I’ve been here for three days, but it feels like a week! Yesterday I ventured into Montluçon for the first time to meet with Anne-Laure, my “contact person” who has helped me get settled. I had no problem finding the bus, the building. I left really early but there was no need, so I had time to spare. I couldn’t find a café nearby so I leaned against a nearby wall and read Dracula. When in doubt, get your Gothic novel out.
It turns out I’ll be working in three different elementary schools with ten or so classes, something like that. This really is a smaller area, and for each of these schools, I am the native English speaker. So instead of spending a lot of time with only one or two classes over the course of the school year, I will instead go to one of my schools and teach a short lesson, then on to the next class where I’ll teach a short lesson, et cetera, et cetera. Then it’s onto another school. It seems that only a few days out of the week will be quite so busy: on some days I think I finish by 1pm and I don’t work Fridays! Nevertheless, with so many different children in different rooms in different schools…organization will be paramount. Another thing that I wasn’t expecting and didn’t know until yesterday was that I’ll be working at schools that are in a zone d’éducation prioritaire (ZEP). (Actually, this just changed and is now called REP: réseaux d’établissements prioritaires). I don’t know much about it, but I believe that these are schools where a special effort is being made because a lot of the children have difficult family situations and such. It seems like discipline might be more of a problem at these schools, and, fittingly, there are more teachers than at other schools.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the meeting yesterday. I planned on visiting the school, meeting les profs briefly…I expected it to take maybe an hour. Wrong. It was definitely a lot more…interactive. We visited each classroom while classes were in session, accompanied by the directeur or directrice. After he or she got the children’s attention, I introduced myself in front of the class and professors in French. I’m not great at thinking on the spot like that with no warning, so it was pretty intimidating! I was uncomfortable, but I think it went okay. The kids seemed thrilled to see someone new. I said something like: Bonjour tout le monde, je m’appelle Jessica…and explained that I am from the US, the state of Missouri, and that I was excited to come and speak some English with them. Donc, hello! “‘Ello!” they cried, enthusiastic. In some of the classes, there were gasps and murmurs when I said je viens des États-Unis. Wow, an American!? It was really cute. In the first class, the kids had recess right after I arrived. As they trailed outside, some of the braver ones said “‘ow are you?” or “gooh-d bye!”
At one of the schools, I did introductions five or six times in the row, working my way down the hallway. As I did this I was thinking two things: the first was how hard this would’ve been for me in the past. I used to be an absolutely abysmal public speaker (in front of kids, in front of five people, it didn’t really matter). The anxiety was real. So I smiled to myself as I was led down the hall again, and again, and again…like I said, I was still uncomfortable, but I knew I had enough poise (and French ability) to not crash and burn. I was satisfied. First days are scary, being l’étranger is scary, moving to France by yourself is scary. But here I am.
The second thing I was thinking was how cool it is that the TAPIF program exists. I think of it as Bachelor’s Degree in French: Ultimate Challenge. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I miss homework, but I do always love having a project, and TAPIF allowed me that, throughout the summer and now. Has my degree prepared me to: fire off dozens of emails, arrange housing, solve all kinds of travel problems, ask directions, figure out transportation, meet people, all in a language I started learning as a teenager? So far, yes! It’s a great test, challenging and satisfying both. Suffering through La Chanson de Roland got me somewhere.
Next week is a sort of information session in Clermont-Ferrand (the académie that Montluçon is a part of), and then I have a day of observation at one of the schools. One cool thing I learned yesterday is that my role is somewhat of a language and culture representative. I am strongly encouraged to share what I can, not just of English, but of American English. Not just of the United States, but of Missouri. Make it personal, make it specific. The kids don’t speak a great deal of English (one class didn’t understand when I said: are you ready for some English?! or something dumb like that), so I may have to keep it simple. Or maybe I can explain some things in French…I don’t think a total immersion environment is going to be possible, unfortunately.
No matter what, I want to go beyond discussing Halloween and Thanksgiving and the bald eagle. If you’re reading this: any ideas?