The Downside of TAPIF- Losing My Teaching Skills

A few weeks ago, I was sitting with my roommates  in the salon and reflecting on my first six months of teaching at the international bilingual school. I reluctantly expressed the frustrations I was having with myself– the difficulties I was having aligning standards / objectives, finding my niche with classroom management, time management and giving quality homework, planning a solid unit and curriculum, amongst other things. I said that I don’t remember it being quite this difficult– even though I have been teaching for nearly four years, I felt like a brand-new, inexperienced teacher all over again. One of my roommates is also a past TAPIF-er and current lectrice, as well as a certified teacher in the USA, with a few years of teaching experience under her belt. I asked her, a bit hesitantly, if she felt she had actually lost some of her teaching skills since coming to teach in France. She responded, “Yes.”

Although I do not deny that sometimes a school placement and living situation during TAPIF can either make or break an experience, I also sincerely believe that for the most part, TAPIF is what you make of it. If you go in with an open mind, a positive attitude, zero expectations, and a bit of background knowledge in regards to the bureaucracy and administration BS, you can really get a lot out of the program. I went in to TAPIF with the goals of improving my French, traveling as much as I could, and learning about the French Education system. As a certified teacher I was not too worried about my teaching experience– I was newly certified, but I had training. Of course, I learned a lot during my TAPIF year; I had never taught BTS before, and was forced to learn about electricity, machines, new technology, and teach that in English. However, I had to adjust to the role of an assistant— seeing students only once every other week and not really being able to do anything continuous with them; seeing one student at a time and working on one-on-one exam preparation. It forced me to be creative with my lessons– to have something concrete and to the point, as well as the ability to differentiate and cater a lesson to a bunch of different classes with varying levels. However, I was not grading assessments or measuring my students’ progress on a formal or summative level. I wasn’t building curriculum or aligning state standards or setting long-term goals. If I had a problem with classroom management, I sent the students back to their teacher. I wasn’t being evaluated for a pay raise or given opportunities for professional development. If all else failed, I could bring a game or set up YouTube and bullshit my way through a 55 minute lesson, and that was okay because I  wasn’t really held accountable for my teaching. I didn’t really have to push myself if I didn’t want to.

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American Day at school

When I was hired as a lectrice, I was suddenly required to use a set of very different teaching skills. My BTS experience actually proved itself useful, as I was now teaching at the university level. I also suddenly found myself teaching Business English, to students just two years my junior, despite the fact of never having taken a business class in my life. I taught myself about advertising, auditing, business plans, and of course the infamous TOEIC exam, for which a certain is required for engineering students in France. University teaching is (quite obviously) much different than collège and lycée teaching (although I couldn’t have told you that when I started at the international school in September). I had to use my native language but in a very French-style way of teaching, and I never had any classroom management issues because they were university students– if they didn’t want to be there they simply just wouldn’t come to class. My students were mine, but I only saw them once every week for about 1.5 hours at a time. Therefore learning goals and curriculum development were very different from what I was used to: it was very TOEIC-centered, with one or two other assignments mixed in for an overall grade. I learned a lot as a lectrice, and I worked with very talented and committed colleagues, all excellent teachers.

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Students’ Sploosh Project

I’ve learned a lot these past few years in France– including certain teaching skills. But since starting my new position, I’ve had to re-learn many of the things I only had the chance to practice at university, and shortly after. It has been a somewhat frustrating and also humbling experience for me, because they are skills that I know are there–  I know how to do them, how to execute them, but they’ve been buried for so long. Thankfully, skills like those do not just disappear. You may need to put a bit of oil on the hinge (being eaten alive by high school kids is a whole new level of vexation) but they do come back.  Now that I’m beginning to feel more established at my new school, I’ve finally taken to updating and upgrading my Wisconsin Teaching License, a three-year journey which will upgrade me from “initial” to “professional”. In the meantime, I look forward to continue growing and learning and perfecting the skills I have.

Have you felt the frustrations of losing skills when taking time away from your career (or just filtering it in a new direction?)

Bisous,

Dana

17 thoughts on “The Downside of TAPIF- Losing My Teaching Skills

  1. Hi Dana,
    I’ve just discovered your blog and it’s a lifesaver. Your posts are really informative, interesting, and useful.
    I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about working as a lecteur. I’m fortunate to have found employment as a lecteur in Nancy starting from September, through being nominated by my university back in England (we’re lucky to have a sort of ‘lecteur exchange agreement’ for students of French).
    I’ve wanted to work as a lecteur for years, as teaching English to adults is a career path I have been seriously considering for a number of years now. However, despite all previous and current lecteurs telling me that I will be okay, I am really concerned that I won’t be able to do my job effectively due to a number of factors. This includes a lack of teaching experience, and no qualifications such as CELTA etc. I also lack confidence in my own language skills.
    I’ve been trying to prepare as thoroughly as possible, such as by practising my French and re-studying the basics of English grammar. I’m also considering shadowing a few ESOL classes in order to improve my knowledge of ESOL teaching methods. However, I still believe I’m going to come across as an incompetent, unprofessional idiot.
    I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about the content of the classes you had to teach: did you find having a solid base in English grammar a necessity? Or was it mainly conversation based?
    Sorry for writing so much, but it would be great to have your opinion on the matter. Feel free to ignore if I’m being too intrusive.
    Thank you
    Chris 🙂

    1. Hi Chris, congrats on the job offer! I remember feeling the same way despite having some experience; it’s best to remember that as a native speaker you know more than they do, in any case. I taught business English and had never taken a business class in my life; thankfully I had wonderful and supportive colleagues so I was able to ease into the transition. My advice for you would be to find out if you need to teach them an exam : ie: the TOEIC- and then if you do, learn about the exam yourself so you can properly teach it to them– mostly it will be techniques and practice tests, etc…

      Additionally, try to see if you need to follow a specific curriculum or if you’re free to do you own things… perhaps the students have some interests or things they’d like to learn? Then come up with a plan and work backwards. Keep it simple but go deep. For the semester, decide the big topics you’d like to teach; ie: CVs / Cover Letters ; interviewing; negotiating skills; presentations, etc. and then decide how long you will spend on these skills and how they will be assessed at the end: what skills do you want them to learn? Then, the individual lessons will come.

      I got by with the grammar I learned, but remember that doing grammar on paper, while helpful to know for the TOEIC, isn’t going to be the most engaging way to learn or teach.

      If it’s not business English related, it’s much more open and you can do more current topics to keep them engaged. Again, ask them about their interests… most popular things include climate change, current events / politics, social progress, even literature… choose a book to read! The main things to remember is to have clear objectives and you’ll be great. Classroom management is half the battle.

      Good luck!

      Dana

  2. I was pretty lucky and had a relatively great school when I did TAPIF, but the students didn’t see me as a real teacher and it was frustrating to feel like I had no impact. I WISH some of my students had chosen not to come to class when I was a lectrice — they had to attend to pass classes and to get their bourse if they had one. Classroom management was the worst part of the job for me. I’m glad you have a chance to put your teaching training and skills back into practice with this job — it must be great to feel like you’re building something permanent now.

    1. That’s super interesting- our bourse kids would show up for the exam and that’s about it! Overall good experience but I struggle with the next steps here.

  3. It’s interesting to read about your different teaching experiences.

    I felt great about what I could do with my classes at the lycée, but I was supposed to spend 3 hours at the collège each week too. My lycée contact teacher was awesome who put together a good schedule for me. My collège contact teacher barely stayed in touch with me.

    I had one group of students every single week. The class was an elective, English drama, so the kids actually wanted to learn English. I worked with two English teachers (including my contact teacher) and about forty students.

    I had another group on a three-week rotation. Once a week I took a third of the class. Many of these students overlapped with the drama class, so I really had the chance to get to know them and teach them English. I even met up with my best (and favorite) student a few months ago!

    1. That’s amazing that you got to teach an elective and see students consistently. It helps a lot when your contact teachers are available and care- I had a mostly good experience with that and it sounds like you did too. It’s unfortunate to think we are the lucky ones!

  4. I was very frustrated by my experience in TAPIF as well–the lack of guidance, classes being cancelled on an almost weekly basis, only seeing the same group of students about once every 8 weeks. I too felt like I was really there just so that the school could say they had an assistant, rather than because they actually wanted me to teach anything. And oh god, the classroom management with my BTS students who had ZERO desire to learn English was awful…fistfights and candy getting thrown at me when my back was turned writing on the board, such a nightmare! I made it through, but it was a tough year, and very different from the experiences I had doing roughly the same job in Spain!

    Now that I’m a “real” teacher it’s amazing how different any of that was from what I do on a daily basis here. I think I was skill-building during those years in that I learned a lot of tricks to get kids to listen and practiced different games and activities that cross over into teaching languages other than English, but I wish I would have had more ability to work on classroom management and curriculum design. I also wish I would have known more about what I was getting myself into, or had any say about whether I would be teaching young kids or older ones. I wish the contract would have been for at least a full school year (or that we would have been able to renew for a second one), and that we would have been earning enough money to live on in a very expensive city. But yes, as far as being an opportunity to live in France for a year, it was what I had been looking for!

    1. The thing I struggle with most now is curriculum design- I hope I get there as I get more experience with teaching ! I had minimal issues with classroom management as an assistant but it’s worse now as a teacher as I have no to go to… consistency with students, I feel you there! Thanks for your comment!

  5. I think TAPIF could benefit from more standardization; there’s no clear idea of what an assistant actually does and everyone’s experience varies. The program is so hit-or-miss, it’s really hard to have any expectations in regards to skill building.
    My friends had a more consistent presence in their classes, mostly working at one school and seeing classes twice a week, or every week. My time was split between three schools. I bounced from class to class, never knowing the students, and not having my schedule until the day I was meant to teach. It was nearly impossible to lesson plan, because I wouldn’t know who I was teaching, and it was also really difficult for me to gauge students’ English because I worked in a collège, lycée, and lycée prof. I also couldn’t build a rapport with the students because I only saw them once a month, if that. The students definitely deserved better, and I wanted a more stable work environment.
    I totally agree with your point about not having expectations for TAPIF, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want to grow as a professional and to continue to hone (or develop) your teaching skills. I think TAPIF has taken on the mentality of the “gap year” program, and it shows: there are people who are serious and try to make the best out of their situation, but there isn’t enough training or support for those participants, and it affects the students.

    1. I absolutely agree with everything you said. 12 hours a week is not a lot and when you’re divided between 3 schools, as you said, it can be soo frustrating– no continuation or ability to develop lessons or build with students because you never see them, the colleagues don’t have their shit together, etc… I feel like there should almost be a better vetting system for schools who want to welcome assistants. I agree with you that TAPIF has a “gap year” mentality. I took it like that but also felt that it fit in with my career path as a teacher… and I agree that it’s totally a way to develop teaching skills, but sometimes as you said you are unable to due to how the school schedules you or “dicks you around” to be frank and that’s frustrating. There should definitely be more consistency in the programme; I’m not sure if it’s getting better or worse, or if some participants require more hand holding (with abundant internet resources you’d think the opposite). thanks for your comment, I’d love to continue this thread! bisous!

      1. Yes to the better vetting system for schools who request assistants. In my experience, I felt there was tension between my schools over my hours. The middle school would never schedule me for the full twelve hours, but then they’d want to schedule me the following week when I was supposed to be at the high school. Then when I worked at the middle school, at least one of my classes would be cancelled. By the end of the semester, I still had not met all of the English students at the collège. I kept asking whether I was having a positive impact on the kids, since they only saw me once or twice over three months. I did have a better experience at the high school, but then again, the lack of notice was frustrating. It seemed that the schools were so concerned about having an assistant for the sake of having an assistant, but they didn’t care whether or not I was effective.
        And I get the gap year mentality– I did TAPIF because I wanted to travel and didn’t have the savings to go to Europe for an extended time period. But I don’t understand the lack of training, especially for a program that doesn’t require teaching experience. I wasn’t expecting to be completely comfortable teaching teenagers, but there were so many things I wish I’d known before starting. I scoured the internet for teaching resources, and while I found good lesson plans, I didn’t find a lot of teaching techniques that seemed appropriate for my role as an assistant. I struggled with classroom management and getting the kids to participate until I expressed frustration to a colleague. He recommended that I let the kids discuss the reading/question/video in pairs before we discussed it in the group. That made total sense to me, but I’d never thought of doing that before because I had no training in teaching.
        I’ve had several friends participate in a similar program in Japan and their experience seems to be better. They had a week long training before teaching, their contracts are an entire year, and they’re treated as professionals. I think they work a lot more hours than TAPIF assistants do, which might explain the training and organization. I’d almost suggest TAPIF increase its contract length, and decrease its number of assistants to ensure that those assistants are a) prepared and committed to living abroad and b) have the proper resources to help the students. But it seems that TAPIF is more concerned about having more assistants than better assistants (and there’s probably some weird French bureaucratic nonsense that makes it more difficult to hire full-time assistants.)

      2. I read your post about quitting TAPIF and I felt so sorry your experience, that sounded awful. I’m sorry that happened to you.

        I agree about more training and longer contracts as well ! Ah, France…

      3. I also think some of the issue is not just unprepared assistants; it’s also schools and French teachers unprepared to support and utilize assistants effectively. The assistant job description we’re all given before the contract starts (and even during the stage!) can be vastly different from its implementation, and there seems to be very little oversight as to how assistants are being put to use. I will say that in my second year, I have seen some efforts to make sure schools know their role as well, but I’m positive this emphasis varies enormously by academie and even circonscription! It seems contradictory that a system that is so bureaucratically centralized would see such a huge array of implementation…

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