Experience teaching abroad in France

For those who are not familiar with the Teaching Assistantship Program in France (TAPIF), the program allows for recent graduates of French, or any young speakers of French, to teach abroad in France for a 7th month period from October to April. The program has been enormously popular with students in French at the University of Minnesota. Many of you might be considering applying for the program and are wondering, aside for the logistics that can be found at Tapif.org and FrenchCulture.org, what are some of the nuances and lived experiences of people who have actually done the program. We interviewed Emily Cutts, a former student at the University of Minnesota, to tell us what her experience was like.

What was the application process like?

I spent a semester studying in Paris and fell in love with the country. Even before my return to Minnesota, I already knew I needed to get back. I don’t know how I found out about TAPIF but I applied and then I waited. I was sitting at work when I checked my email. I gasped loudly and everyone turned to see what was wrong. I was going back to France. I called my parents and told them the good news. I am almost certain that for the next 6 months I was unbearable. I was so excited to go but all that I had to do was hurry up and wait.

The timeline was nerve-wracking but simple. Application goes up in October, due in January, find out in April that you are accepted and into which academie (school district) and inspection (area within in the district,) and then wait and wait and wait to find out your actual town and then upon arrival find out your school (or schools, I worked in four.)

How was the city in which you were placed?

I was selected for the academie of Clermont-Ferrand and ended up in a city in the center of the country called Montlucon. The town had a population of 40,000 (according to the Wikipedia entry) but that didn’t include the smaller surrounding towns which would probably put the total population just the same as the U’s 60,000 students.

Last year is a year I will (hopefully) never forget. I met wonderful people and traveled all over country that fascinates me. I enjoyed a slower pace of life—once, a 15 minute break at school turned into an hour as I sat with the teachers, chatted and drank tea, the kids went back to class for 15 minutes and then went off for lunch. I could walk everywhere I needed to go (although sometimes I really missed having a car or a better transit system,) I sat in cafes and drank coffee. It was wonderful and hard.

What was it like to adjust to different styles of French vs. American teaching?

It was definitely a change from my semester in Paris and my four years at a large university in a big city but that was probably the easiest adjustment there was. To me, the French elementary school system was completely different then my own. French children can start school as soon as they are potty trained, although at that point it is probably like daycare. I worked with kids aged 7-12, three grade levels; CE2, CM1 and CM2. The six year age gap between students was in part because some started early and others were held back. French students get to go home for lunch. If they eat at school, they use real silverware and plates in the cafeteria and are served in courses. Classroom technology was almost non-existent in the schools I worked—I didn’t even see an old overhead projector during my 7-months as an assistant. I used a chalk board and was constantly asked “what letter is that? Do I need to underline that?” because French children write in cursive and teachers are very specific on how the children should organize their notebooks. These probably sound like trivial things but I had never even considered some of this before I packed my bags and really realized what I got myself into.

How did you notice your French speaking skills change during the time you were there?

I hope that my French skills improved. I know more slang and can understand native French speakers better. I could go to the movies and understand most of what was being said. I could go to the doctor and get what I needed and even understand when the doctor insulted my French (obviously I am not bitter about this.) I hardly ever use “ne” (as in ne…pas) and “nous” and feel a little more at ease with French people my own age (they talk so fast and not clear enough.) I know that I still make grammatical mistakes but I am less worried about that and just happy to have a conversation with anyone who will talk to me.

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