Le commence de mon enseignement
To begin, I must say that I do love teaching very much, and my students are incredible. In fact, I have always loved working with younger students and teaching, and have found over the years that I have a talent for it. While I am not a formally trained teacher, here only to assist in teaching English to children, I could not be more fortunate with the school where I have been placed, my co-workers and my students. That being said, the transition into a teaching assistant role has not necessarily been easy.
Advance notice to those who are tuning in for this edition of my blog, I am going to go into great detail here 1) to share my full experience on the priority purpose of my year here in France, and 2) for others who are considering this amazing opportunity to have some insight into one person’s experience that may be helpful in the future. If you are interested in a summary of what I have learned and advice I have for others, you are welcome to skip to the numbered list below.
Prior to coming to France, I had four years of experience as a ballet instructor’s assistant. This combined with my experience as an Outdoor School student leader and the training exercises and advice given during orientation, made me feel I was prepared for what was to come. Little did I really know how much was to come…
I began my time at L’ecole St. Martin with three weeks of observation time in all ten classes at this elementary school. The French school system labels their grades differently than in the United States, but I was observing classes which translated to the U.S. school system would be preschool through fifth grade. The observation time I had in the instructors’ classrooms proved to be highly valuable for integrating into the school, getting to know the students and the daily workings of the school. That being said, if I had to give advice to my past self or any future assistants who may be reading this, I would say to make sure that the students know during the time you are observing their classes, that you are their teacher first and their friend second. Speaking from experience, if you become relaxed with that line during observation, it makes establishing authority in the classroom more difficult when you transition into the teaching role.
This time for observation was also beneficial as it allowed me to form connections with the other teachers, co-workers and the director of my school. These connections made the transition into the school, followed by teaching much easier. My co-workers have been an essential support system and have been generous with their advice and insights into the French school system, both of which I am very grateful for.
At the very beginning of my observation time, I was informed that I would have my own classroom where I would be holding the majority, if not all of my English lessons. This meant that I would not be acting so much as a teacher assistant, but rather as a “teacher,” but without the schooling. It was time to start lesson planning! And to provide an overall plan to the staff for what I wanted to teach over the course of the year. Thankfully the previous assistant had left a few teaching materials behind such as flashcards and worksheets. In addition, some teachers had English teaching books they wanted me to use for the older grades. Other than these, I was on my own to begin the lesson planning and material making process, of which was completely new to me.
Looking back on those very early days, the lesson planning process was very enjoyable, and a bit nostalgic. Throughout my planning I had flashbacks to when I was in elementary school; being in complete awe not only with my teachers, but all of the work they put into their work as well. I went to a small Montessori school for preschool through fifth grade. In Montessori schools, the usage of materials and tactile forms of learning are emphasized as well as independent learning. While making my materials for my students, I kept remembering a conversation I had with my own fourth and fifth grade teacher. I remember I complimented one of her poster materials she was using to teach us about photosynthesis, and she said that she had made it by hand! I was, and still am, very impressed by her work, but it would make me smile whilst working on my materials for my students to remember this moment with my teacher when I was their age.
During my third week of observation, I had a meeting with the director of my school as well as all of the other teachers to review my lesson plans and for them to determine if I could move forward with teaching the following Monday or if they felt I needed more time to plan before teaching. I was honestly nervous for this meeting, however knowing that I was going to be presenting my plans not only forced me to make sure I had a plan, but also to make sure everything was organized and well written. Both the preparation and the active presentation of my lesson plans was very good practice for me and I am glad that it was part of my beginning experience.
When lesson planning, my advice for others would be to use all of the resources available to you. For me, this meant using the materials left behind by the past assistant, using English teaching books given to me by my co-workers that they request I use for their classes, and talking to my co-workers to get their input on my ideas, ask for advice and listen to their recommendations. I also utilized my host sisters - who would be in my classes - to run ideas by and have them share if it was interesting for them, helping me to gauge what the student interest would be in the classroom. I did some research online as well for teaching English to elementary aged students which allowed me to read other’s experiences and utilize their advice to help shape my mindset throughout the lesson planning process. When it comes to lesson planning whether that’s just for one class or for a presentation to your co-workers, it is always better to be over than under prepared.
I received approval on my lesson plans and it was the end of my observation time period! I was very nervous but also very excited. The following Monday, I would officially start teaching. My first week of teaching I started off with the basics to both get to know the students as well as gauge their current English levels. This week went pretty smoothly and I remember being shocked at how fast they were going through material. The second week proved to be more difficult. I think the first week all of the students were well behaved because I was a new teacher for them, however the second week they began to test me and my authority, or lack thereof it seemed. It felt as if I had begun to spend more time disciplining my students than actually teaching them. During this time however, I still wanted the students to like me, and so I was cautious when it came to disciplining, or really redirecting their attention. As a result, nothing changed and I still had very little authority in class. I talked to my fellow co-workers, my host parents, and even my own parents about what was going on and realized I was going to have to get over worrying about whether or not they liked me and put on my “big girl pants.” After all, I was there to help them learn English, not to be their friend.
When it comes to reinforcing rules and managing unwanted behaviors in class, I found the recipe for success. If a student was displaying unwanted behavior, I would give them one warning, if they did it again, I would separate them from who they were sitting with, then lastly, if they continued still, I would send them back to their teacher in their classroom. I only had to do this once with every class and they quickly understood that I was serious and the rules in their regular classroom, with their usual teachers still applied in my class.
Maintaining a classroom environment where the students listen but also where they can have fun with the English language has proven to be the biggest challenge. When it comes to teaching these students though, the joys and small moments in the day to day of teaching undoubtable outweigh the challenges. Sometimes I come to work, and maybe I am not having the best start to my morning, and within five minutes of being around my students my mood has completely transformed. It is hard to be in a bad mood when you are surrounded by 50+ smiling children who are all shouting “hello Isabella!”
There have been so many other sweet moments as well. Sometimes a student will run up to me and give me a hug, melting my heart and making my day. The moments in my older student classes where we can sit and have a conversation in English, or when the students are interested in what they are learning, the joy learning brings to their faces and the excitement they have to learn, and their jokes and hilarious personalities are what make the moments that leave me wanting to pull my hair out, entirely worth it.
Two months into teaching, things are going very well in the classroom. There are still some difficult days, but overall everything has been going smoothly. November 7th was my first day back to teaching after the first two week vacation of the year for the All Saints holiday. The moment I stepped onto the school grounds that morning, a smile beamed from me and I felt so grateful to be back with my students.
The students here at St. Martin and the experience of teaching have already given me so much insight about myself as well as some valuable life lessons:
The value of patience not only with my students, but also with myself, because in the end they are not the only ones learning from this, I am learning an incredible amount as well right alongside them.
You can’t always plan everything. Sometimes, no matter how much you plan a class or an activity, something will happen to derail it and that is okay.
A follow on to #2: Being able to think on your feet and adapt to the situation or environment is an essential skill to build.
Be organized and write everything down!! I quickly learned that if I did not keep a continuous log of how my classes went and what we worked on, I would not be able to plan for their next class. Inevitably I would forget what we did or classes would run together in my memory. Along with this, I found it extremely useful to take notes on how the classroom environment and behaviors were, and things to keep in mind for each class moving forward based on that.
It is surprisingly difficult to learn the names of all the students in the school and I have realized I am truly not good with names. Remembering names is an important skill, not only for a teacher, but in life, and I work on it every day.
It is okay to make mistakes in front of your students and to laugh at yourself. If anything, it just teaches them that it is okay to make mistakes, it is important to make mistakes to grow in anything and especially in a language, and it shows them that you are human.
Have fun and remember that you might be the most exciting part of your student’s day, so leave anything negative outside of the classroom and show up for them. I promise just being in a classroom with them can brighten your day.
Just before the holiday break we had some fun in the classroom with some Halloween themed art, while practicing English language skills. Everyone had great fun and everyone demonstrated some very creative skills in crafting these familiar characters.
This new adventure into teaching has been a whirlwind but I am so grateful for every joy and challenge that each day may present. It is still incredible to me that I get this opportunity to teach abroad at such a young age, knowing that in the real career world it takes years of education and experience to have a teaching job in any education system. What an experience gift!
Look for my next postings about managing homesickness and discovering the food, culture, and local gems of Angers!