the real world: an honest account of teaching abroad, 5 months in

After a much-needed vacation, I feel refreshed enough to write a little bit more about my job. It is, after all, the reason I’m currently living in France.

Teaching here is one of the most stressful experiences I’ve ever had.

I haven’t written too much about my job here with the TAPIF program, mostly because when I’m not actually teaching, I’d rather think about something else. But after talking with several friends who have done this and have had (or are having currently) a very stressful time, I thought I’d put another opinion out there.

My opinion: this is a very worthy experience that’s very freaking hard.

The ups-and-downs are what get me. A few weeks ago, before vacation started, I went to my “Monday” school (my favorite). I had prepared a Valentine’s Day lesson. Mary and I had stayed up late the night before watching Twin Peaks and drawing the flashcards I needed, colorful images I’d use to elicit new vocabulary. Teddy bear. Chocolate. 

I walked into the school that morning and was greeted with a huge smile and an appraisal from one of the teachers. Qu’est-ce qu’elle est belle ! Qu’est-ce qu’elle est chic ! She demanded to know where I bought my skirt.

I prepared my materials: printed things and made copies, wrote out an introductory word game on the board, and waited for my first class, a well-behaved, quite charming group of fifth-graders. As the lesson came to a close, the kids were coloring away at their animal Valentines as I circled the room for occasional questions, when their full-time teacher, also the school’s directeur, approached me. He was full of good things to say. C’est génial, ce que tu fais. He said the kids are happy; look, they’re entertained, they’re quiet, they’re learning. He said he saw one of my lesson plans and it impressed him, that it was exactly what they do there, that he could pick it up and be able to teach the English lesson. He essentially offered to pick up the phone and recommend me for a contract renewal.

I tried to hold back a grin.

“I’m not saying this to flatter you, you understand. I’m saying this because it’s true.”

I had a few more lessons, all of them fun for me and the kids, no discipline problems to speak of. One little girl even ran up and hugged me after the lesson. “English with Jessica,” she proclaimed in French, “is the best English in the world!”

It was a Mary Poppins Day: one of those teaching days where I walk in and feel like an adored traveling governess. I even have the requisite “magic bag,” but mine contains games, books, funny pictures, and a laptop with songs and videos saved to it.

Kids came up and gave me the Valentines they’d made, asking first if they had to give it to a friend or if they could choose…someone else.

As they sat and colored, they were abuzz with good-natured questions and murmurings: I’m going to give the whale Valentine to my sister and the bear one to my dad! 

Come look, Jessica! 

Do you think I should color his nose pink or brown? 

How do you say crocodile in English? See, I told you! 

At recess, I stood with the teachers as we drank our tiny espressos. Someone had brought croissants. We talked about the upcoming vacation time and then they asked what I planned to do after this school year, so I told them about grad school and other possible projects. A teacher friend, Delphine*, who is about my mom’s age and gives me a ride to the school twice a week, told us about a book she’s reading. It’s about a young American woman who moves to France and writes about her adventures in French language and culture. She even marries a Frenchman.

“That’s Jessica!” Delphine said. “That’s all I could think when I started reading this: it’s Jessica!”

I felt hopeful, young in a good way, like I couldn’t wait to see what’s next. I felt loved and appreciated, the way it’s nice to feel around Valentine’s Day. I loved my job.

Then, “Tuesday school.” I don’t particularly want to rehash all the mishaps and frustrations that happened (that always happen) at Tuesday school. Suffice it to say that, when my lunch break hit, the first thing I did was pull out my phone calendar to see how many days I had to come back. This is the school that, as soon as I get home, has me digging in the back of the fridge for any beer we may have. This is the school that’s stressed me out so much that I have actual nightmares. If Monday has me feeling like Mary Poppins, Tuesday has me feeling like a depressed Disney hag, like I’m a thousand years old. The camaraderie, the respect, the feeling that I’m making a difference, all those important things that exist at Monday school don’t exist here, not for me. Tuesdays make me feel hopeless; Tuesdays are the days I actively dread.

As I was leaving that Tuesday–I made it, I survived, I have a killer headache–I realized I’d forgotten something, so I went back to one of the classrooms, where a woman I didn’t know was setting up an art project. I asked her about her job doing after school activities and she told me that this was the last day she was working at this particular school, thank God.

You feel that way too?! I asked, quick camaraderie. Oh yes, she assured me. I laughed; I could have cried with relief.

Much of the stress, you know, comes from never knowing if what I’m doing is right. In two of the schools, I feel that it is. In the other, all bets are off. I have no training and I work alone. I have one person I’m able to contact for advice, help, or problems, but this person cannot be particularly bothered to, say, return my emails.

It is very frustrating to me, because I know that my situation isn’t how this program is intended to work: I prepare up to seventeen different lessons a week (because the classes are at completely different levels) and I plan and teach each one alone. My job title is “assistant,” but I don’t assist anyone. I wake up, dreading school, having no clue if a lesson will bomb or not, and I long to be told what to do. That seems like the ultimate luxury at this point.

It’s stressful and it can be very lonely, as is this town. Complete honesty here. When I got back from vacation (which I’ll be writing about soon), I felt a kind of grief. Home alone in a drafty house on the outskirts of a dying town. Mary, who by now is like a sister to me, wasn’t home yet. I went to get groceries, which entails riding a shitty bike without working brakes down a long hill. My stomach was bigger than my backpack, so to speak, and I selected too many items to carry. I had to buy two bags and stuff them full of groceries as well as the backpack, leave my bike in the parking lot, and trudge up the hill on foot, a long, heavy twenty minutes. The moment I exited the store it started to pour rain.

I missed my car, but not just that. I missed having someone to call.

I don’t feel homesick, exactly, but I do miss things, lots of things. I miss the people in my life. I miss hot baths. I miss concerts. Indie movies. Hot mugs of homemade (real) coffee. I miss the library, road trips, having a dryer and a comfortable bed and a fireplace. I miss dressing up with friends and doing things, having a nightlife. I miss early mornings and lazy evenings at coffee shops. I miss comfort. I miss the sun. I miss the freedom that comes with having my own transportation (of the four-wheeled variety). I miss making friends with someone easily, in a couple of minutes.

There are parts of this I love: The travel part. The time to read part. The hanging out with Mary part. The Monday part. The vacation part. The kids, too. The funny things they say. Seeing them learn.

I’ve never been sorry that I’m here, so I’m grateful for that. But sometimes I wish I was somewhere else (if that makes any sense).

I am simultaneously enjoying my time here and counting down the days til I leave. I write this to express the two opposing and equally important aspects of my time in France with TAPIF: worthwhile. Difficult.

But you know what they say about things that don’t kill you.