On my first day at school I was given neither registers nor a timetable; so after a few minutes it was me, the so-called ‘teacher’, who was desperately asking my class of nine year-olds ‘is it break-time yet?’ Seeming not to know who I was, or my basic job description, the head teachers I worked for decided I would be fine teaching groups of kids alone. After a meek attempt to ask my colleagues for more assistance I was told ‘we’ll consider it’: followed by no further action. So from day one it was just me and classes of up to twenty French children.
Discipline, discipline, discipline: there is a lot to be said for a good teacher’s ability to open and inspire young minds, but my first priority was just to keep the kids in their seats and calm for the duration of their forty five minute lesson. I would have liked to have been a Miss Honey-esque teacher, showering my pupils with praise and never raising my voice. However, at certain points in the year if you’d visited my classroom you would have seen each corner filled with a naughty child, plus another that had been sent into the corridor.
I might sound mean and Victorian but tough punishments seem to be the norm in French schools and therefore the only type the students really responded to. A teacher confided to me that he once became so angry with a child that he had written ‘villain’ (meaning naughty) on his forehead. The boy subsequently scribbled it out with a big black marker, so he ended up going home with a coloured-in forehead. There were moments when I did not know what to do in the face of bad behaviour. Like the time I sent a girl into the corridor and she licked the window of the classroom door to get the attention of her friends. The amount of energy it takes to keep a handful of children focused on learning came as a surprise to me.
Daily battles to enforce the rules did not dampen how much fun it was to work with primary school pupils, the majority of whom were lovely. The little ones would share snippets of information, photos of their family and occasionally their life stories. One seven year-old called Tuffan told me he was already ‘engaged to a girl from Turkey who comes from a modest family but who is very pretty and who is saving herself for me.’ Staying professional was a struggle because when a student said something funny I found it hard not to laugh.
After a while I started to see the job of an assistant as not being too dissimilar to that of an actor or a comedian: you’ve got to give an entertaining performance if you want your audience to listen. Chinese whispers, hangman, charades, Pictionary, pin the tail on the donkey and bingo were all used to reinforce the vocabulary. I would split the class into two teams as the chance to win often motivated even the less attentive pupils. During my training our mentors encouraged us to be as creative as we wanted in the classroom. Towards the end of my contract, when I started to adopt the I’ll-give-anything-a-go mentality, I got the kids to do things like make up dance routines using the vocabulary they’d learnt related to directions (higher, lower, left, right etc.) and perform them to the class.
For any future assistants I would stress that it is very unusual to be left alone with a class, chances are that you will be put in a school with really supportive staff who will deal with any misbehaving children so you are free to concentrate on actual teaching. However, for me, not having the presence of a teacher was like learning to ride a bike without stabilisers, more tricky at first but it pushed me harder and ultimately I learned to cope fine on my own. You can be a language assistant for up to three years, so it also offers an enticing solution to possible post-university unemployment.