C’est Terminé

I suck at goodbyes. I prolong them. I avoid them. I pretty much live in denial until the last possible moment where I am forced to face them. I have friends who choose to deal with each moment as if it’s our last, getting all sappy and sentimental about how this is our last brunch together, our last baguette, our last tooth-brushing session…This in turn makes me  awkwardly clam up as they blatantly penetrate the denial walls I have so craftily built. The result usually consists of me blurting something like, “No! We still have time!!” and shaming them for their raw sentiment. Like I said, I suck at goodbyes.

But is there ever a good way to do it? Are there people who actually like goodbyes? Does it get easier the more you have to do it?

At this point I’ve said my fair share of goodbyes- family, community and childhood friends for college, my Grecian union of lovely ladies during my study abroad, my college community, my Boston kin, students -so many students- and now my international clan. And for me it never gets easier. I leave a little piece of my heart in each place. And even if giving a minuscule sliver of your heart makes it that much more painful when you go, I think it’s worth it. But it doesn’t mean goodbyes are easy. 

It’s especially hard as a teacher. You’re in a constant state of goodbyes. And with foreign students there really is a finality to the farewell. As I prepared for my final classes this morning I was surprised to feel slightly anxious. Would they care? Would I be memorable? They’ll have other English assistants next year. I’m just one of many, but they will forever be imprinted in my memory.

It was helpful to remember the questions they asked what feels like forever ago and remember how we’d grown as a group. How I’d gained (and earned!) their respect, their trust and their laughter. 

Looking at things in retrospect is surreal. The places and people that once seemed intimidating, and so foreign (in my case literally), have become a part of you and will forever make up an aspect of your identity.

I was relieved to finish my day with a smile on my face and reinforcement on my walls of denial (my students did a damn good job of breaking them down). We laughed, we drew, we learned and we said farewells. At the end of the day I was left speechless by one of my favorite classes who presented me with a beautiful card.

Some of my favorite “words”:

“I will miss you very, I like you so much”.

“I will miss your lessons…they were interesting, captivating, various and so fun! I hope you’ll keep a good memory of your stay and job here. Good continuation.”

“Anna, I’m really happy about the moments we spent together! I was really enjoying your knowledge. If you liked your journey, you can always come back!”

“Thanks for your amazing lessons!”

“Dear Anna, your lesson was very nice and I enjoyed it. I’ll miss you alot…Your Florian. P.S. I love you”.

“Thank you for everythinks. 🙂 You’ll miss us.”

Don’t know if that’s what she meant to say, but it’s true. I will miss them. And I’m going to miss teaching.

So Montbeliard, it’s time I bid you adieu. As much as we’ve had our ups and downs, and as much as I have trash-talked you when we weren’t together, Montbeliard you were my home. And today a little piece of my heart will remain with you.

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A Day in the Life of a Teaching Assistant

After today’s frustrating (but some how still semi-successful) lesson, I thought I should provide a small window into the life of a teaching assistant.

Every day, every class and every teacher brings a new experience- especially when you work with 12 different teachers at 2 different schools with 12 varying class by class numbers and schedules. While some days it’s quite refreshing to have variety, other days it’s down right frustrating to have inconsistency. Take last week, when I discovered that I would be grading a student (which we’re actually not allowed to do) for his Mock Bac (or as the French call it, the Bac Blanc) 15 minutes before actually doing so. No prior explanation from the teacher, no down low of the French grading system, just instructions in my mailbox.

My 15 minute break consisted of google translating Degrés 1-4 and typing my own English rubric of what each category actually meant. All things considered, the Mock Bac went pretty well- it was the aftermath where I suffered. I took the rubric back to my desk, equipped with my notes and google translate and attempted to number each category. I don’t even like grading in the U.S. (and luckily as an elementary art teacher I don’t really have to- if you try, you pass)! But to tackle a foreign system and write an evaluation in a foreign language was quite the daunting task to say the least. I finally broke down and sought text advice from a native (Antoine). Luckily he responded in time. “33/40 is very good. Basically: under 10 is miserable, between 10 and 20 is under average, 20-30 is average to good, 30-40 is good to excellent!” I nervously turned in the final results, hoping that I didn’t tamper with some student’s esteem. 

Today was not much different. After pestering the teacher all week about his expectations, I was surprised to find nothing in my mail box prior to class. Each teacher varies with their agenda- some let me plan my own lessons, others provide me with specific frameworks, and then there are those that have it all planned out. This particular teacher usually wants me to follow his specific (and boring) curriculum with no personal touches of my own. I’m happy to comply- when there is a lesson in the mail box! After receiving nothing, I fell back on my go to lesson of speed dating. I waited 15 minutes for Group #1 to show- nothing. So after deciding that maybe I’d misunderstood something, I headed for the exit only to run into three of my students. Three out of nine. The confusion went a little something like this:

“Oh. Hi. Are you guys with me today?”

“Bah…oui!”

-Confused Stares-

“Well where are the others?”

“Avec Monsieur.”

“Really? Are they coming?”

“Non.”

“Did he give you anything to work on?”

“Non.”

“Do you have anything you want to work on with me?”

-Confused whispering-

“Bahhh…maybeee?”

-Sigh-

“Ok. Let’s go. We’ll figure something out.”

I was furious. That they were so late. That I was so out of the loop. That the class had completely changed. That I had nothing prepared as speeding dating with three was a no go, but ultimately that this was a class I was responsible for without having a say in what happens. My anger was getting me nowhere, so I decided to improvise and use the knowledge I had of preparing for the Bac. We covered some helpful reviews of summarizing texts and articulating opinions. Fortunately I came prepared and rewarded them at the end with worksheets of dating vocabulary. At least they left laughing.

These experiences reminded me of what it takes to be a teacher- especially when you’re a teaching assistant.

  • Be patient
  • Be flexible
  • Be ready to improvise and think quickly on your feet
  • And come equipped with a Plan B because you never know when you’ll be out of the loop
  • But also- don’t forget to find the humor- if you’re miserable, they’re miserable…which in turn makes you even more miserable. If you can leave a frustrating situation laughing, your off to a good start.

Overachiever

I overwork things. Always have and I’m afraid always will. My parents often laugh as they tell stories of how in middle school I’d be up until 1 or 2 in the morning, panicked and frazzled as I worked on a project or paper that just had to be perfected. My dad would often tell me that it didn’t need to be perfect, “just good enough”, as he fixed the computer malfunctions that were sparking my meltdowns, while my mom would often suffer through the nights with me, lending editing skills or conceptual advice. I used to think that it was just me, but as I’ve gotten older, I blame both of my parents. Each of their own neurotic and anal tendencies (and maybe even genetics) have combined into a full fledged type A mutant. I found a picture of me not too long ago that pretty much sums it up- a picture of four year old little Anna bearing a big, proud smile as she stands surrounded by shoes organized in concentric semi-circles. My parents tell me that I had been quiet for so long that they decided to check on me, only to discover that I had not in fact died, but instead had anally organized the shoe closet. I’m afraid there’s no hope.

I am reminded of all this as I dive into the teaching process. Or assistant process. Except that it’s really more like teaching. Here begins the start of my confliction. I’m technically a teaching assistant, here to add extra help, support, and native information. However there are 12 different teachers with 12 differing ideas of what that means.

The overall idea is that I get them to speak. That’s great in theory, but I’m learning that in practice it’s a whole different ball game. So even though, yes, technically I work 12 hours, I find myself turning into that overachiever Anna-spending hours looking up interesting videos and games to engage them, reading articles on the most effective ways to teach ESL, meticulously crafting Plan B strategies, all the while feeling overwhelmed with where exactly to start. The French professors on the other hand, simply seem to have the oh so typical laissez faire mentality of do the bare minimum and ‘just get them to speak’. But when you have 14 students at varying levels, too shy to talk for an entire hour, you know it’s time to have some structure. I’m at a cross roads. I want students to be engaged and interested, but not at the cost of my own sanity. How can I take laissez-faire and overachiever and meet somewhere in the middle? It’s a learning process I guess. For now I’m thankful that I can fall back on the excitement and intrigue of being the ‘new assistant’, ‘the American’, ‘the Texas girl’. But we’ll see what happens when the novelty of that wears off…

Was I this bad?
                                              ….debateable

“What do you want??”

Today marks the end of my observation period- or at least according to technicalities. For the past two weeks I’ve been thinking about how to summarize the French school system, the teachers, the classrooms, what highschool in France is like, but ultimately I cannot actually make sweeping statements about such things. All I can do is note what I’ve observed.

The jury’s still weighing the pros and cons of these particular high schools, but so far I’ve noted a few key things. High schools here, at least the two I’ve witnessed, are treated almost like college in America. The rooms are bare and decoration is sparse because no room is for one teacher. Instead the rooms are rotated on a daily basis, leaving no teacher ownership of any particular space. On the one hand I got tired of teachers being so possessive of what could be utilized as a community space in the states, but on the other hand, there is something to creating a unique environment designated for your own particular class.

Teachers are more like college professors here. They take their breaks seriously- this is time for coffee and chatting. They will vent about their classes and then move on to other topics. They do not cram in grading or last minute lesson planning. They leave right when it’s time to leave, not 10 minutes prior to the start of class for prep, so that by the time they come to their room, the students are waiting outside. Once invited in to the room, students must stand until they are told to sit, at which point they talk and gossip while the teacher scans the room for a quick attendance check. The lessons vary from teacher to teacher but are generally more laid back than the lessons I received in high school. However, they’re more multicultural than the ones I received, and I felt like I had a fairly multicultural education… It’s fascinating to watch a language course delve into green energy, stereotypes and bias, the history of the Aboriginal culture and the oppression in Australia, the caste system in India, and the fractioning of the English language into a family of dialects like Spanglish and Singlish (in Singapore) and Taglish (in the Philippines). I’m excited to come up with my own lessons.

Of course there are many more observations I have noted, but for now I will share a few of the common questions that students love to ask.

Common Questions I’ve Received:

1. What’s your name/Where do you come from? I usually get gasps of excitement and hand gestures that resemble pistols in the air, or what I can only assume are gestures that only cowboys would do, when I say that I’m from Texas. This is then followed by heightened excitement when I tell them I was born in Los Angeles, but only leads to disappointment when I say that I’ve never actually been there aside from the 9 months or so of my infancy, and ultimately leads to confusion when I say that I’ve been living in Massachusetts for the past 6 years. I think I should just stick to Texas. But even then, one student asked me “Do they speak English in Texas?”, at which point I knew it was time to get out a map.

2. Why did you come here (To France)? No why did you come here (To Montbeliard)?? There is usually a common interest as to why I came to France but an even greater interest in why the hell I came to Montbeliard. It’s a bit of a let down to tell them that I didn’t in fact choose it, but was instead placed here (and I don’t dare tell them that it was definitely not my first pick). I started off with some BS answers but then realized there was actually some truth to the fact that I never previously visited the Franche-Comte region, that I am intrigued about the proximity to Germany and Switzerland and the accent that ensues, and that I’ve been dying to live in a small French town ever since I biked around on my own along the tiny roads of St. Cast 12 years ago. Of course all of this is said with much more simplicity.

3. What’s your favorite French food? This is always a tricky one to answer because I have to first break the news that, “Sorry guys. I’m vegetarian”, which usually creates a room full of “ohhhhsss” as if to say “c’nest pas possible!”, “how can this be?!”. But I usually redeem myself when I say cheese. Lots and lots of cheese. Especially because this region is known for their Comte. But it takes a while for them to grasp the concept. “So chicken?” “No chicken.” “Fish?” “No. No fish”. “Nothing? No beef? No sausage? No bacon? No sausage???” “No. No meat. Nothing that had eyes. But I do eat eggs.” “Ok…” The fact that I consume dairy gives me some credit. I can’t imagine if I was vegan.

4. Do you have a boyfriend? This one is always asked by the boys and always starts off somewhere in the back as a quiet question. Then the surrounding group starts laughing and he gets up the courage to ask it so that I and the whole class can hear. The first time, I moved on to another question because I wasn’t really sure about the appropriateness or what the policy was like, but then I wised up to the laid back frenchness and tried to answer with a simple “Yes.” This however, usually leads to more questions, disappointment (feigned by most I assume) and giggles at which point I moved on to other questions. Lycee Viette is particularly interesting when it comes to this topic as it is a vocational school comprised almost entirely of boys who apparently don’t see many younger women on a daily basis. I’m hoping the ‘I love yous’ and ‘beautiful’s were just a way of practicing the limited vocabulary they know, but needless to say, this is definitely new territory. When I told them I was 24, I heard one whisper in the back (in french) “Awww. She’s too old for us”, at which point I chuckled and another student noted “Elle comprend!” Damn right I understand. I just hope I can keep on understanding…

5. Are American highschools like the movies? This one amuses me as students seem to have a romantic notion of American high schools. One student even asked, “Were you a cheerleader?” It was hard for me not to respond, “Ha! Cheerleader? If only you knew…” but instead I managed a simple, “No.” I tried to explain that every high school is different, that not all high schools are obsessed with football and that there are actually quite a few similarities to the ones I’ve seen so far in France. They seemed disappointed until one asked, “Do they have lockers?”. “Well yes. Most of them I think. Mine did at least.” She gave me a large smile and proceeded to excitedly talk with her friends. At least I could give them lockers…

6. And finally my personal favorite, What do you want? Ok. So this one wasn’t a common question, but rather one from a particular student who seemed to only know how to ask, “What do you want?” At first I laughed and tried to guess “what am I doing here?” “what do I want to do in France?” , but he kept repeating “What do you want?”. And while I think ultimately, he wanted to know something else, I felt it was a valid question. Especially right now in my life. And while I don’t have the time to delve into the quarter life crisis questions that ultimately translate to “What do I want”, it was interesting to be asked by someone other than myself. I quickly came up with an answer about wanting to learn french, wanting to teach in another country, wanting to see how English is taught, wanting to travel and to learn. Ultimately I guess those things speak to some deeper desires of wanting to see, to explore, to challenge, to questions, to stop, to think, to play, to create, to grow and hopefully to learn- about France, people, different places and hopefully myself.

But enough metacognitive ranting. It’s Friday, most of my paperwork is done and a group of assistants and I are going to Besancon tomorrow for some good ol’ fashion exploring and boite de nuit (night box= night club) dancing. So right now, it’s pretty safe to say that what I want is to start the weekend!