I am currently on my year abroad in France, teaching as an English language assistant. The experience so far has provided me with an authentic insight into what life is really like starting afresh abroad with only a mediocre grasp of the language – a far cry from the anecdotes I received from the Modern Languages Preparatory Meetings.
I have been exposed to many elements of French and European culture, as well as my fair share of classroom antics. I’ve made mistakes, mainly due to linguistic errors and cultural ignorance, but I have gained many amusing stories as a result.
The following stories are inspired by my own journal entries, and the short, pithy entries of Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt. I hope my readers will find them amusing and enjoyable, and that they might put a smile on students’ faces.
Being a hypochondriac brings both positives and negatives in France. One such positive is that hypochondria is immediately welcomed into French society and falls easily into conversation as many a French person loves to discuss la maladie.
A slight cough, an itchy patch on the wrist, I have even heard mutterings of uncomfortable genitalia (not in my classroom though, let it be noted). However, with the slow application process for a Carte Vitale (your health insurance) and the translation barrier at pharmacy counters, your typical English speaker is constantly stuck between the decision to endure the medical issue or bite the bullet and head off to the many pharmacies dotted along French high streets.
This time, it’s Athlete’s Foot and it‘s getting pretty embarrassing. Walking through the collège corridors, one could easily take me for a child who desperately needs the toilette as I frantically move my foot from side to side in my shoe to relieve the itch. I am becoming not only an embarrassment because of my severe lack of linguistic knowledge, but now I‘ve become that weird teacher who takes their shoes off under their desk (we’ve all had one). This has to end.
I decide to visit the pharmacy on my walk home from work and quick-ly jam into my phone the translation of Athlete‘s Foot in French. Confident I am equipped to face the challenge that lies ahead, I bravely force myself into the store and announce my newly translated condition to the pharmacist. Her doe-eyed expression quickly turns into generous heaves of laughter. She replies “Où? Je ne peux pas les voir,” (Where? I can’t see them). I quickly realise I have just told her that I have “les champignons sur mes pieds,” or, in English, mushrooms on my feet. I make a swift mental note – never, ever, trust Google Translate with medical matters.
Lost at Lunch
We’ve all had that moment when your mum or dad “accidentally” directs you onto the motorway after you’ve just passed your driving test: panic, confusion, clammy hands, and a heart beating at twice its natural speed and volume. You’ve now successfully experienced my level of stress when I first visited the canteen at collège.
Instead of avoiding speeding cars, however, it’s twelve and thirteen-year-olds, who, at this very moment in time, are far more dangerous. They zigzag around me, brandishing their trays like shields, yelling their war cries in my ear and thrusting their cutlery in every direction.
I’m afraid and – like my seventeen-year-old self on the A1 – completely unequipped to deal with this.
As I stand there in complete dis-array contemplating which child will be the first to shank me in my side with their serrated miniature knife, my colleague pushes me in the direction of a discrete door in the corner of the room. Entering, I wonder if the stress has induced delirium and hallucinations: I’m greeted with smiling teachers who have carved out a small haven for themselves amongst the carnage. Carafes of water, hot coffee, pastries and, most importantly, indoor voices at regular volume. I found I’ve reached my paradise.
Being in the classroom can conjure up a whole range of emotions. Today, I ask the class to tell me what they like to do in their free time. Keen to get to know my pupils better, and enthusiastic for them to utilise their wide English vocabulary, I press on, hopeful.
Less than five minutes in, however, and I’m starting to foresee quite a monotonous and challenging hour ahead, as each child tries to articulate how much they enjoy playing video games and watching Riverdale, asking me whether I too share in these favoured past times. I’m quite hesitant to tell them most of my very unglamorous free time is unfortunately spent eating chocolate éclairs, getting lost in supermarkets and dealing with fungal infections. So just as I’m about to write this lesson off and add it to the growing bank of failed ideas, one of the girls tells me about her passion for horse riding: “I love –arses.”
I completely lost it. Back turned, I’m laughing hysterically into the whiteboard. In her confusion and my complete lack of maturity, she starts repeating the phrase again, and again. I’m a mess. I quickly add another memo to the growing list of mental notes floating haphazardly through my brain – I really need to work on their pronunciation.
It’s the end of term. I’m running dry on lesson plans. It’s an hour before my first class and I’m functioning on one cup of espresso, but zero shots of creativity. To be honest, all I’m thinking about is which patisserie to get on my way home from work.
Finally, I decide. Verb vocabulary. Nailed it. I will make the children act out different positions, like standing, sitting etc. Turns out, this lesson, despite its last-minute planning, is an absolute hit. The students are engaged, smiling and actually learning. At this very moment, I feel like I could make it onto an advert for Teach First. It’s going so well, almost too well.
Just as we’re hitting the mid-way point of the activity, however, there’s a knock on the door. To my surprise, it’s not a tardy child, but in fact the deputy head who’s come to undertake the scheduled observation of my lesson, which I had, if you hadn’t gathered by now, completely forgotten about. Not only was she about to observe an unforgivably under-planned lesson, but, by chance, she had walked in when I had just told all the children to act out ‘lie-down,’ with many taking to the floor. To make matters worse, some students had even taken the opportunity to catch up on some sleep.
I like to tell myself perhaps she thought it was a playful game of sleeping lions, but I fear she considered this as something far more ominous. Mass-hypnotism? Mass-murder? Before she starts to scream for the gendarmerie, I quickly reassure her this is just part of a game we’re playing and convince her of my kinetic learning strategies.
I can see this goes down like cold sick, yet she insists on staying to the end. I naively tell myself she’s impressed by my novel teaching techniques and is keen to observe them. Now, I admit it might have been because she feared for the children’s safety.