07 October 2009

Almost Famous

Her bag. Her hair. Her shoes. Her smile...

Her every angle was scrutinized by throngs of fascinated citizens of France, several of which managed to break away from the crowd to throw their arms around her and express their undying adoration.

Who was this creature? Actress, dignitary, or supermodel?

Pas du tout! The object of the crowd's affection was none other than moi, the new American English teacher... and the fascinated citizens of France were indeed just that... although they were only 7-8 years old.

I only meant to sit in the back of the classrooms this week to acquire a feel for the four different grades I will be teaching next week in eight classes divided between two French elementary schools.  I wanted to observe the discipline techniques and subject matter covered in my future classes, in hopes to better prepare, and set myself up in the back, quietly jotting down notes. My presence was a great distraction however, and many children simply turned around in their chairs to stare at me throughout their class period, after which many proceeded to hug and (attempt to) kiss me, hold my hands, and basically treat me like a celebrity.  

Walking out into the recreation yard during recess, little girls waved shyly, shrieking with delight when I waved back and scurrying away to peek at me behind the cover of their other companions. I could tell some of the other teachers were none too impressed with the disruption my mere presence caused when they tried to march the children back inside.

The colleagues at the schools seem very nice.  At my first school, Ecole Elémentaire La Plaine, where I will teach 7 to 9 year-olds on Mondays and Thursdays, I was impressed by the discipline of the children. There is a very strong emphasis on penmanship, and the children diligently cut and paste little worksheets into their notebooks, which are periodically inspected by the teachers.  It seems strange to me that they are gluing directly over perfectly unused paper rather than simply putting their worksheets in folders or binders, but this is their way. They use special pens with ink cartridges, no ball points here. Even their notebooks are different! Unlike our lined paper, theirs is a grid pattern. Teachers are called "Maitre" or "Maitress" as a sign of respect.  In America, I don't remember seeing so many male teachers for such a young age group, but in my schools, it seems to be mostly men, which is interesting. The tactic appears to be overly strict, with brief moments of tenderness where the teacher will pat the child on the head.  

At my second school Ecole Elémantaire Van Gogh, where I will teach 9 to 11 year-olds on Wednesdays and Fridays, the colleagues are also quite friendly.  Two of the ladies (who I had met the previous day while eating in the cantine with my colleagues from La Plaine,) greeted me with la bise, the French custom of kissing friends once on each cheek as a greeting or farewell.  I wasn't expecting it, so I kind of mimicked their movements, and let them take over. I made the kissing sound with my lips, but my mouth did not actually make contact with their face. It was more like a cheek brush with sound effects. I was too startled to notice if my mouth was actually supposed to touch their cheeks or not.  I was delighted to be greeted this way, as it was my first time experiencing la bise, and I felt assimilated!  As an American, I don't think I will ever be confident enough to initiate la bise, but will definitely welcome it if someone else does.

Again, I was gawked at, but since this school is an older age group, the response to my presence in the classrooms was less overt.  The first few classes seemed well behaved, but the last class, which had a substitute teacher, looks like a nightmare.  I don't know if it is simply because the teacher was absent, or if they are simply that awful.  They were throwing things, talking over the poor substitute, dashing out into the hallway to disturb other classes, and some even walked brazenly to the back of the classroom, sitting down for a game of checkers.  After being so impressed by the French discipline in the schools, this class has proven to me that people are generally the same wherever you go.  Just like in the States, a substitute teacher is a prime target for abuse.

I officially begin teaching Monday... Honestly, I haven't a clue what I'm about to be doing.  Our orientation wasn't that informative, and I still don't have a clear guideline of what I'm going to have to teach my eight classes by the end of the year.  It seems like all the primary assistants are as much in the dark as I am... which I suppose is reassuring.  

One thing is for sure, I'll have my celebrity status on my side... at least for the first few classes or so!

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