23 October 2010

Surviving my first week of teaching French University

Well, I survived my first day of university teaching, nearly intact. Although the first day of class is fairly simple, entailing distribution of texts, going over grading policies, and making introductions, I was all nerves; Nausea in the pit of my stomach nervous. My undergrad students range from 18 to 22 years old, and my Masters students range from mid twenties to forties. Since I’m close in age and sometimes younger than my students, respect is a serious concern. It didn’t help that each time I entered the classroom, the male students gawked at me, the females eyed my outfit up and down, staring disapprovingly at my scuffed ballerina flats, and a murmur of reaction filled the room... as if I couldn’t understand French!

“But she’s so young!”

“I thought it would be a guy... Jamie... isn’t that a boy’s name? Like Jamie Oliver?”

“No, silly, it’s like the tv show “Super Jaimie” (The French version of the Bionic Woman)

I smiled and introduced myself to the class, briefly outlined the goals of the class, and instructed them to interview the person sitting next to them, before ultimately presenting their partner to the class. I had them come up with their own questions, which were written on the board. To spice up the boring list of questions (What’s your name? How old are you? What are you studying? Where are you from?) I added my own question to the list: If you could be any animal, which animal would you be, and why? Of course this broke the ice and the response was generally laughter. Phew!

After the round of introductions, I let the students ask me questions... which included:

“What country are you from? Your accent is strange!”

“Aren’t you rather thin for an American?”

“Are you single?”

I used this exercise for all of my 14 classes... and it was the final class on Friday where it took a turn for the worst. During the introductions, a male student presented his partner.

“Zees is Jean-Claude, he eez twenty-two years old, and he would like to sleep with you zees night!” he said with a wicked gleam in his eye.

A hush of horror fell over my classroom, and I also struggled to believe what had just come out of his mouth. Jean-Claude, his partner, turned white, and shook his head vehemently, as if saying he had no part in what had just transpired.

A few long, terrifying what do I do? moment followed. Send him out of the room? Diffuse with quick-witted humor?

I always think of witty responses.... always a few minutes too late... The class was starting to murmur... I could not lose control of them. I’d better assert my authority!

“Excuse me? Would you like to repeat that?” I demanded. “This is your first and final warning. I will never tolerate this disrespect in my classroom, and if you behave this way again, you’re out of this room, and failing this class. Do you want to be in this class? Comprenez-vous? Est-ce que vous-voulez être dans ce cours?”

He bowed his head and mumbled an apology, but it was too late, the entire atmosphere of the class had been spoiled. The rest of the period, the whole dynamic had shifted, and I could not smile. I walked out, deflated. I could never imagine a student in an American university behaving this way.

I had been doing so well this week... what happened?

Interesting how one event can spoil a series of good ones. Off I go to drown my sorrows in a French pastry.

I can't help but recall my first day teaching elementary school last year in France. See my article, First official day of teaching... Epic Failure

This most recent experience is 100 times more devastating! What I wouldn't give to exchange the uninterested stares of young adults for the effortless love and enthusiasm of children. I miss those kids so damn much. French people start off so adorable and full of life as children... what turns them into the painfully thin, cigarette-dependent, indifferent fashion plates that now sit before me? I'm probably being unfair, I need to give them time to warm up to me, and me to them... I'm just going to have to work a lot harder than I ever had to with the kids.

I have to bear in mind that I am living in the south of France... in a gorgeous new city, and realizing a childhood dream... for the second year in a row! "This is my dream" is now written on a post-it on my wall. A mantra to be repeated in times of difficulty.

Let’s hope next week is better... at least now I know what I’m up against. Better start preparing my arsenal of ‘quick witted’ responses now!


  1. "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones" In other words, it's always the bad stuff that gets remembered and harped on. Don't ever let those things get you down. Take it from me, that is part of being a teacher. You are Super Jamie. I just know you will be able to continue on and make the best of each course all the year. I'm proud of you.

  2. Jamie,

    I enjoyed hearing about your experience with teaching university students. You did a great job handling a difficult situation. Students are always trying to test their new teachers. I hope you consider adding new posts so we can continue to hear about how your teaching and traveling is going. Best Wishes, Susie

  3. Bravo!!!

  4. Anonymous16 June, 2011

    Wow, sounds scary but hang in there and I'm sure you'll be fine. Bon chance!

  5. Anonymous18 June, 2011

    just stumbled upon your blog, very talented writing and fun to read. hope you keep writing posts

    best wishes


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