I was so nervous, all weekend. Friday we had a planning session for the primary school teachers in our département (composed of Montluçon, Vichy, and Moulins) and honestly I think it just stressed everyone out. There are just four of us this year, representing England, Ireland, the US, and Puerto Rico (four different accents!). We’re each at 3 or 4 schools, working with all classes. This means, for example, that I’m teaching seventeen! That was not what I envisioned for this year, not even a few weeks ago.
When I thought about it on an individual class level, I felt really excited. I sat down and wrote out ideas for the progression of the first day, lesson plans for later on. And then that scary number would pop into my head again: Seventeen. Seventeen. Seventeen.
It seemed an organizational nightmare. I hadn’t known, see, until Friday, that it would be up to me to plan all of the lessons, for each class, for the entire year. We are called assistants, but at the primary school level, it seems the job’s a little bigger. In my schools, the students’ English instruction is left entirely to me; I learned today that most of the classes haven’t yet covered any English this year, maybe because their teacher doesn’t speak it or because they don’t want to, as one teacher told me today, teach it with a strong French accent.
It might have been different had I known the extent of my responsibilities months ago. A few classes? No problem. But this many, ages 6-11, all at different schools with different teachers with perhaps different expectations? Cue freak out. I bounced between a glum resignedness, a calm optimism, and sheer panic. I ate too many Nutella tartines, paced around the house like a caged Mizzou tiger.
C’est pas possible! I thought, again and again.
Saturday night saw me sobbing to my parents over Skype. I informed them that it was, in fact, not possible.
They informed me that: it was indeed a challenge, but I love those. I need a little pressure and stress to function. I am a bit of a perfectionist, meaning I am quite hard on myself to get things just right, and when I feel underprepared it throws me. I am completely qualified for this, though, so I just need to show up and do my best, and learn as I go along.
Their advice and reassurance cleared my mind and helped me calm down, stop being so fatalistic about it.
I mean, I am young, as one of my French ten-year-olds remarked. There’s going to be some trial and error here.
Sunday I met with Yanice, and for a good two or three hours we talked through ideas and compared our resources and materials. We both exclaimed over a little Halloween worksheet with clipart cats and pumpkins–ooh, look, this is perfect! Oh yeah, I love that! I’ll make you a copy–and I thought, huh. This is what being a teacher feels like: excitement over clipart pumpkins and alphabet games. That was fast.
I woke up today feeling inordinately calm. Even when my presentation wouldn’t save to a flash drive. Even when I realized I was going to be twelve minutes late.
For my first class, the teacher said: they’re all yours! As I walked to the front of the room, I felt my nervousness dissipate. There is a real kind of relief in facing the things you’re apprehensive about. I told them that, normally, we would be speaking English and only English, but today was a little different so that I could introduce myself properly. In French, I talked about the United States and Missouri, making it interactive with questions about geography, sports, currency…a wrinkled one-dollar bill that I found in my wallet proved a surprisingly strong visual aid. They were all too happy to participate.
One interesting thing I learned is that England and the US are very conflated in their minds. Questions about the royal family, the queen; a comment about how the US really wasn’t so far away, just a bit north…a guess about my nationality, after I said I was from the States: anglaise? Etats-Unis-ienne?
After that I switched the séance to English. I asked them first what English words they knew, and that turned out to be a good way of getting them engaged. Even the shyest child was happy to pipe in: “fish! dog! blue!” And of course it gave me an idea of where I would need to start.
I then focused on some very basic conversation-what’s your name? how are you?-and from that exercise I realized that many of them are very afraid! They’re so sweet, with shaky voices and big eyes, scared of getting it wrong. We talked in the orientation about this, the fear that many of the students have. It’s really important to praise effectively and encourage even the most timid effort. I hope to create a learning environment that’s fun and engaging, a place where mistakes are pas grave.
I ended the session with a short lesson about the weather, and then, just like that, my first class of the first day was over.
I had been worried that since I’ve never trained as a teacher, it would surely be obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. How would I maintain authority? But I have had some experience: nannying and summer camp and immersion school, and it kind of just came together. The gestures, the facial expressions, that teacherly walking around the room. I felt natural, not like an imposter.
Not only did I survive it, I had fun. I’m thrilled for this job, now that I’ve actually started. I know it will be challenging and engaging, different every day, nothing like the kind of bland office job I would loathe.
I taught a few more lessons and then of course I bought some pâtisserie to celebrate.