Hindsight is 20/20: What to bring and not to bring to the French classroom

Becoming a teaching assistant in France means that you will have the amazing opportunity to teach local students and teachers about your native language and culture. If you are anything like me, sometimes this means that you are going to want to bring everything from your home country to show them and to use in your varying lessons. In my personal experiences and in the experiences of fellow assistants, my best advice that I can give you is that the less you bring the better. Here are the following reasons why:

  1. You won’t be weighing down your suitcase(s). Bringing a ton of mementos from home or things to represent your culture is very much a waste of space. You may want to bring maps, yearbooks, scrapbooks, cookbooks, games, etc. Here’s the thing though, most of everything can be found online these days or saved onto a computer/external hard drive. You want to do a lesson about family vocabulary while teaching your students about your family? Scan pictures into the computer and save them on a hard drive. Don’t bring the hard copies. They’ll just take up space. Want to introduce what a yearbook is to your students? There are plenty of examples online to choose from. Plus, if you really want to show your students what you looked like at certain points in your life, scan those specific pages into your computer, much like your family photos. If you scour the internet you will find that there are many a map to choose from, as well as sample recipes and games. The internet is endless. It will be your friend while you are lesson planning abroad, so you might as well take full advantage of it. The only thing that I suggest bringing with you because it is a great thing to have in person is currency from your home country. I suggest bringing one of all the basics. For example, being from the United States, you could bring one penny, one nickel, one dime, one quarter, one one dollar bill, one five dollar, one ten dollar, and one twenty dollar. I wouldn’t bring any more than that. That way you have example currency, and you’ll have money ready available when you fly back home.
  2. You won’t be setting yourself up for lesson plans that may or may not happen.  I would highly suggest preparing a PowerPoint of your family as well as an ”about me” section because most of your classes will want to get to know you. However, bringing other stuff from home means that you might feel like you absolutely have to use all of those things that you brought in a lesson plan, but it’s extremely possible that you won’t. The reason being that you will need to go with the flow of the classroom, the students, and the teachers. Some teachers will have you plan lessons. That is true, but some teachers may plan the lessons for you or only have you assist in the classroom. So, you can never be too sure which classroom needs what. It also means that teachers may not necessarily want to use all of your lesson plan ideas depending on what the students are currently learning in the classroom. It may also be possible that what you have planned may be too difficult for the students. You will not know the level of English (or other language, i.e. German, Spanish, Arabic, etc.) until you get there and start working with them. I had many lesson plan ideas that I didn’t use because they ended up not being able to work for the students. Something else to keep in mind as well is the fact that you will be jumping into the middle of the year. Most contracts don’t start until October 1st, which means that most schools will have already been in session for a least a month if not a month and a half. That means they are already well into the school year and well in the middle of curriculum.
  3. You will give yourself the opportunity to allow the teachers/students to choose. When I was an assistant, I was very much surprised by what interested the teachers and the students. I definitely went into my job thinking that I would teach about certain things that I thought would’ve been good for my students to learn about my native language and culture. However, you have to know that what you may see as important may not be the same thing. Little every day things might not cross your mind as important to teach about, whereas one of the teachers with whom you work may want you to prepare a lesson on what your daily life in your home country is like. If you don’t come with preconceived notions about what you would like to teach your students, then you will be able to open yourself up to what they are interested in learning about. There are so many things that I would not have taught my students if they had not asked to learn about it, and I feel as though they were generally more likely to be engaged and to remember what I was teaching them because it was actually something that interested them.

As opposed to not bringing certain things, there are, of course, a few things that you should bring with you to France to use in the French classroom.

Just to reiterate:

  1. Bringing some currency is really great for the students to learn a bit about your country. Plus, it’s always fun to see their reactions to the differences in currency.
  2. Bringing pictures on your computer/on an external hard drive. Having pictures to show your students is extremely important, however, you don’t want to bring the hard copies because they can weigh down your suitcases and increase the risk of losing them. You are most likely going to bring a laptop or a tablet with you to France anyways. You might as well take advantage of that.

Other things you should bring with you:

  1. Comfortable clothing. Most teachers wear jeans and nice button downs or blouses/cardigans while they teach in France. I showed up the first day to teach in black pants, high-heeled booties, a nice blouse, a blazer, and with my makeup and my hair completely done, because that’s what would be expected in the States, but I felt way over dressed and definitely felt as though I stuck out. French teachers dress fairly casually. So fit in and do the same.
  2. With the mindset of not speaking French to your students. If your students know that you can speak French and if you willingly speak French to them, then they will never listen to anything you have to say in your native language. They will be less encouraged to speak the language they are learning as well as less motivated to improve in their speaking and listening skills in that language, because they will always be expecting you to just tell them what’s going on in French. Do not allow this to happen. From day 1 you should speak in your native language always.
  3. With an open mind. It’s good to have expectations. That’s how we create our goals. However, my advice to you is not to have too many expectations about what you will be teaching, what level of language your students have, that the teachers with whom you will work with will understand the way you work and will go along with that, that the teachers will completely understand you, or that your students will love to have you there. If I listed how many times I was thrown various curve balls from various directions while teaching in France, this post would be way too long. However, if you go in with an open mind, with the intent of learning all that you can about the local culture and how French schools operate, I guarantee that you will feel less frustrated at the beginning and will probably feel more accomplished more quickly. I didn’t start feeling like I was accomplishing anything until January because I struggled with adjusting to the differences in communication and how French schools operate.
  4. With the intent to communicate in all situations. The biggest way that you can work through cultural differences of communication is to be open to communicating. If you do not understand what a specific teacher expects of you, do not be afraid to ask. You might feel embarrassed or like a fool for asking, but if you never ask, you’ll never know and then you will keep looking like a fool. The same goes for letting the teachers know how you teach or how you communicate. How are the teachers supposed to support you if they have no idea how? You must be direct and open about what personal expectations you have as well. You should also communicate if you are unable to get through to a specific student. It’s possible that the teacher has some tricks for you to use. You should also communicate when things are going well for you so that you will give both your students and the teachers with whom you work with some encouragement, because let’s face it, about half the time the teachers with whom you will be working won’t have any idea what’s going on either. Most teachers will have no idea how to use a teaching assistant in the classroom. Being open in communicating 100% of the time is highly important.

Knowing what to bring and what not to bring with you to teach in France can be stressful and quite intimidating. You will be trying to complete a job successfully in a completely different culture, which can be rather difficult some of the time. That’s why I hope this list is helpful. Just remember the most important: try not to stress too much. Every year thousands of assistants do this exact thing and come out the other end not only having survived but also feeling immensely accomplished in the French classroom. I have faith that you will as well. So, good luck!

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