Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My Glamorous Job As A Language Assistant

This seems like something I should maybe have written more about before now, especially since I know for a fact there are at least a couple of TAPIF applicants out there who have looked at this blog.

First things first. I and everyone else have already said it many times, but it bears remembering: There is no such thing as consistency in France. And so, as with anything else, my experience as a language assistant is totally unique. The job, not to mention the overall experience, varies widely depending on where you are, what type of school you're in, what specific school you're in, what age group you work with, what teachers you work with, whether the administration likes you, what language you teach, what course of study your students are in, what time of year it is... do I need to go on?

In other words, it's a crapshoot based entirely on circumstances. In some ways, I have been very lucky. In others, not so much.

One way I am lucky is that I only have to deal with one school. It's very common for assistants of all languages to have their hours split between two or even three schools. (One of my friends here even has FOUR different schools, even though that's supposed to be illegal.) It all depends on where the académie (regional school district) thinks you're needed, which presumably has something to do with the number of language teachers and the number of students, but (of course) isn't necessarily consistent or determined by consistent criteria. In any case, I work in the same school all the time, and I'm the only full-time language assistant at my school.* Miguel works there half the time, and at the neighboring school the other half. So our school has one and a half language assistants, while the school he splits into has [I think] two and two halves. (That does make sense; think about it.) It's most common to have English and Spanish assistants. Some schools also have a German assistant. Other languages are less common, though some schools do offer them and there are a scattering of Italian, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, etc. assistants around the country. Some schools have only an English assistant, or even only a part-time English assistant. Some schools probably have none, though I guess I wouldn't know about them.

I've also been lucky in terms of the school itself. There are three main types of high schools in France: general (basically the equivalent of a traditional American high school), technical, and professional (what we in America would probably call vocational). Mine is a technical school, and seems to be neither the best nor the worst school in Brest. I am under the impression that it has quite a good reputation among tech schools, particularly for certain programs--some of my BTS** students are here from as far away as the Mediterranean, so the school must have something to offer. My students range quite a bit in terms of language ability, not to mention interest in learning a foreign language at all, but they are all fairly respectful and mostly well-behaved. The worst discipline problem I usually have to deal with is getting them to stop chatting amongst themselves and listen, which is nothing compared to what some assistants experience! Several of my friends routinely kick students out of class, and a few have had to break up fights. Compared to that, I'm pretty content with saying "Shhhh!" ten times in one class, giving some dirty looks, and calling out kids who aren't paying attention (most of whom at least have the decency to be sheepish, even if they don't stop talking afterwards). Meanwhile, many of the non-English teachers are friendly to me, the other staff are consistently helpful when I need something and patient with my French, and my few encounters with the administration have been nothing but positive. I've heard many assistants complain about conflicts with their school(s). I have none.

A way in which being entirely at this one school is less lucky is that I am entirely at this one school because it has a huge English department. I work with seven different teachers, at least five of whom teach here full-time.*** (One of the others is definitely part-time, and the seventh I'm not sure about. I know she also teaches some classes at the university, but I think in theory it would be possible for her to do that and still carry a full schedule here at the lycée, so I'm not a hundred percent sure what her deal is.) This means two things. One, that there is not enough of me to go around, and I am now on my third schedule change this year as they try to make sure as many students as possible have some time with me. (This, in turn, means that I rarely get to know all my students names, let alone anything personal about them.) And two, that I have to meet at least seven different sets of expectations every week, and sometimes more than that if I have two or three classes with the same teacher but they're all at different levels or studying different things.

One of the most frustrating things to me about this year has been the amount of work I put into my job outside of class time compared to some of my friends. Other lycée assistants, especially those others who also work all their hours at one school, typically plan no more than one or two lessons per week, do the same thing with all of their classes (perhaps with slight modifications for students at different grade levels), and that's the end of it. Some don't even have to do that much, either because their teachers give them things to do or because they have alternating schedules where they see each group of students every other week, and thus only have to plan biweekly lessons. I, on the other hand, plan most lessons individually, which normally means planning four or five or six new lessons each week, or even more. For the rest, I do sometimes re-use lessons with different classes, but rarely all in the same week. (This does mean, however, that the burden of lesson planning has gotten slightly less over the course of the year, as I amass more of a collection and also keep changing classes.) I keep a running spreadsheet on my computer with all of the classes I've had over the the year and what I've done with each of them each time I've seen them, so that I can easily find out what classes haven't yet done which easy-for-me thing I have already prepared. Meanwhile, some of the lessons I've put the most work into planning have been very class-specific and can't easily be re-used. And sometimes a teacher will pull me aside the day before a lesson, or even text me after school the night before, and ask me to prepare something on a particular topic, thereby throwing out anything I might have already planned.

On the plus side, I can honestly say that every day is different, and I wonder sometimes if part of the reason I seem less unhappy with my job than some of the other assistants is that I'm not doing the same thing over and over all week and getting bored. Also, sometimes I'm learning along with my students, either because I need to research a topic or just because I need to find the French equivalents for vocabulary words.

An unrelated plus side is that I almost never actually work all of my assigned hours in a given week. (Last week I did, plus an extra even, and it was bizarre.) There's always at least one teacher who's sick, or one class that's taking a test or going on a field trip. Of course, I might find out I don't have to teach a given lesson anywhere from the week before to first thing that morning to ten minutes into the class time when I'm standing outside the classroom with the students and we determine that the teacher isn't coming, so I may or may not have already done my planning. In any case, this is another way in which I'm pretty lucky; although there are some assistants who routinely work even less than I do because their schools just aren't organized enough to give them hours, there are others whose classes are almost never cancelled and who are expected to continue with their lessons even if the regular teacher is absent. (Whether that's legal or not seems to be kind of a grey area.) Maybe it would be worth working as much as I'm supposed to in exchange for a lighter workload in terms of prep time, but at the same time, the unexpected gift of a free hour or two is just as exciting for me now as it was when I was a student.

I guess, now that I'm thinking about it, my job as an assistant is pretty middle-of-the-road in a lot of ways. What it's not, however, is typical.**** Not just because of the workload and the schedule changes and the simple fact of being in a tech school, but because of the students. I think I've mentioned before that I work mainly with the students in BTS, which in effect means that I work mainly with adults. Almost all of the BTS students are over 18; some are my age, or at least close to it. (I stopped asking after I found one or two who were a year older than me!) When it comes to the regular high school students, there is a terminale (last year of high school, 17-18 year olds) class I've taught a few lessons to, and I'm currently working with one première (the middle year, 16-17 year olds) class, and other than that I've been used primarily for the secondes (first year of high school, 15-16 year olds). I've had a group of kids in seconde in each of my three schedules, and I tend to like them even when they're brats, but it's still very weird to work almost exclusively with the youngest and the oldest students and almost none in between. I'll have more to say about this in some upcoming posts focused on students and lessons, but for now I'll say that this is definitely not typical--I'd say the majority of lycée assistants spend a majority of their time with students who are in première and terminale, helping them prepare for their baccalauréat and other exams. But I haven't even met most of the premières and terminales at my school.

Also, at all levels, I teach mostly boys. There are a lot of girls in the applied arts and product design programs, but most of the more technology-oriented programs are almost entirely male. Some of those classes have one or two girls; others have none. I don't think it's a coincidence that the more girls there are, the better the class tends to be, although whether that's because the programs that draw girls actually draw students of all genders who happen to be interested in languages, or just because of the presence of girls in the class, is anybody's guess. Since I see boys trying hard to learn even in the worst classes and the classes that drive me up the wall the most, I'm inclined to think it's actually the latter. I mentioned this to my responsable once, and her opinion was also that having at least one girl around makes the boys more inclined to settle down and behave themselves. Gender roles are a big deal in France in many ways, so I guess maybe here's one positive thing about that?

Anyway, I'm not teaching high school in a very traditional sense over here. But I think I've got it pretty good.

* And by "full-time", I mean that all of my hours are there rather than being split with another school. No language assistant anywhere actually works full-time. There wouldn't be nearly as many of us if we did. (It's more like one third of full time, to be precise.) So for blogging purposes we are just going to assume that the standard number of hours for an assistant is considered full-time for an assistant. Does that make sense?
** Brevet du technicien supérieur. Or something close to that. It's two-year diploma program students can do after finishing high school, in fields like product design (my best students), electrical engineering, and building internal combustion engines, among others.
*** Now I mean full-time in the conventional sense.
**** Though I admit that sentence assumes there is such a thing as a "typical" assistant job, which may not actually be the case--refer back to the beginning of this post.

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