Not only do you need to do a bit of research on how the French school system works and preparing yourself mentally before you start working in the classroom, you also need to keep in mind that as a language assistant, you will need to access tools and materials so that you can probably teach and get involved with your lessons.
In my first few weeks as a teaching assistant, there were so many awkward situations and struggles that I experienced simply because I assumed either that people would tell me the important information that I would need to know or assumed that because I was only an assistant that I wasn’t allowed access to certain tools, such as the computers/copy machine and having access to the classrooms when I needed them. This led me to having to borrow keys from fellow teachers because I assumed that I wasn’t allowed to have keys to the classrooms or having to borrow other teachers’ pass codes to the computer because no one told me that I had my own personal code or that I was even allowed to have one. Again, this led to many awkward situations. So, as a language assistant, you should be prepared to just simply ask for things and consider getting access to certain things so as to avoid embarrassing and awkward situations. If the answer is no, at least you know the answer and you don’t have to always deal without something that you could potentially use or with being unsure.
So, it is my advice to you to ask for the following if you aren’t old upfront when you first start teaching.
1. Ask to make sure that you will have your own personal mailbox/locker
This is extremely important because this is how many documents, especially very important legal documents, are going to come to you, such as your pay stubs and your Sécu information. No one told me that I had my own personal mailbox, and because no one told me, I assumed that I wasn’t going to have one until I asked for a personal login to the computers. The secretary told me that all of my codes were in my mailbox. I was not told this information until I explicitly asked for it, and this was about 4 weeks into my teaching contract. I was annoyed and embarrassed because up until that point I was using other teachers’ access codes to the computers and printers.
2. Ask if it’s possible for you to have a key to the classrooms
This mostly applies to assistants who are teaching middle school and high school, but it is important information. Many of the teachers wanted me to take half the class on my own. Every single time for about 5 weeks, I had to ask to borrow a key from one of the teachers because no one told me that I was able to have one. I finally found out because I was tired of feeling awkward and just simply asked. The secretary was very confused as to why I hadn’t had one yet. All I needed to do was ask.
3. Ask if you will have a personal login and code for the computers/printers/copiers
This is important because you will want to print documents off for your personal lessons, and other teachers will eventually get tired of you always asking for their codes, because most of the time, each teacher has a daily/weekly limit on how many documents they can print. France is very environmentally friendly.
4. Ask if you will be required to take attendance of the students/how to go about doing that.
The schools in which I worked had a specific program that they used to take attendance of their classes. This same program was also a way to see which students were in your classes, as well as the classrooms in which you would be meeting your classes. Knowing which rooms you are going to be meeting in is very helpful, as sometimes it can change depending on which week you are on (as many French high schools are on a two-week schedule), as well as whether or not there is testing going on (the practice BAC was going on towards the end of my contract, and this changed which rooms we were meeting in).
5. Ask what is the appropriate action to take if you are in a classroom by yourself and a student displays disrespectful behavior.
I had a student in one of my classes flat out disrespect me in front of the entire class. He argued with me for half the class, making me waste half of the class time trying to regain control of the situation because I had no idea what it was in my power to do in terms of classroom management and/or punishment. Could I kick him out? Was I supposed to tell the teacher? Did I have to report him? Etc. You need to know what is the proper process for such things. Many times students will also have what looks to be like a planner but is actually a behavior planner of sorts, in which teachers can write about students behavior to their parents from missing homework to class disruption. This is called a ”carnet.” You need to note if you are permitted to write in that yourself or if you need to take a specific student’s carnet and have the teacher write in it. The latter is usually what most schools require. You can take the student’s carnet but have the teacher write in it after you report to him/her about what happened in the classroom.
6. Ask what you need to do if you are sick or know that you are going to be absent
I had to miss a day of courses because of my doctor appointment required for the validation of my visa. I almost debated just emailing the teacher with whom I worked with the day before that I wouldn’t be there the next day. Instead, though, I told her a week in advance, which is how I found out that I had to fill out an absence sheet, stating why I was going to be absent that day and then had to have it approved. Now, that specific doctor appointment, because it was required for the validation of my visa, was approved. However, I wouldn’t have known that an approval was required if I hadn’t said anything a week in advance. With being sick, you aren’t going to have a week’s notice, so it’s best just to know when you first start your contract what the protocols are so as not to be caught by surprise and so as to be prepared.
7. Ask if you will have a school email address and how to access it
At my first stage d’accueil, we were told that as assistants we would have a school email address, however, I was not shown or told how to access my email until a few weeks into my contract, and even though I never had any students email me, I did have some important information from the school sent to me through this email.
8. Ask if someone can give you a tour of the school or give you a map of the school
You don’t want to be lost on your first day of classes. That would just be embarrassing. It will also help you in case a class gets moved to a different classroom for any particular reason.
9. Lastly, ask how to use the equipment, if you are unsure
I know how to use a copier, but because the ones in the high school in which I worked were slightly different and all in French, I had trouble using them the first few times. So, I finally just got up the courage to ask a fellow teacher. I felt really stupid and embarrassed, but they actually were glad that I asked. Not only do they want to help you adjust, but the French are very open to correction and improvement. For them, they see correcting someone as helping them succeed. You should view it as such. So, don’t be ashamed to ask questions if you are unsure how to operate anything, whether it’s the copy machines, the computers, or even the equipment in the classrooms, especially because you will need to know how to use all of them to do your job successfully.
Asking questions can seem quite intimidating, especially because it might make you feel ignorant or stupid. However, in my opinion, it’s always best to just be prepared by asking what you may feel are stupid questions than to feel even more stupid and embarrassed by having a situation come up that you are unsure about how to go about handling. Plus, by asking many questions, you will be showing an interest in your work, an interest in performing your job well, in getting to know your schools’ and France’s culture, and in practicing using the French language.
These small, logistical things may not seem important at the beginning, but you cannot hope to function properly in the French classroom without them.
There are no such thing as stupid questions when you are adjusting to a new culture.
Good luck and bisous!