TEFL Success Stories – Part 12

France – Erin

I’ve spent the last year teaching English in France in two different areas: general English in a public high school and business English to company employees. Of all the countries in Europe, France unfortunately ranks as one of the worst in foreign language learning. The Ministry of Education has only recently awakened to the realization that speaking and listening skills are a necessary component of a foreign language, but they still play a secondary role to reading and writing. As a result, a French student studies English for 7 years without really being able to communicate in it.

I first served as a teaching assistant in the countryside, brought over by the French government to encourage the students to speak English and to make it fun. Basically, the teacher was responsible for the curriculum and grammar – and then I worked with individual groups of students every week to help them take the grammar and vocabulary that they’d been learning in class and make them use it orally. I thoroughly enjoyed it and the students did too because they got to relate English to their lives. Plus, they discovered that if they wanted to hear about the United States from a real American, they had to figure out a way to put a sentence together – it was a motivator.

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In general, the teaching style in France is fairly strict and rigid. Teachers scold their students if they get an answer wrong and most classes are conducted lecture-style where the teacher speaks and the students take notes. If a student speaks, it’s usually to answer a question, give a summary of an article, or give a description of a picture – and topics remain intellectual. There are few roleplays, pairwork or games. So the students loved having a change of pace and the chance to do something ‘non-intellectual’ because they were after all high school kids. The problem really is the way teachers are trained to teach, which is influenced by a curriculum that places heavy emphasis on writing and reading.

The particular program that I did, the ‘teaching assistantship’ program. This is one that I highly recommend for people who want to live in France for seven months without the painful process of trying to find a job in France (which I’ll get to later), or who want to get their feet wet in teaching. It requires no prior teaching experience and only a moderate level in French.

If you want to wing it on your own in France, you’re in for a challenge. Unless you’re an EU citizen, you’ll face a very tough time getting a school or a company to sponsor you for a work permit. Currently France has something like a 10% unemployment rate, and it legally has to give priority for any job to an EU citizen. Basically, if the government sees any justifiable reason why an EU citizen can do the job you want, you’ll probably be denied a work permit. That is, if you can find an organization to sponsor this permit, which costs them money. (As an EU citizen, you’ll have your pick of private language schools or you can do freelance work without having to worry about residency issues.)

Having said that, it is possible to get a teaching job in France as a non-EU citizen, just very, very hard and it takes dedication. What I did to find my current job teaching in a financial consulting company was to convince the Chairman of the company that he needed in-house English instruction. This will obviously work better with companies that are international or planning to go international in the near future. The other alternative is to try to find a private language school to hire you (in which case they’ll definitely require some kind of certification and/or experience). The third option, to work as a full-time teacher in a public school, generally takes years of education in the French system and is off-limits to non-EU citizens.

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In terms of the differences between teaching high school students and employees in their 20s, I found it much easier to teach adults. There is a difference in level obviously, but the biggest difference is in motivation. Employees in a company generally realize that they need English in their jobs and so they make an effort to speak and ask questions and do their homework. Right now I’m teaching a range of employees, from financial consultants to salespeople, and even if they don’t use English in their daily jobs, they recognize that being able to speak English will help them land future jobs.

I would recommend France as a place to spend a couple of months teaching, if you want to try it out through the assistantship program. Otherwise, you’ll need a certification and/or experience (and some persistence if you’re not European) to get something more permanent.

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