the goldfish bowl

Just when I felt pretty comfortable with my role teaching English classes to French primary school children, life (or rather, the French Ministry of Education) handed me something new: a job at a maternelle in les banlieues of Cannes.

My new students range from barely three to six years old. The oldest are wonderfully curious, asking questions that inspire future lessons. The youngest struggle to hold pencils and blow their noses–quite the change from the fifth graders I taught last year. One thing I enjoy about this job is the simple preparation it requires: no more writing activities, no more neatly organized cahiers.

But it’s not an easy trade. With this age, we cover material at the pace of an escargot. The days bleed together like the watercolors in the art room.

Recently I wrote about how language-learning feels like a study of absurdism. Teaching, were it paralleled by a French art movement, would belong squarely to Surrealism. Time glitches like a stuck record. Repetition to make you doubt reality. I have lived this day before.

How many times have I explained that sequence of sounds, played that song, showed that same dumb picture of a rainbow? And they remember nothing? C’est pas vrai.

The little melodies in my head, purposefully catchy to increase language retention, become a soundtrack to the sameness. If I have to listen to the soul-killing “If You’re Happy” one more time…

A woman at the training day I attended in Nice called all this the goldfish bowl. I hadn’t made this analogy with teaching before, but she was right. Teaching this age often feels like swimming in circles with the same view: a monotony that is dizzying.

She had leaned forward, confiding. “I could never do it. I would go mad.”

I was relieved that someone understood. “Oh, I’m about to.”

They don’t learn they don’t learn they don’t learn. I am going to lose my mind, perhaps releasing a Munchian scream. “The Rainbow Colors Song” will sound like a death knell.

And then they do learn.

In little bits. Enough to motivate me, but just. It’s one child remembering a new vocabulary word or just gathering the courage to speak at all. It’s the way they run up to me in the halls and point at nearby objects, yelling out English colors they know. Jessica! Ça c’est blue, et ça c’est green, et mon tee-shirt c’est pink! 

It’s the delightful connections they make. Singing “Rain Rain Go Away,” a class of five and six-year-olds likened come on back another day to Camembert another day. (I did mention they’re French?) “It’s just un petit peu différent,” they told each other.

It’s a collection of little things: a lively conversation in the staff room, even my morning croissant amande– the boulangerie’s warm air and cheerful coin clatter providing calm before the storm of l’école.

It’s the sweet way the kids are still delighted and intrigued by my presence– and how a few of them think my name is English.

Regarde! It’s English! Where are you going, English? 

They are a bit confused about my age, too. Some ask if I’m married and have kids, while others ask if my mom’s coming to pick me up. Well, neither. And I’m confused too. Welcome to your twenties.

“I know it doesn’t seem like it to you,” I said to a group of six-year-olds last week, anticipating their shock, “but I’m still young, you know. I’m 23.”

Their wide eyes.“Vingt-trois !?” They didn’t know people could live that long.

One day this week I walked outside to spend one of the recess periods with them. They swarmed me, asking when they would get to come to English class again. Before long, a game commenced. One little girl sat on a bench and pretended to be la maîtresse d’anglais–me–while several other children, all from different classes, sat crossed-legged on the ground. “Hello, everyone,” she said in French, “it’s time for English. What should we sing today; who has an idea? No, raise your hand.” She led the group in a rousing round of “Hello, Hello, How are You?” complete with hand gestures.

That alone made my work worth it for that day (and probably for longer). I just need to remember those moments: my reason, for now, to keep swimming.


confessions of a brand-new teacher

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. img_1785-1

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.