In theory you think: working in France, what a dream right? I’d say most people have a good TAPIF experience…I however, had a tough one. I know I know, it’s taken me awhile to talk about this but I definitely was planning on it eventually and I also just needed to get it out of my system.
This is honestly really hard to write about and I even got emotional writing this. I know that a few people who posted about having a bad experience got backlash on the assistant FB group. Something along the lines of “boo hoo, suck it up you’re in France”. However, not every TAPIF experience is a feel-good one. I was never as stressed or depressed as long as I can remember during the program. So don’t be quick to dismiss someone who’s having a difficult time. Another disclaimer: I’m much happier now at my new job in a new city in a new country and overall in a much better place.
What is TAPIF?
For those of you who don’t know TAPIF is a Teaching English Abroad program in France for American and Canadian citizens. It’s a partnership between the French Embassy in D.C. and the French Ministry of Education. This is was the job that brought me to France and what I was doing from September to April.
You’re placed in either an Elementary School or Secondary School (Middle School or High School) in basically in sized city in any part of France that asks for an assistant. The program starts October 1st (although you can arrive a little bit before) and concludes end of April for 7-8ish months of teaching the visa ends in May.
I’ll give a rundown of what the application process is like in a future post and then what the program is actually like and what I thought of it. So if you want to be an assistant and you have more questions let me know and I can make a more in depth post about certain aspects or I would be happy to answer your individual questions. I’m thinking about an individual “Living in France” post. I also have tons of materials and lesson plans I’ll post later.
My honest TAPIF experience in a small French town
Obviously, this isn’t a permanent position and I saw the experience as a stepping stone to see if teaching or TEFL was the thing for me.
Keep in mind that literally every assistant (and there’s 1,000+ of us) has a different experience so if you’re really up for the challenge read more blogs as my experience is definitely not everyone’s.
To give you a little bit of background TAPIF was not my first time in France but actually my second time. I studied abroad 3 years prior in an entirely different city. My time studying abroad was the best of my life. I had a great program, perfect host family in a charming city, friends and support from the university. Plus everything was new and it was my first time in Europe at all so I fell head over heels in love with France. When it came time to think about post-grad plans I knew I wanted to go back.
My second time in France couldn’t have been more different and more opposite. You don’t have much choice over where you’re place or the kind of town and I was placed in a town of about 3,000 people. Mind you it was close to a bigger city but this town didn’t even have a train station only a singular bus stop. Yeah. That’s it. The town had almost no one my age around and all of the other assistants in my academie were pretty far away. All of the assistants buddied up pretty quickly and everyone got close and I found myself wishing that would happen for me.
Expectations vs. Reality
The worst part I guess was the isolation. The feeling that I didn’t belong there was overwhelming. When I was studying in France sure it was tough sometimes being understood but I was kind of looking at France through rose colored glasses at the time. I felt this time that I stuck out like a sore thumb no matter what. I lost all the confidence I had in speaking French quickly and realized how much vocabulary I had lost. Because I was so stressed I didn’t try too hard in that aspect although I still gave myself some grief about it.
I didn’t understand the school system and I felt so lost in that too. Being much younger than most teachers but significantly older than most students. I felt like the other teachers would like be nice but didn’t really want to have anything to do with me. With my colleagues this was an issue too. I was all on my own. I was alone with the students (I taught 11 hours a week so 11 groups, switching every other week so 22 groups of students. 8-18 students per class so like 300-400 students total). And like don’t get me wrong I’ve worked with kids, I’ve been a teaching assistant but being thrown into this was completely overwhelming at first. I asked for directions. I asked for what they wanted me to cover (my English teaching colleagues). And you know what kind of answers I got? “Make them talk” just “work with them” and that they were supposed to tell me what to do after the first break but they never did.
So I eventually learned what worked and did tons of research and many hours creating lessons all on my own that worked. Sometimes they flopped sometimes they were a success. It was nice being able to create and teach what I wanted to do but so much time. Teaching was also incredibly intense and while I didn’t work long hours it sucked the life out of me and all of my energy.
Oh, we forgot you exist and that you don’t automatically know everything
My school was a big part of the issue. On three occasions they switched my classrooms for an entire week or even days and failed to tell me. So at that time I’d have to round up my students and try to find an empty classroom and pray that it wasn’t already taken. So my school basically forgot that I taught there. Every time they did this I had to go in circles and a different office somewhere had forgotten to give me a schedule or they had to make one up.
So in France there are 3 years of high school and I taught at all 3 levels. But even within that the classes all had different levels of English. Some where really advanced and young and some were in their last year and had a difficult time understanding me no matter what I did. There were some specific classes that just didn’t want to listen or be there or didn’t care and also had behavioral issues. Specifically at my orientation they said that I wasn’t supposed to be a disciplinarian but whatever. I was harnessing all of my energy and feeling so feeble like what I did wouldn’t make a difference and it got to the point that every other Friday I’d break down and cry in my empty classroom. Completely defeated. I thought at that point…this is so not normal. In reality I was in so far over my head.
The breaking point
The breaking point was when they said that for leaving early and to still get my full salary I had to make up hours which was fine. The not fine part was they asked me to do a full 9 hour day with no breaks and basically be a substitute teacher and teach full classes (30+ students). I’d never worked with these classes and some where ever middle schoolers. I wasn’t sure what to do at all and on the verge of a mental breakdown I emailed the director of TAPIF. She took care of everything but word got to my school and the principal all of whom were furious with me. I didn’t have the words in French to explain all of the emotions I was feeling but overall a feeling of powerlessness. They said I’d skipped on those days where I had no idea where my classes were or when they changed my schedule without explaining it to me. So I knew I’d never win but just contacted CIEP and was sure to be thoroughly honest about my experience there.
Why didn’t I go to the teachers I worked with? I didn’t feel comfortable raising any concerns to them. Because my school wasn’t good at communicating anyway I knew I’d be forced to even though I wasn’t allowed to be with over 15 students at all it was a break of my contract. As I’d be directly responsible for the students and as I’m not a real teacher that wouldn’t be legal and it would make the school look bad too.
I was kind of in this cloud of depression in a town with very little to do and no one really to confide in or to understand since I was the only assistant at this school. Some schools have many. Another part was I got to live at the school and the apartment was nice and I got to save money. However the screams of those middle schoolers…drove me up the wall. Instead of doing the natural thing like reaching out I just curled more and more inward and pretended like things were okay which they weren’t. But when you’re depressed that the way even though it’s unhealthy that you tend to deal with things. I had lost so much confidence in my abilities and myself that it was hard to pick myself up and keep trying.
A learning experience…that’s for sure
I’m jealous of everyone that had a good experience. I wish it was as good as my study abroad experience and it definitely taught me something’s not all good of course but I suppose every experience can be a learning experience if you make it. Some of my students were amazing and most of them were so kind and funny and they were definitely the best part of the program. I was also lucky enough to get a job opportunity after in which I have a great work environment with great people so it was definitely good to move on after. The French people, fellow assistants and friends I got to know in France also really helped me through. That and the plentiful breaks every couple months. I’m very grateful for all of that. In the end I tried my hardest and I hope I made a positive impact on some kids and taught them some new aspects of American culture if anything.
If you’re in TAPIF and you’re experiencing difficulties know that there are resources and you’re probably not the only one feeling this way. Your feelings are valid. You can contact the director of your program (it differs), the administrators of your academie you’ll meet at orientation, your academie, the CIEP, the secretary of your school, fellow TAPIF-er’s and alumni and so on. Please don’t let me scare you off but above all go into the program with an open mind, ask lots of questions and try your best.