12 October 2009

First official day of teaching. . . Epic failure.

I find it truly amazing how the very things I feared the most about moving to France (getting a bank account, finding a place to live, setting up a cell phone plan, navigating the bus system) have turned out to be the simplest of tasks.  Likewise, everything I expected to accomplish with ease has proven without question to be the most challenging undertaking of my life.

Take teaching, for example.  

I arrived at Ecole Elémentaire La Plaine with all the confidence in the world.  After receiving the superstar treatment during my observation period last week, how could my kids NOT adore me? I had spent hours creating their first lessons, which were equipped with visual aids and an inflatable globe to engage their multiple intelligences (Thank you, TESL class!) I was smartly dressed in kid-friendly colors, even sporting a flower in my hair.

I was greeted with la bise by Gilles, the directeur, who led me to my own English classroom. The children filed in without a sound, but as soon as he left, they erupted into chaos.  By chaos, I mean they literally became a room full of monkeys, throwing things, talking over me, and sporadically falling out of their chairs.  Although I had prepared ample material, at one point I noticed I still had 15 minutes of class left, and honestly did not know how I would survive it.  At one point, Gilles returned to the room to admonish my class for being too loud, and I felt like a failure for being completely powerless to control them. I failed to win their sympathy when I told them that I was sick with a sore throat and that it was important for them to listen carefully to me. What happened to the lovable little cherubs I met last week? 

One of my activities involved tossing an inflatable globe to each student, so that each one could say their name and where they were from.  In my visions, I saw an orderly class who smiled gleefully as they gently tossed the globe to one another.  In reality, they tried to chuck the globe with all their might over one another's heads, cheering when their classmates had to chase it into the hallway.  It became a rather violent ordeal, to say the least.  

The four classes passed in the same fashion, with me about to pull my hair out during each 45 minute lesson.  Thankfully, for the last two classes, the teachers were still present in the classroom, which defused some of the talking and violent globe throwing.

After teaching them to say "How old are you?" and "I am ___ years old," they weren't able to grasp the link between the two.  No matter how much I drilled them or explained it to them in French, the exchange would go something like this:

Me:  Juliette, how old are you?

Juliette: How old are you?

Me: (in French) Ok, when I say "How old are you," you say "I am 8 years old." Do you understand?"

Juliette: (in French) Yes, ok! (in English) I am 8 years old!

Me: Very good! Now let's try it again. Juliette, how old are you?

Juliette: (with a huge grin) How old are you?

I felt rather discouraged after class, especially when the teacher who had observed my last class asked me if I'd ever taught English before.  I explained that I had taught catechism before for a year in America, and had gotten certified to teach ESL, but that was it.  She seemed exasperated by this, and went on to extol the virtues of the previous assistant, who apparently walked on water last year.  I told her I would do better, and that I had been trying to assess the class's level of English to get a feel for what material to teach them.  She replied that I had attempted far too much for the first lesson and advised me to contact the previous assistant so that I could learn the "correct" way to teach the students.  I thanked her, fighting back tears, and walked out quickly.

On the bus ride back to downtown Metz, I struggled to carry my bag, my globe, and my big binder full of teaching materials.  At one point the bus lurched, causing me to drop the globe, which bounced down the aisle of the bus.  As I went to retrieve it, I dropped several papers from my binder all over the ground.  Not one person raised a hand to help me.  They stared indifferently ahead, but there was no way they didn't notice me and my ridiculous balancing act. Flustered, I rushed about to collect my things, stuffed them into my bag, and slumped into a seat. I squeezed all the air out of my globe, feeling every bit as deflated.  I remember buying it in the States before I left, and how excited I had been to use it in class.  I never envisioned it turning out this way.  

My negativity began to bear its fangs.  It went something like this.  What the hell am I doing here? How am I supposed to last nine classes here, much less nine months? I am so out of my element. There is not a single day that passes where I don't make a complete fool of myself. Whether it's speaking the language, figuring out how to open the door on the bus when I need to get off, walking down the street without tripping on a cobblestone, trying to eat like a European, or even opening a normal door, I am bound to reveal that I'm foreign.  Even the most basic activities here are different, and I have never been so self conscious in my life.  And now I'm a failed English teacher. Oh, and I'm dying of the French Plague, cough cough.

As it turns out, my Australian friend Elli had an equally disastrous first day of class, and had also been chewed out by an instructor.  She was handling it much better that me.  It rolled right off her back.  Her rationale? "The schools didn't hire me, the French government did.  They knew fully well I had never taught before, and they still hired me. These are MY English classes, and I will conduct them as I see fit.  I'm not going to lose sleep over what they said, and neither should you."  She went on to tell me she was sincerely worried about me, and that I would probably suffer an anxiety attack if I continued to harbor such high expectations.

I did not enjoy hearing her say she doubted my ability to survive here for nine months, and a surge of rebellion filled my chest.  She's right, I wouldn't let a situation like this rattle me in the States, so why here in France?  Being here has been my dream since I was 12 years old. Now I'm finally here, and I'll be damned if I will allow anyone to ruin this for me.  Look what I've accomplished! I've found a place to live with a wonderful family, and am leaving this awful foyer. I've opened a bank account, started a cell phone plan, and filled out scores of paperwork... all in French. I've figured out the layout of Metz, where the best shopping is, and how to pick up essentials.  I've managed to accomplish all this while battling the worst flu I've ever had.  Thanks to the illness, I've learned scores about French drug vocabulary as well, having frequented several pharmacies. In a few weeks, I've managed to carve out an existence here in Metz, which is something to be proud of.

Today was my first day of teaching, but it seems the most important lesson today was mine to learn.


  1. Dang, that's really rough. But you can do it! You've got tons more of experience and training than a lot of other people here, and your friend was right -- you were hired based on who YOU are and what YOU have to offer. Good luck. :)

  2. awww... my first day was pretty hideous too! i did all the planning, i even borrowed their cahiers from last year to make sure i wasn't repeating stuff! then i discovered that they had pretty much forgotten everything, so i might as well start from the beginning! i have the same problem with them repeating the questions rather than answering them! and their how old are yous actually sound like "ow ol are uuu"! on top of all this, people keep committing suicide on the train tracks between the town i live in and the town i teach in, causing me to be late or miss classes completely! i think my inspector academique hates me!!!!! c'est pas ma faulte!
    it'll get better, bonne courage!


Related Posts with Thumbnails