Henry Ravenhall, 2013-2014 in Pau, Bordeaux, France

What do you study at King’s?
French and History BA

Describe your teaching and learning experience
I was working in three collèges (11-15) in a small city in the southwest of France. I taught a variety of classes across all the ages, however I mostly taught quatrième and troisième — the oldest year groups of the collège. I really enjoyed teaching these lessons and I was given a lot of freedom in what I could teach to which students. Unless the teacher told me beforehand that he/she wanted me to tackle a certain subject, I was able to design my lessons with total autonomy.

Fortunately, prior to starting as an ELA, I had received a Cambridge teaching certificate and had about two months’ experience of teaching teenagers — which obviously helped a lot. I’m afraid to say that the training provided by the Ministry of Education in France is sparse and not wholly useful. You will be thrown in straight at the deep end, and expected to teach reasonable lessons to 14-15 students. Moreover, in some schools that my friends worked at, there was an observation week, where the prospective assistant could observe lessons to get an idea of the level, behaviour and teaching style needed for the class. This however was not the case for my three schools, and I felt extremely fortunate that I had previous experience.

The teachers who I worked with were very pleasant and easy to get along with. They were happy to help me and urged me to inform them if I had any problems (I only had a couple throughout my assistantship). I quickly found out that the school did not really provide any teaching resources and most of lessons I taught were crafted from Powerpoint lessons from the internet and the multitude of EFL websites.

Describe your living experience
I rented a studio apartment from one of the Maths teachers at one of the schools. I had arranged to live with an English teacher when I arrived as to search for accommodation before starting work. However, upon arrival, I was immediately informed that the maths teacher had a wonderful city centre apartment just ready to let at a discounted price. I seized the opportunity straight away and it was one of the best decisions I made. Other assistants I knew went into university accommodation and they got to socialise with ERASMUS students and French people our age. Alternatively, some assistants found colocations (flat-shares) with young French people and they found this was a wonderful opportunity to practice their language skills. A few also found apartments to share, and one went to live with a French family.

I don’t know anybody who had a bad living experience, and it depends on what type of person you are and to what extent you want to immerse yourself in the language. In terms of costs, I paid €300 a month, but student accommodation was cheaper. You are also eligible to apply for a French living grant called CAF, which can greatly reduce your monthly bill.

As for food, I mostly cooked my own meals with groceries from a nearby supermarket priced very reasonably. I also cycled in between my schools and rarely took public transport, which kept me fit and active. Therefore I would definitely recommend buying/borrowing a bicycle as soon as you get there.

Describe the weekend/evening activities on offer
There were lots of things to do at the weekend and in the evenings. The great thing about where I was living was the city’s proximity to the Pyrenees and thus the chance to go skiing. This was incredibly affordable and great fun (although relatively painful and mentally scarring for the first few times!)

There was also a fairly exciting nightlife, with a number of local city-centre nightclubs and fantastic bars and restaurants.

We also went to other cities/towns at the weekend to get the real French experience. We visited Bordeaux, Toulouse and Biarritz (all about two hours away by train). Being so close to the Spanish border also meant it was easy to hop across the Pyrenees and visit the Basque country, with San Sebastian a real highlight.

List the top 10 things about your ELA experience

  1. A twelve hour week (as well as generous holidays) gave me extraordinary amounts of free time to socialise, relax and explore!
  2. Immersion into French life
  3. Meeting the other assistants (German, Spanish, American, Chinese) and forming a community with them where French is the common tongue
  4. The weather — 20 degrees in February!
  5. Skiing
  6. Becoming comfortable outside my comfort zone
  7. Picking up the nuances of the French language — stuff you would never learn in a classroom!
  8. Teaching some wonderful enthusiastic students
  9. Drinking wine on Friday in the staffroom with the teachers — mais pourquoi pas!?
  10. Defeating the notoriously difficult French bureaucracy

Describe your reflections on your ELA experience
Basically I would like to say that I had a fantastic time as an ELA and it was an experience I will certainly never forget.

Since I’ve returned to London, I am sad to no longer be in France, but I am sure that it has had a positive effect on my personality, my level of French and my confidence. It also has improved my CV and strengthened my career prospects, if I decide or not to become a teacher.

Some tips:

  1. Don’t be embarrassed by not understanding – make mistakes and people will understand
  2. Live with French people if you can
  3. Befriend your teachers
  4. Be 100% enthusiastic in every lesson — you want your kids to like you and be excited by your lessons
  5. Try to avoid speaking French with the kids! It’s ok to translate bits of vocab on the board (e.g. pomme = apple), but try to avoid giving instructions
  6. Learn your students’ names (as a teacher, I can tell you that this makes a huge difference for classroom management)
  7. Tutor! (You can make a great supplement to your income by tutoring and you get to meet French people) – post an ad on Leboncoin or advertise in the school staffroom

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