Hindsight is 20/20: Cultural Expectations vs. Reality in the French Classroom

I want to share with you some tidbits, some anecdotes about how my first few weeks working as an English Teaching Assistant in France was quite the struggle because I went to France expecting for things to go the way that they would have in the United States and based on what I thought I knew about the French culture.

My first few weeks in France were amazing. I was back in my second home, rediscovering it, and getting high off all the beautiful architecture, the prospect of discovering a new city, and meeting new friends. However, I had forgotten one important fact: that I was truly in a different country, surrounded by locals, whose expectations of communication, perception of language and communication, and of how life in general works were completely different from my own.

If you are going to be a language assistant in France, you will have the possibility of being in up to three different French schools.

First mistake that I made that you should avoid – assuming that all of your schools will relay information the exact same way and the way in which you would in your home culture. You should have a main school that will be listed in your contract (it’s usually the first school listed in your contract.) With my first school, I was blessed enough to have a person that was in charge of helping me through the process of the program as well as adjusting to the new city and navigating through all of the legal shenanigans. This was glorious and the main reason as to why moving to France was a lot easier than it probably could’ve been, having had help from locals. However, my mistake was in assuming that my second school was going to contact me the same way that my first school had (and assuming all of my encounters once I got to France would be the same way). I assumed until the last minute they were going to contact me about what sort of classes I should expect to be assisting in, when I should arrive at the school, what documents I needed to bring with me or fill out, etc. etc.

However, I found that the date of the start of my contract was getting closer and closer and that my arrival in France was only shortly before the start date of my contract, and I had yet to receive anything from my second school. My mistake lied in the fact that I was assuming that the school was going to contact me themselves, that they were just going to hand me all of the information that I needed. In the United States, when starting a new job or when starting up school, we tend to go in with the expectation that we will be given all the information that we need to survive in said new job or new school, because we are a culture of explicit information. This is definitely not as true in the French culture. They are much more of a culture of implicit information. Whereas in the States we tend to assume that we will be given the information right away, in France they assume that we don’t need/already have said information if we don’t ask for it, at least that was what I personally experienced while living in France.

So, having made this mistake of assuming that my second school was going to communicate with me the way that I would’ve is no way to go about the start of your adventure in France, and it caused me to have to scramble at the last minute to email them at the last minute and to just show up on the first day of my contract, looking like a deer in the headlights just expecting them to welcome me with everything. Instead, I showed up, and they only realized who I was after I introduced myself and referenced the email I had sent them.

So, how to avoid such an embarrassing and stressful situation: 

  1. Be proactive: Always assume that everything is your responsibility. Yes, you will have a contact person that is in charge of helping you adjust, but don’t assume that they are just going to handle everything.
  2. Do your research: Research how businesses and schools run differently and how the French communicate differently compared to your home culture. I failed to do proper research before I went to France because I had lived there before, but studying abroad through an American program in France versus actually working in the French culture are two complete different things. Don’t assume like you know everything like I did. You will find that with that attitude you will fail, and sometimes it will be awkward and embarrassing. (Honestly you will fail multiple times during your time in France, but you are more likely to fail less if you properly prepare yourself).
  3. Take the initiative: If you are unsure of something, take the initiative to find out. Ask questions. They will know that you are from a different country and that you can’t possibly know everything that there is to know about their culture. Plus, think of it as a learning opportunity for you. You are a student in this situation just as much as your students are. Plus, the upside is that the French are very blunt and honest people. This may seem harsh to some people at first, but for them it’s how they help you to succeed. View it as such.

Second mistake that I made that you should avoid – assuming that your students will understand your dialect. The one advantage that I had to being an American was the fact that many of my students watch different American TV series and movies, however, I assumed too much that they would know how to decipher my accent and my dialect. They may watch those, but let’s be honest, they are still very much learning. I cannot count on my hands the amount of times that I used an idiom or a slang word when talking with my students and then receiving blank and confused stares back, leaving me feeling embarrassed and feeling at a loss for what to do. I also failed to think about the fact that they learn academic British English in the classroom. Though it’s important for students to learn different dialects in any given language, me failing to take that into account led to many confusing students and many rough lessons.

So, how to avoid such a mistake: 

  1. Take care of being aware of what you say around your students: Though you will most likely be teaching in your native language (unless you are in lower elementary then you will most likely teach half in French/half in your native language), you need to be aware that you need to speak more of your academic language, at least to start. This will help in avoiding blank stares and confusion.
  2. Ask students questions first: It is very possible that you will come across words or phrases that are native to your dialect/language that are not academic when you start doing lesson plans. You can either try to avoid those altogether, or you can use it as a teaching opportunity. Don’t assume that your students will know, but instead, ask them if they’ve ever heard that phrase or word. Then, if not, ask them what they think it means. Have them think based on context or based on the roots of the words. (Though to be honest, if you are working in elementary or lower middle school, such phrases might be best to avoid because their level of English might not be high enough to understand). Additionally by asking your students questions first, you can do two things: gauge their level in the language and help them to take responsibility for their own learning, which will help them in learning the language in the long run. Just don’t flood your lesson plans with them. This can overwhelm them and ruin your lesson plan. That I have definitely done as well.
  3. Slow down your speaking and repeat yourself if need be: Yes, you should most definitely teach in your native language. It is very vital to your students’ learning of the language, however, you must still remember that they are not native speakers. They most likely will not be able to keep up with you at your normal pace of speaking. Slow down your speed of speaking and repeat yourself if need be. I made the mistake of speaking how I would speak to my friends and my family here at home. It made it extremely difficult for my students to understand me, especially because I have an accent specific to my state that they had never encountered before.

Third mistake that I made that you should avoid – Assuming that all of your students’ level of English will be both the same and rather advanced. Now, this probably does not apply as much to elementary or lower middle school, but I taught mostly high school students. My mistake was that I assumed that because French students start learning English in lower elementary that all of my students would be highly advanced in their level of English. I also assumed that their English would be much more advanced than my French had been at their age because they start learning at a young age, unlike in the United States. This could not be furthest from the truth. Though I had a handful of students whose English was quite advanced, most of my students were of average or of low English speaking and listening skills. This made adjusting my lesson plans very difficult in the beginning of my assistantship.

How to avoid this mistake:

  1. Ask questions: Ask the teachers with whom you’ll be working about what level of speaking and listening skills you should expect your students to have. You should also ask questions about what kind of grammar and vocabulary the students are learning or how the teachers go about teaching the students the language. Do they teach through real-life examples? Do they use grammar lessons? What sort of themes do they use? Are the students and the teacher open to some of your ideas?
  2. Communicate your ideas with the teachers with whom you’re working: If you have a lesson plan idea and you are unsure of how to go about it or what you should expect from your students, ask the teacher of that particular classroom. Ask for his/her opinion on the idea, how it might go over with the students. Again, this is a time for you to learn as well.
  3. Communicate with your students: Asking your students their opinion or about their understanding of certain lessons or activities can really help both you and your students in understanding how to alternate your lesson plans or improve in the way in which you teach. Did they enjoy the activity? Did it help them in their understanding of the ideas or new vocabulary/grammar? Is their something they did not understand or was too difficult for them? Do you need to teach the same subject again with a different activity? Give them the opportunity to have a say in their learning. This also helps to build rapport with your students, which will aide in their learning in the long run. They will start to trust you and will actually be interested in what you have to teach them.

 

I can say with confidence that the most important thing that I learned while I was living and teaching in France was that communication is key. I accepted that I was still very new in the understanding of the culture and in teaching, so I asked questions endlessly, even if I felt as though they were stupid questions. I feel as though I am a better teacher and as though I better understand the French language and culture because I never stopped asking questions and trying new things. Another plus is that I feel as though I understand my own language and culture better because I had to analyze everything that I was saying and teaching.

Always remember that you are a student yourself. Prepare yourself as best as you can for all of the possible obstacles that you might encounter, but embrace the ones for which you aren’t prepared. These are the ones that are going to help you grow.

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