Many young English speaking expats fantasize about teaching English in Europe. Mary Zawacki is currently teaching English through the French Ministry of Education, a program that hires approximately 1,200 Americans annually to work as Language Assistants throughout France. Mary is a 22 year old woman from New York, who graduated SUNY New Paltz in 2009.
Be aware that although this is an English-teaching position, you really are a Language Assistant: “This means that we’re generally NOT the principle English teacher for students, except in some primary school cases. Generally, we ‘assist’ the teachers, and do whatever they want us to do. This can mean meeting with students one-on-one to help them prepare for the Baccalaureate, taking larger groups of up to 10-12 kids and doing oral activities with them, or taking small groups and having debates, discussions or doing role plays. I think the basic role of the assistant is to get the kids TALKING, and to teach them a little bit about American culture.”
Mary actually did not have to go through the visa process, because she is a dual US and Irish citizen. However, she has heard stories about how it is difficult for non-EU nationals. She did not have to get certified for her position. She had no teaching experience, and missed the training session because the train workers were on strike, so ended up having to learn everything first hand.
She explains that the French Ministry of Education gives you a list of priorities, but does not always grant you what you want. Mary ended up being placed in Jonzac, a small rural town that is about an hour north of Bordeaux, and one hour from the Atlantic coast. She says that the students there are well behaved. Many people seek to teach English in Paris, but Mary thinks about the situation realistically: “I can’t imagine being there. It’s so expensive and more likely than not you’re placed in a Parisian suburb, where it can be dangerous, and the kids not well behaved.”
Mary describes Jonzac as a typical, self-contained town with no need for suburban sprawl. The town is not full of too many resources: “All we have here is a big grocery store right on the edge of the town. There’s little shops for bread, meat, books, and clothes, a central church, a central ‘chateau’ and a market with fresh food twice a week. It has a movie theater which is great, several restaurants, and two gyms which hold clubs like rock climbing and badminton. We also have a giant indoor swimming pool and thermal springs, which attract a lot tourists during the summer. Jonzac is really cute and French, I think. There’s actually a small population of English expats living here, but I’ve yet to meet any of them. I’ve only encountered one other American, an elderly lady.”
She has an interesting living situation, in which she gets a certain amount of money each month, as well as a free apartment at the high school. During the week, two other tenants live there, but on weekends, she is all alone.
Though she doesn’t have a car, she claims that the public transit system in France is fast, clean and cheap. The problems are that the workers go on strike pretty often, and that the trains sometimes show up late. About the food, Mary says she loves being able to get fresh bread daily, and has access to a great selection of cheese and wine. She has found some problems with eating out at restaurants, since she does not like to eat meat other than chicken. Most of the traditional French meals consist of rabbit, duck or beef, so she finds herself eating at Italian and Chinese places. She usually just prepares her own food at home.
In terms of learning French, Mary says that there is a difference between learning it at school and learning “real” French. She has learned that French people love swearing, and you’ll have to learn all sorts of swear words to actually become fluent in a practical manner. The grammatical structures and verb conjugations from school are a base for learning the language, but you must actually speak it with French people to claim that you speak French.
Of course there are stereotypes that others think about Americans. One stereotype is the misconception about guns and gun laws: “They really think all Americans have a gun, or have seen someone get shot. It’s ridiculous because the only people I know with guns are hunters, and there’s a ton of hunters here in France, so it’s not so different.”
She has also discovered the stereotype that French students think that Americans eat McDonald’s every day, which is certainly not true: “I did a debate on American imperialism and was trying to remain impartial, but the kids kept saying ‘We don’t want to be like Americans and eat MacDO every day!’” Some of the positive stereotypes that the French students think of Americans is that they work hard and are creative people.
Mary recommends her experience of teaching in Europe to others: “I think it’s an excellent experience. If you want to be a teacher, there’s no better way to learn than to try it out in a different country. If you don’t want to be a teacher (and I don’t) it’s an excellent opportunity to learn about a different culture, language, country and above all yourself.”
About teaching in France, she warns that you should “Be prepared to be placed anywhere, teaching anyone. I was expecting a big city, and ended up in a small cow town. I wanted to teach little kids and am now teaching middle and high schoolers.”
She also claims that being an expat has made her realize important factors about being a US citizen: “The longer you are away from the US, the more you see what an American you really are. I’m not someone who considers myself particularly patriotic or ‘American’ but after living in France, I’ve realized that I really am American, and despite the US’s many problems, it’s a great place to live.”