minuscule details that fly over my head in the blink of an eye.

One significant exemple (yes, spelled the French way) has been the time when I forgot to tell my students to sit down at the beginning of class. No, French kids don't automatically take their seats; they wait patiently for the command from their teacher to be allowed to sit down.

After about two minutes of them standing by their desks and nervously looking at each other, one perplexed girl piped up and asked if they could sit down. I quickly ushered them to do so and apologized, a bit red-faced, by explaining that things are slightly different where I come from.

Another cultural instance includes la trousse, the pencil case. Yes, the humble pencil case, in its pliable, cylindrical glory, is a vital classroom weapon that every French student possesses.

Inside each trousse lies a trove of items that are used daily. Would it surprise you to learn that the ruler (la règle) has another function apart from measuring things? They are also used by students everywhere to make perfectly straight lines on their multi-squared, perfectly straight-lined and totally-anal meticulous A2 notebook papers.

Exemple of totally-anal A2 squared paper...

...And an exemple of how poorly my unorganized American-self uses it. 

In short, the trousse and its contents are necessary factors to succeed in the French classroom. Woe be unto the poor, unfortunate soul who loses theirs. I do not kid when I say that the loss of one's trousse equates to having one's world be shattered. Hell, even I have my own trousse.

A puny one, but I have it.

Despite all of the ups and downs, no matter what happens, even when the classroom management starts to get out of hand in the presence of rowdy adolescents, I have to remind myself that my students are, above all, still kids. It doesn't matter that I teach 14-year old boys and girls who are taller than I am: they are still children in their minds. I also have to remember that mastering the delicate balance between being strict and harsh takes practice that simply doesn't not come with only five weeks of teaching.

Of course, when faced with a stress that needs to dissipate, it's absolutely crucial to find ways to relax.  To help ease my turmoil, I cope by taking strolls to Sablé-sur-Sarthe's downtown, re-watching episodes of Betty la Fea on Youtube, even resorting to taking a long swig from the bottle Muscat de Rivesaltes I have at home.

Hello, Old Friend. Your delicious 15.5 % proof glory is much appreciated.

I survived my first bewildering month of teaching, and I intend to survive the second one. Only three weeks to go until I have the Toussaint break and can catch up on some rest.

Barb the French Bean


  1. Glad you made it through the first month alive! I teach French to English-speakers, and although they aren't young teens, it's definitely not an easy task. I'm teaching adults now on a military base. Before, I taught 6-year-olds in public school. My suggestion, regardless of the age: drama games, drama games and more drama games.

    Also, I KNOW that you're making all of the classroom management stuff up, because I'm reading the book Bringing Up Bebe, so I now know that all French children are patient and well-behaved and calm and exceedingly polite. /sarcasm

  2. That sounds hectic. It must be satisfying at the end of the day though.

    I'm so impressed about the French standing up for teachers and waiting to be asked to sit down. How respectful!

  3. Ahhh... I have fond memories of my trousse! When it died I reluctantly went and hunted for a new one worthy of replacing it... a lovely leather trousse which is currently sitting next to my computer and although I rarely use it anymore (I just stick a couple of pens in my bag when I go teach) it still holds all my valuable writing implements!

    And I LOVE that type of French paper!!! Was perfect for learning how to write neatly and having well organised class notes! :o)

    Hold in there! One thing you'll enjoy about the French system is the regular holidays (necessary both students AND teachers!): a week at Toussaint, two at Christmas, another week for "la semaine Blanche", two weeks at Christmas and then Pentecôte in May/June!

    Bon courage et bonne merde!!! :o)

  4. I don't really know anything about teaching but I know what's it's like to be physically exhausted. If your body decided it needed that time for a bit of recovery, you probably did the right thing. Don't beat yourself up about it. :)

  5. What a start. I'm glad you're in a world with 15.5%. For me, that solves everything. What an adventure! And you also reminded me why I don't teach or like children.

  6. My husband and I just started teaching English in China. Your experience sounds surprisingly similar to ours. Really hope that we get to do the same in France one day! Love the illustrations by the way.

  7. Okay, so... what IS the the difference between a possessive pronoun and an adjective? Or, even, what is an adjective? Do I need those? As a writer, I feel like this might be important information. Please give an exemple.

  8. It seems odd that they wait until being told to sit down, but I suppose, they must think we're odd for just sitting down without being told. And I doubt most people in my year even have une trousse! :P x

  9. Barb, this is awesome. Who knew that son-in-law and gender were so similar? I cannot wait to hear more of your teaching adventures. Sitting down or standing up. And I'm excited that you're writing from France again.

  10. Is that blood on your scarf from a previous class? Because from this story I don't think anyone would blame you :p

  11. I'm actually planning to apply as a professor in the university where I graduated. Now, I'm having second thoughts. haha

    i love the illustrations, by the way! :)


  12. Wow Barb, sounds similar to Japan. The kids bow in unison towards us and we bow back. At the end of class, the class leader recites a phrase that means something like, Thank you for teaching, and they bow to us again.

    And just like your students, mine also have pencil cases that are their end all be all. lol

  13. So this is why I haven't heard from you at all o_o Well at least I know you are alive! :)



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