Before beginning my teaching assistant position in France, many of my fellow teachers were curious to hear what I found to be better and/or worse with the French school systems. The fact is, there is no education system that is absolutely flaw free-- the U.S. is definitely struggling with our current set up. It's been interesting to compare the two, because I feel like the U.S. could benefit from some of the procedures here, but I also think France could benefit from some of our ideas.
The biggest and most obvious difference has been the way the school year is divided. This year, schools in France picked back up on September 2nd and will finish on July 3rd; in the U.S. most schools begin late August and finish end of May or beginning of June. So, really, the start and end times aren't all that different. What France does that IS different, and in my opinion better, is their division of vacations. Between the start and end of school, 8 weeks are divided up as vacation throughout the year: 2 in October, 2 in December/January, 2 in February, and 2 in April. This means that every 6-8 weeks, there is a two week vacation which gives both the students AND staff a break to decompress and prepare for the following 6-8 weeks before the next break.
In comparison, the American schools typically only offer 4 weeks of time off between the start and end of the school year for Thanksgiving, Winter, and Spring breaks. Sure, we end up getting nearly 3 months of summer-- but at what cost? Any teacher will tell you that they will spend the first quarter to first half of the year re-teaching certain topics that were forgotten over summer break. Then throughout the year, the breaks are so far and few between that everyone ends up feeling burnt out-- which means students have a harder time learning and retaining information and teachers find less enjoyment in their work. Recently, though, American school districts seem to be transitioning towards what France has been doing for a while now and I think it will benefit everyone, both educationally and emotionally.
One of my friends and I were recently discussing the pros and cons to the fact that the schools in France only have a half day on Wednesdays, where students and teachers are done in time for lunch at 11:30am. The idea behind this is to allow students time to participate in recreational activities, but as not all schools are able to provide such activities each week, it's often left up to the parents to fill the time for their children. Some do, some don't. While I think the idea of doing this is interesting, it's hard to know how many kids are actually benefiting from this time for extracurricular activities. In this case, I tend to side with the way it's done in the U.S. to keep each day of the week consistent for students.
Now, in terms of my experience as a language assistant there are definitely highs and lows and plenty of things I have learned, which I hope might be end up being useful for future assistants to know. At the beginning, I was asked by my teachers whether I wanted to teach the whole class at once or take small groups. Being a teacher back in the states I really wanted to be on my own with the students I was teaching, so I opted for groups. Wrong choice. Why? Time, discipline, repetitiveness.
I explained in my previous TAPIF post that I have 4-5 classes that are divided into 8-10 groups each work day. By the time everyone is settled, I really only have 15-20 minutes to work with the kids. But then subtract another 5 minutes because I almost always encounter behavioral problems-- which are NOT easy to handle in another language, even though I can discipline just fine in the U.S. Typically, I only have time for one activity/game and maybe a song before having to switch groups and start all over. By the end of the day, I have done the same lesson 8 to 10 times. Now don't get me wrong, I am not saying this to complain, but rather to help explain why I have come to the conclusion that future elementary language assistants would probably be better off working with the whole class.
Upon reflection, working with the whole class at once would have allowed me more time to do more activities with the kids and not feel as rushed each time. Working at the elementary level, I use mostly the same lessons for each class since they all need to review and work on similar topics. I've just found it difficult to do the same thing all day long on 20 minute rotations, but others may enjoy it. It would have also given me extra support by having the teacher there to be able to handle discipline issues so that I could just focus on teaching, rather than having to pause my lesson when there is a
problem I need to address.
I never thought I would find disciplining my students so difficult, but you do end up getting tongue tied when trying to reprimand someone in a foreign language. I truly am proud to be a teacher who very rarely raises her voice... however, that seems to be the go-to form of discipline in France and as a result, it makes my other management strategies pretty ineffective. In the end, I hope all you future assistants can take my experience and use it to your benefit! And as for the rest of you, I hope I haven't bored you too much with all my talk of teaching.
With regards to how things going with my life in France, I can't complain. While living with another family will never be 100% comfortable, I am happy to say that I am at peace living here now. My family and I have had some pretty great moments recently and things just feel better. They even allowed me to have Jessica and Christian stay for a weekend and prepared dinner for us, where we all ended up talking and laughing for a good 3 hours. The boys are much more affectionate towards me now and we have had great bonding experiences recently. The four-year-old and I have become little bakers together and I introduced him to brownies and blueberry muffins the past two Saturdays. The two-year-old is always begging me to read him stories, do ring around the rosey, or sing one of the many songs I have taught him (at least ten times each).
I know now that I'll be sad to leave them come May, but I am also very happy to know that I'll be home again soon. Living abroad certainly produces very conflicting emotions, huh?
So here's my little countdown: 15 weeks of life abroad. 13 weeks of au pairing. 9 weeks of teaching. 4 weeks of vacation. In many ways, I have been counting down to really make myself focus on how little time I have left so that I can maximize every minute left. How am I going to do that?
- Milan, Athens, and Santorini in February (next week really).
- Geneva, Annecy, and Lyon in March.
- Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam in April. One of my oldest friends is coming in from Chicago to celebrate my 25th birthday with me in Europe!
- London and Edinburgh in May (hopefully) right before I leave for Chicago.