My Year Abroad – Life as an English Language Assistant (3/5)

Thursday finally came around and we were off to the Welcome Day/Induction for 9am sharp. We all had to sign in, first the primary school assistants and then the secondary assistants before we went into a big auditorium. We were welcomed by a representative from the Education Board in Amiens for the 2011-12 session and given a presentation on the French education system and a short speech from the rector of l’Academie d’Amiens. There were also speakers discussing setting up social security, opening a bank account, and registering with the French Office of Immigration and Integration (OFII).

In the second half of the day, we were split up into smaller groups – by primary or secondary – and then by region. My group was ‘Premier degré – département de la Somme’. In this session, we were given the names of our schools and their head teachers, as well as informed of our individual ‘rendezvous’ with these schools to organise our schedules. Mine was booked for the following morning. We also received a more specific presentation relating to the primary education system. After a break, we were given many handouts, tips and information books to prompt ideas about what to teach in our classes, and watched videos of English speaking teachers in French schools and their teaching methods.

By the end of the induction at 5.30pm, I was exhausted with all the information we had to take in but I enjoyed getting to meet other assistants in the same boat as me. I was also grateful to finally have the names of the schools I would be working at – there were 3 – and finally getting started, though I was still nervous about it all since I didn’t exactly know what to expect.

The next morning, I went with the contact from l’Academie d’Amiens to visit the three schools and meet the staff with whom I would be working. This was also the time when my contact and the head teacher figured out my timetable. The British Council contract was for 12 hours per week and most French primary schools aren’t open on a Wednesday so it worked out pretty well for me. After meeting all 3 schools, I had a fairly rounded work schedule – Monday afternoons, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays – spread out across seven different classes. Friday ended up as my busiest day but I couldn’t really complain. The class lengths ranged between 30 and 60 minutes depending on the day or class.

I was going to be working with pupils aged between 8 and 11 years old across three class levels:

  • Cours Élémentaire 2 (CE2) or equivalent to Scottish Primary 4/5
  • Cours Moyen 1 (CM1) or equivalent to Scottish Primary 5/6
  • Cours Moyen 2 (CM2) – or equivalent to Scottish Primary 6/7

When I started on Monday 10th October, I was nervous, to say the least! Thankfully, throughout the week, everyone was really friendly and I was directed to my classrooms and introduced by the head teacher or the teacher whose class I had just been in. The first week was pretty simple as the classes were mostly asking questions about me and who I am – my name, my age, where I’m from, about my family. There were a few classes where we went straight into the curriculum which they had already been working on (considering term started a month before!) which was nice too.

Five out of the seven classes were spent in the main classroom working alongside the teachers to deliver the curriculum. The other two classes consisted of me working with small groups of children (around 8-10) in a separate classroom, teaching them additional material to complement the work their teacher was doing in the main classroom.

The latter classes were a challenge for me. I wasn’t used to having to manage a class by myself, even it was half the size of a normal class. For the most part, the children were just so excited about having a language assistant, and basically someone new, that they asked lots of questions and often took some time to settle down, regardless of where we were in the school year. There were, of course, the usual class stereotypes who didn’t always want to do the work but I tried to keep them occupied and engaged in the classes.

I was quite lucky with this whole set up as it meant that I wasn’t actually required to do much preparation work for my classes as the teachers provided me with what they wanted me to cover on the day. It did mean that I had to think on my feet though because I often had to identify the best structure for the class only a few minutes before the class started! I also had to do some presentations throughout the year – about Scotland, about the Scottish Education System, and about English speaking countries – but that was the extent of it.

I don’t think they had had many Scottish assistants before so it was quite a novelty in some aspects. My accent was different to what they were used to, despite me not having a broad Scottish accent, but it was beneficial too as they could get used to other accents speaking English (rather than just Queen’s English). I was also generally able to provide a distinction between American English and British English when these things came up.

Unsurprisingly, the levels of confidence with English varied from pupil to pupil, and class to class but I also believe that the teacher makes a difference in the interest pupils show in learning a language. The younger classes were learning more basic English in comparison to the older classes which would soon be moving onto middle school and had been learning English for a few years already. It was exciting to be a part of their learning and to see them progress throughout the year to improve their English.

Alongside my teaching responsibilities, I also had to complete an ‘ethnographic’ report for Aberdeen University on a topic ‘which related to the country/region in which I was residing’. I chose to report on the French teachers’ attitudes toward teaching languages in primary schools in comparison to teachers in the UK. I carried out a study on a small sample of teachers in both countries along with some parental input using questionnaires and interviews to collect data to inform the report. Did I mention that it had to be 3,000 words long? And in French? Yeah. That was quite a challenge. We had the whole year to complete it though and I was able to get support from the university staff and the teachers at my schools so that really made all the difference!

Despite all the positives and great aspects of living abroad and working as a language assistant, I was still horribly homesick at times and my phone bills were certainly proof of that. I’m quite a homebody and moving 3 hours away from home to Aberdeen for university was the furthest away from home I’d been and even then, I visited fairly regularly. This was a completely different ballgame. Not only had I left everything I knew behind – friends, family, language! – I had to start afresh and build this new life for myself that would only last a year. It was quite the challenge.

It didn’t help that despite a few school holidays throughout the year, I only actually went home twice in the 7 months – once at the end of October and then not again until the end of February the following year. You might remember that the winter of 2009 was particularly ridiculous with crazy snow locking down flights so I thought that 2010 was likely to go the same way and that it was best if I didn’t attempt to fly home over the Christmas holidays (and potentially get stuck) so I stayed in France instead. I was able to go to Paris with my 2 best friends for Christmas (more on that in my next post) so I was hardly hurting on that front but it was still difficult to not see most of my family for 5 months (my dad visited in early December with Christmas presents). Particularly around a holiday that I associate with spending with family.


Christmas ‘care package’ from home – chocolate, shortbread, tea, and irn bru! Yes, I am a walking stereotype

Homesickness and general ‘struggles with speaking French on a day to day basis in most interactions’ aside, I had an amazing time living in France for 7 months as a language assistant! I really enjoyed teaching English to the primary school pupils I met and the teachers were also great. I loved their enthusiasm for teaching a foreign language in school! I was able to travel a lot, locally in the Picardy region, and further afield across the different countries bordering France. And I also met some great people that I’m still friends with and still speak to (albeit somewhat infrequently these days because…life). I will always be grateful for the opportunity to take a year abroad.

Have you spent a long time away from home like this? What did you miss while being away? Tell me in the comments below!

5 thoughts on “My Year Abroad – Life as an English Language Assistant (3/5)

  1. Rosie says:

    Interesting to read your perspective on the scheme as a primary school assistant – as far as I recall, there were only assistants in the secondary schools where I was based. I think for many people homesickness is inevitable – I didn’t find it too much of an issue when I was a language assistant as I kept myself busy meeting up with the other assistants, travelling, and went home for Christmas, but I have found myself missing home more this time round. It’s the little things I miss, such as the shows I like to watch on BBC (watching them on YouTube just isn’t the same).

    Liked by 1 person

    • myuniverseofwriting says:

      Hi, what was your experience as a secondary school assistant? I had a friend who worked in a secondary school a couple of years ago and she had a lot more autonomy with teaching her students. I had a great time travelling with fellow assistants and I hung out with them pretty much all the time too – it was great! I guess it just got to me sometimes. It’s funny the things you don’t think about until you don’t have them easily accessible anymore!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Rosie says:

        I had quite a lot of autonomy as a language assistant – sometimes a teacher would give me a topic they wanted me to use as a starting point, but most of the time I could choose what I wanted to do. I had great fun running classes on Bonfire Night, Shrove Tuesday and April Fool’s Day! I think it’s inevitable that things will get to you from time to time while living abroad – it’s part and parcel of the experience.

        Liked by 1 person

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