TAPIF teaching, part 2: Twelve good classroom behaviors

Following is a list of good classroom behaviors that I have developed during my time as a TAPIF assistant.  People who have EFL teaching experience or a teaching degree will read this list and be like, “Dude, you’ve reinvented the wheel,” but as a complete neophyte to teaching, I figured out each of these items the hard way.  I know that a lot of other assistants are in the same boat, so maybe you other newbies will find something useful here!

  1. The first time you see each class, have them make namecards to put on their desks in front of them.  Ask them to bring these namecards back each time.  I feel like it shows the students more respect when you can use their names as opposed to “Monsieur with glasses” and “Mademoiselle with the scarf” which is what I do most of the time because I didn’t think to do namecards at the beginning of the year.
  1. I often forget to compliment the students because I’m so focused on holding their attention and moving through the activity. Point out when they do things right.  “I really liked the way you said ‘schools’ because you pronounced the S at the end.  A lot of my students forget that!”  It occurred to me to say that in a class last week and the girl who had spoken smiled.  I noticed afterward that the other students made more of an effort to pronounce the final S on plural nouns.
  1. Make them answer questions in full sentences (if they’re capable), not single words. “When was the Montgomery Bus Boycott?” –“The Montgomery Bus Boycott was in 1955.”
  1. Make students read out large numbers—years, populations, number of albums sold, etc. Even high-level students have trouble with numbers.  When I’m giving a presentation of something with lots of numbers in it, I’ll point at random students and have them read out how many people live in LA, or whatever.
  1. Call on students at random. Don’t go through the class left to right, front row to back row.  It does make it harder to remember who has already read a sentence or answered a question, but you’ll just have to deal with that.  Sometimes students will volunteer to read/answer, which I love.
  1. I hate doing this, but sometimes you have to give the disruptive students a disproportionate amount of attention. You can call on them more often and also ask them, “What did your classmate just say?  Were you listening to her?”  When they’ve turned around in their seat to talk to a classmate, say their name (or, let’s be real, “Monsieur in the red shirt”) and have them answer the question you just asked.
  1. Ask a question and THEN choose a student to answer it. That makes them all have to pay attention in case they get called on.
  1. If the students have done a question/answer worksheet in class, have one student read the first question and pick another student to answer him/her. The student who answered reads the next question and picks someone else to answer.  They’ll often choose their friend who isn’t paying attention, which spares you, the teacher, from being the only “policeman” in the room.  This is also a good way to learn the students’ names.
  1. When you notice that many students have trouble with a particular word, have the whole class repeat it after you. For example, a lot of my students have trouble pronouncing “ideas” for some reason.  You can’t make them repeat too many things because they get tired of it quickly (especially the lycéens) but one to three times per lesson works.
  1. Write keywords, new words, and difficult words on the board. Sometimes students will ask you to write a particular word but most of the time they’ll stay silent and accept not knowing.
  1. Are you nervous about standing in front of classes? Try holding a small object in your hand—a whiteboard marker, a pen, your keys.  I don’t know why this works but I feel much better when I’m holding something.  I’m quite sure that the students don’t notice it as a nervous behavior.  They assume that language assistants are Certified 100% Confident Adults anyway so you’d have to mess up pretty badly (perhaps by writing on a Smart Board with a whiteboard marker) to shake that assumption.
  1. Don’t stay behind the teacher’s desk. Stand up.  Walk around the room.  Move closer to students who are engaging in side chatter.  If the students are doing a written exercise, walk around and check on their progress.  You are the teacher and the whole room belongs to you.

Do you have any more tips for good classroom behaviors?  Want to contest any of the items above?  Leave me a comment!

TAPIF teaching, part 1: The schedule

This is Part 1 of the “Do you ever go to work or do you just do paperwork and complain?” series, also known as the “Teaching” series in order to make tagging easier.

You may recall that this year started with me marching into my two schools and asking every adult I found who they were and if they knew anything about what I was supposed to do as a language assistant.  This ended up with someone finding the Lovely Isabelle for me, as she is my contact person at the lycée, which is the main school in charge of me.

Isabelle gave me my schedule and showed me around the lycée.  (Later, another person showed me around the collège.)  I didn’t know it at the time, but almost every piece of information on the schedule was wrong or incomplete: the room numbers, the class start/end times, and the teachers’ names.  I spent weeks hunting down the correct information, during which my schedule continued to change.  I don’t think I’ve gone more than a month without having at least one class changed.

Here is part of the list of classes I’ve seen this year:

Partial class list

The first column is the profs’ names, the second is the class numbers, the third is whatever info I have about the class, and the fourth is how often I need to prepare a new lesson for the class.  I’ve mostly given up on the fourth column.  I have another section in this document where I list each activity I do with each class anyway.  I also have another set of documents containing the different versions of my weekly schedule.

I think my teachers think I’m incompetent because I keep asking them questions like, “Do I take your students for 25 min or 55 min?” and “Is this the class you gave me the worksheets for, or were those for your other class?” and “Are your secondes the ones studying segregation?” and “Remind me, did we say I’d take the new terminales on Tuesday or Wednesday?”  But it’s really impossible to keep all of this information in my head.

How many hours do you work per week?  

How many classes do you teach per day?

What days do you work? 

How many schools do you work at?

How many teachers and classes do you work with?

TAPIF assistants work 12 hrs/wk.  For me, three of those weekly hours are at a middle school and nine are at a high school.  I’m the only assistant at the middle school and the only English assistant at the high school.  I’m working at the same two schools all year, and these schools are fortunately both in Rochefort and very close to each other.  (Working at two or three schools simultaneously is common.  Slightly less common is working at 3-4 schools sequentially over the course of the year.  Schools may not be all in the same town, especially if you’re in a rural area.)

At the very beginning, I had classes on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.  Then one teacher took pity on me and asked some others to move things around so I could have alternate Mondays off for travel.  (The high school has a Week A/Week B schedule.)

I think it’s fairly typical for schools to recognize that TAPIF assistants are here to explore France as well as work, and to try to give us either a Monday or Friday off.  If you give your school a heads up earlier in the summer and explain that you’re going to take université/Master classes at the same time, they may squish all of your TAPIF classes into Mon-Tues-Weds or something like that.  I know one assistant who’s doing a Master this way and another who thought she might take university classes but ended up not doing that (she travels a lot instead).

I work with 11 teachers and about 17 different classes.  My schedule was pretty lumpy before January.  These are the classes I had per day during Week A:  0-4-0-5-3.  During Week B:  1-2-0-5-4.

What is your schedule like now?

Do you have your own classroom?

How many classes have you met?

My schedule is constantly evolving, but at the moment I have 0-4-3-2-2 classes during Week A and 0-2-2-2-5 during Week B.  This is much easier to deal with, and since so many of my classes are new, I can recycle lessons that I created during the fall.

You may notice that I lost a class hour.  This is because that class is off doing internships for the rest of the year, and when I asked what other class I would be switched to, the teacher told me to enjoy the free hour.  Okay then.  I’m fine with that.

No one in the administration has been notified of these class changes.  I recently got a notice in my locker telling me that two of my classes will be in different rooms this week because of the bac blanc (practice tests); one of those classes I haven’t taught in months.

Some assistants have one room that’s “theirs” to take groups of students to.  I have at least eight different rooms.  Each of these rooms has a computer, projector, and whiteboard.  Every time a class changes, the teacher has to find me a classroom that will be unoccupied during that timeslot.  Since these changes aren’t registered, sometimes I arrive and find that the room is in use.  Or I get started teaching and three minutes into class another professor knocks on the door and says that they have class in that room.  This is a very common TAPIF experience.

Like I said, I have about 17 different classes that I see regularly during each 2-week rotation, but by Feb 13 I will have met 29 different classes in total.  This appears to be on the low end for an English-language assistant.  Another Anglophone in Rochefort estimates that she has met 40 classes and another thinks that she has met 60 or 70.  (She has done almost nothing but introduce herself so far this year.  All the children in town know her.  She’s kind of a local celebrity.)

What do you do in these classes?

How many kids do you work with at once?

Aha, the most critical question.  There are two kinds of classes:

–Manon Works with the Teacher in the Teacher’s Classroom

–Manon Takes Some Students to Her Own Classroom

When I work with the teacher—something that happens more at the middle school—the teacher usually prepares the lesson and we teach/help the students together.  Sometimes the teacher asks me to prepare a bit of material (e.g. a list of English idioms) and she provides the context during class.

When I take students on my own, it’s usually each half of the class for 25 min, or half of the class for 55 min (and the next time I see them, the other half for 55 min).  The smallest group I’ve ever had was 4 students and the largest was 18.  Usually it’s around 12 students.

When I take a group on my own, the teacher might give me the same lesson material that he/she is doing with the other half of the class.  But more often, I prepare a slideshow/worksheet/game/activity related to what the students are studying, if I know what that is, or just because I think it’ll be fun and good practice.

There will be a more detailed post later with specific lessons and activities I have done with students.

What information do the teachers give you about the classes?

As little as they can get away with.

They don’t seem to be doing it maliciously.  My teachers are quite nice!  But if I want a class list, the number of the teacher’s classroom, an idea of the students’ level of English, an idea of what the students are currently studying (forget a syllabus, I don’t think any of the teachers use them), or the students’ academic grouping (Euro English, Literature, Technical), I have to ask.  I need all of this information in order to prepare good lessons, deliver them, and keep a list of what I do with each class.

And I have to ask every single week, “Is there anything in particular you want me to do with the next class?”  The teachers either expect me to magically know what the students are studying/can handle, or they really don’t care what I come up with.  Even when I ask, a response could be as vague as, “You’ll have my premières for the second time on Friday.  Teach them something about the Boston Tea Party, or whatever you want.”

It’s incredibly frustrating to try to prepare lessons not knowing if the students can converse well in English or if they struggle to identify simple words.  English ability can vary DRASTICALLY from class to class.  During the first few months, it seemed like all of my lessons were too hard or too easy for the groups they were meant for.  But now, I have a feel for the ability of my usual classes and I’ve gotten better at scaling the difficulty up or down on the fly.

Constantly lacking critical information is another common TAPIF experience.  Most teachers appear not to understand that assistants need this information in order to function.  Or they think that it’s our job to ask first rather than their job to anticipate our needs.  (Even though they need to take our presence into account when they plan their lessons.)  I’ve been wondering all year how much weight I should give to cultural differences when I encounter difficulties like this.

How do you communicate with the teachers?

Most of my teachers don’t communicate well over email or text.  They don’t check email on weekends, they don’t check more than once a day, etc.  And they often don’t know more than four days in advance what they’ll be doing with a particular class.  This doesn’t leave enough time to discuss the next lesson.

My communication with the teachers began to improve in January when I started making more of an effort to hang out in the salle des profs (teachers’ lounge) when I have free time.  (I live very close to my schools, so before I’d just escape back home in between classes.)  Now I see most of the profs every day, we chat, and there are more opportunities to talk about lesson planning.  I don’t use email very much anymore.  I think that my friendships with the professors are improving too because we’re getting to know each other better.

Things that French students say

As of the end of January, I have seen over 500 different students.  I think I can actually recognize most of their faces, but don’t ask me for names.  Most of the teachers haven’t even given me class lists.  The few students I know by name tend to be the best at English and/or the most disruptive.  Here are some examples.

–The joker who walked into class one day and decided to faire la bise with every other student before taking his seat.

–The girl who rushed up to me after class and told me she loved my accent.  (No one has ever said that to a person from my state.)

–The guy who, after an “interview a partner about their favorite vacation” exercise, reported to the class that his friend went on vacation “for ten h’years” to a nearby hamlet, and traveled “by foots because his parents are poor.”  I was so focused on correcting the students’ pronunciation (“ten years”) that it took me a few minutes to realize what he was actually saying.

–His partner reported that on his friend’s vacation, “he become friends with a cow” and “he chase the cow” and “playing football wiz the cow is his favorite sport.”  I couldn’t stop laughing for the rest of the class.

–In one collège class in November, the teacher and I tried to get the students to name the foods in a picture of Thanksgiving dinner.  There was only one kid who knew “sweet potato” in English.  “Ce sont les meilleures patates,” he said solemnly.  “They’re the best potatoes.”

–In another collège group that I was teaching solo, a girl was sleepy and put her head down on the table.  “Wake up, please!”  I said.  “I know you’re tired—I’m tired too—but we’re almost done.”

Her classmate’s eyes lit up.  “Miss!” he shouted in French.  “You can take a nap!  It’s okay!  We won’t tell anyone!  I’ll teach the class!”

 

–In a lycée class that was studying the “American dream,” I played the song “American Life” by Madonna and had them do a fill-in-the-blank of the lyrics.  Then we went over the full text of the song and I asked them questions to see what they’d understood.  There was a reference to a Mini Cooper so I called on one student to see if he knew what that was.

This kid had spent most of the class silently drawing an incredibly realistic and beautiful airship on the table in front of him; I’d had to go over twice to remind him to try to fill in the lyrics to the song.  I’d guessed that he wasn’t paying attention because he couldn’t understand.  But when I said, “Mini Cooper,” his eyes lit up.

“Well, there are two kinds of Mini Cooper,” he said in near-perfect English.  “The kind that was made in England in the 1960s and the other variations that have been made since that time.  Some of the differences are that…” and he proceeded to lecture us for several minutes about the history of the car.  The class went wild.  I was floored.

 

BONUS TEACHER COMMENT

–Once when I was working in class with a teacher, she described the Road Runner cartoons as “an ostrich and a wolf…beep beep!”  Ah yes, the speedy ostriches of the American Southwest.

All the splendor of culture shock and how to combat it

I drafted this post in mid-October but wanted to wait a few months to see how I settled in.  That was a good idea.   I believe that it’s worth writing about some of the messier parts of my experience given the possibility that it could help other people.

–Manon

Something’s rotten

I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence for a semester during college.  Although the program had its issues, it was a good and enriching experience overall.  Even the things I didn’t appreciate at the time, like my class on the history of ancient Provence, have proved valuable in the months since.  I gained friends and connections in Aix, I learned where the best crêpes place is, and I’m properly in awe of the Roman baths that are still hanging out near the center of town.  I’m still in touch with my host mom, whom I adore.

But it was a difficult semester for me for some reason.  I felt anxious and miserable a lot—this had come out of nowhere the semester before.  I couldn’t stop eating.  After three full meals and dessert, I’d hole up in my room and eat chocolate until I felt sick but somehow comforted.  I wasn’t able to go running very often because I was always too full.  Of course, skipping my usual exercise didn’t make me feel better.

During that semester in Aix, I couldn’t figure out why I was binge eating.  I could tell that it was a coping mechanism, so I decided to leave it at that and just let myself do it.  If overeating was making me feel better (temporarily), it’d be worth putting on five or ten pounds.  I guessed that I would be able to stop when the semester was over and I returned to a life that was more familiar to me.  (This turned out to be true.)  I knew all this, but I couldn’t or didn’t figure out more than that.

I hadn’t expected the urge to binge eat to come up this time in France, because I had kicked the college funk months earlier.  I stepped off the plane full of happiness and hope.  I had a job!  I got to live in France again!  I was delighted at the friendliness and generosity of my host family, having negotiated and expected nothing more than “a place to sleep with kitchen and laundry access”…but I had a nagging sense of discomfort that I couldn’t reconcile.  Two days after arriving in Rochefort, I NEEDED food in a way that had nothing to do with hunger.

This time I pinpointed the reason immediately:  being forced to live in another language.  Duh!  In the US, using French was nothing but fun.  I could use it as a secret language in my notebooks and with my French-speaking classmates.  I could blast French rap music at home and sing along, full of glee that my parents couldn’t understand.  I could participate in discussions of French novels during class and (I admit) get caught up in the sound of my own voice unrolling vowels and consonants and sentence structures that were the fruits of eight years of study.

Linguistic problems

French was fun in the US because it was optional and it showed how much I’d learned.  Here in France, using French is mandatory.  For everything.  All the time.  Whether I’m well-rested or not, happy or not, prepared or not.  And although I speak French well, I’m not fluent.  Using French in France shows how much I still have to learn.

After my first month in Rochefort, I was already exhausted from the trials of living in a foreign language in a foreign country.  Half of the time I was struggling to understand and communicate fluently enough to convince myself that I could express myself properly.  I felt like my words weren’t as precise or accurate as they would’ve been in English.  When I didn’t understand or couldn’t find the right words, I felt like I lost “adult person” status and became more like a child or an object in others’ eyes.

This is probably not how others perceive me when I am struggling, but the fact remains that every time I have a conversation with a native French speaker, I’m constantly distracted by at least one level that my conversational partner is not aware of:  the puzzle of rearranging and decoding the right words at lightning speed.  I’m good at this puzzle, which means that often the people I speak to in French can’t tell how preoccupied I am with subject/verb agreement and pronunciation.  But it still wears me out.

When I’m especially tired and not able to make myself understood, I feel less than human.

I have much more empathy now for the non-native English speakers I made friends with in high school and college.

Cultural unfamiliarity

What it took to be a good student for the past 19 years of my life has little in common with what it takes to be a good TAPIF assistant or simply a functioning adult in France.  When I arrived in Rochefort this September, I knew nothing about bank accounts, bus systems, housing assistance, phone plans, trains, insurance, health care, or rent.  I was (and still am) also missing a huge chunk of French cultural knowledge.  Current events?  Slang?  History?  Celebrities?  Politics?  It has been difficult to learn about these things in a language that isn’t my first, especially when France is such a hard teacher.

When am I supposed to faire la bise?  With whom?  At what point in the meal do we eat which foods?  Whom should I vouvoie?  What is my role as a tenant/hosted “daughter”?  What is my role as a language assistant?  What the fuck is all this paperwork?

I hate confronting my own lack of knowledge, but I have to do it every day.  Every time I speak to someone in French and don’t know which words to use.  Every time I do a new task or find my way to a new place.

I felt stupid a lot during my first two months and that terrified me.  When I feel stupid, I feel like I become less of an “I” and more of an “it” to others.  I feel like I lose personhood when I can’t express myself properly or do an everyday task correctly.  I feel like easy prey.

It could be as light as a joke said too quickly (on purpose) for me to understand it.  Or it could be as serious as my banker not ordering me a bank card even though I asked for one, because he knows that I won’t be able to catch him on it until much later—resulting in me having to postpone paying for insurance and signing up for a phone plan for weeks.

The problem is that I can’t foresee the areas in which I will fall short.  It’s like packing for a vacation that could include any activity imaginable: waterskiing, a black-tie dinner, clearing out a hornets’ nest, preparing a Thanksgiving dinner, nightclubbing, babysitting.  I can’t possibly leave my house each day with the right things in my brain and bag for whatever life throws at me.  I can only do my best.  The rest of the time, I have to deal with feeling stupid.

What do?

My knee-jerk reaction to “I feel stupid in this language and culture” is “I must eat the densest foodstuffs I can find.”  I’ve learned that now.  It makes sense that I’d want something comfy and familiar in my mouth when I’ve been spitting out puzzle after puzzle.

As soon as I realized that the need for English and familiarity was behind it all, I abandoned my foolishly noble ideas of minimizing English-language media.

Forget it.  I spend hours each day reading and writing in English.  I Skype with English-speaking friends and family at least once a week.  Sometimes I speak in English with other English assistants.  I watch English-language YouTube videos and I sing to myself in English.  I also read and listen to and sing in French, but I make sure to give myself as much English as I want.  Je me régale.

Activities that don’t require the use of language are surprisingly restful.  These are often household chores, which is helpful too.  Doing laundry.  Washing dishes.  Cleaning the kitchen.  Vacuuming.  Painting my nails.  Dancing.  Running.  Doing crunches.  Walking to the store.

Another tactic is to focus more on others.  Sometimes it’s easier to figure out another person’s wants/needs than my own.  And it feels good to show someone how to use the ticket machine, or make a visiting friend feel at home, or pick up bread at the store for my host mom.  Focusing exclusively on others isn’t the best long-term strategy (because one does need to take care of oneself!) but it’s good to be reminded that even though sometimes I feel useless to myself, I can help someone else.

What’s more, it helps me to be honest about my discomfort rather than hide it.  I can try to adopt the bise and the clothing styles and the late dinners and the verlan but there’s no reason to pretend that it’s effortless.  No one but me expects me to integrate seamlessly and immediately.  I was born in the USA and I spent most of the first 22 years of my life living there and speaking English.  Achieving a satisfactory level of comfort in France and in French will take some time.  Happily, I’ve found that the French people I’ve encountered have generally been kind, sympathetic, willing to explain, and willing to help me when they know I need it.

Finally, the best method for keeping up my morale is to remember—even write down—the tasks I have succeeded in, no matter how small.  For example, today (the day in October when I first drafted this) I messed up at the bank AND the phone store, which means that I need to return to both places and fix everything tomorrow.  But I succeeded in mailing a letter, getting my carte bleue ordered, buying cookies, and washing some dishes.  That is important.

I rarely binge eat now that I’ve identified healthier things I can do that will help me feel better.

Manon improves

Since October, I’ve made SO much progress:  I’ve made so many mistakes that I’m nearly immune to the feeling of embarrassment.  I’ve pronounced things wrong, I’ve made accidental innuendos, I’ve forgotten documents, and I’ve missed trains.  My most recent bêtise was writing on a Smart Board with whiteboard markers in front of 14 students.  You can’t use whiteboard markers on a Smart Board because they don’t erase…my students knew that, but I didn’t.  If only I could make them pay attention and laugh that hard with my actual lesson material.

This is the sort of thing that would have made me cry just last year.  But I looked at the smudge and said calmly, “Oops, well, I’ll get that fixed later,” and continued with my presentation.  The students settled down once they realized that I wasn’t making a big deal out of it.  I confessed later to Middle-Aged French Woman #89, who said she’d ask the cleaning staff to take a look at it.  She said kindly, “At least you didn’t use permanent marker!”

That wasn’t a great mistake to make, but I handled it like an adult.  So I’m counting it as a success.

All of these successes involve skills and knowledge that I have acquired throughout the years and especially the past few months.  So, that’s what consoles me—the fact that I have learned and am still learning from my experiences.  Someday, I won’t feel stupid at the bank anymore.

Halfway through; Manon considers another lap

Reminder:  TAPIF (Teaching Assistant Program in France) is the American name for the CIEP language assistant program.  I tend to use TAPIF and CIEP as synonyms except when I need to mark the difference between the American faction and the rest of the assistants.

For several years now, it has not been possible for assistants (at least not the Anglophones) to do two consecutive years of the CIEP program.  You could do the program for one year, do something else for a year, and then reapply if you wanted.  However, we received word on December 19th through the CIEP assistant newsletter that English-language and German-language assistants can now reapply for a second consecutive year.

How do I reapply and when is the application due?

The process to apply to renew the contract looks simple.  It’s on the CIEP website.

–You have to fill out a one-page form that includes your email address and a mailing address for where to send your new arrêté de nomination.

–You write down if you would like to stay in your current académie/schools or switch.  You can write down one choice of académie in the event that you’d like to switch.  (We don’t get to indicate preference for big cities/small cities/rural areas this time.)

–You choose whether you’d like to teach primary, secondary, or either.

–And then you have to get this form signed by the chef de l’établissement de rattachement administratif if you’re a secondary assistant; the primary assistants have to get it signed by someone at the IEN.  The chef or IEN person writes a tiny blurb (two lines) about whether you should be re-accepted and they check off a box indicating how favorable their opinion of you is.

–The aforementioned newsletter recommended that we contact our chef or IEN person before winter break so they have plenty of time to do this 30-second task.  That’s a nice thought, given that we received this newsletter on the last day of school before winter break. [EDIT:  Winter break being the February/March break, not the one for Christmas.]

Once all that’s done, you scan the form and send it by email to the CIEP before March 18th.

When will I find out if I’ve been accepted?

In the event that you are accepted for a second year of CIEP language assistantship, you will be notified by email between May and September.

Are you serious?

Yep.  This is so inconvenient that it’s offensive—you may have to wait until September to be sure that you have or have not been hired for a job in another country starting in October?  Who do they think we are that we can afford to not make other plans for the future?  Or make other plans and drop them at possibly the last minute?

Because I am insane, I’m going to reapply to CIEP.  And I’m also going to apply for grad school, summer jobs, and full-time jobs in both France and the US.  At some point, I’ll have to make a choice to a) stop waiting for the CIEP decision, b) defer admission to grad school, c) turn down a job offer, or d) cry into a pint of ice cream because nothing worked out.

Any more information?

I went to the TAPIF website (specifically the American site) to see if I could find more information on re-applying, like what percentage of second-time applicants are accepted.  What I found was a terse notice informing the reader that “It is NOT possible to renew the assistantship contract for a second consecutive year in the program. If you are interested in participating again in TAPIF, you must sit out one year and then reapply for the following year’s program. (If you are a 2014-2015 assistant, this means that you are not eligible to apply for the 2015-2016 year.)”

Wow.  It has been five days since the CIEP informed assistants that Anglophones and Germanophones can, in fact, renew our contracts.  The TAPIF folks probably just didn’t update the website before Christmas break, but I sent them an email about it because this is seriously misleading information.

[ETA:  I received a response on February 19th from Natalie Cox, who is the new Carolyn Collins–the TAPIF Program Officer at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C.  She has updated the TAPIF site to reflect the changes.]

What if I have an insatiable lust for paperwork and want to do CIEP more than twice?

The maximum number of times a person can do CIEP is two, unless you are a recruté local.  Neat loophole there—if you already live in France and are a native speaker of one of the languages CIEP wants, you can get in touch with the participating schools near you, and they might hire you if they couldn’t get an assistant or an assistant withdrew.  I know at least one American who has done this.  I don’t know how you’d apply to be a recruté local, so you’ll have to do your own research.  But if you’ve already done TAPIF twice and now live in France with your handily acquired French spouse, you’ve got another chance!

Manon loves trains and the carte jeune

Practical info

SNCF is the Société nationale des chemins de fer français, a.k.a. the national railway system.  You will undoubtedly use this to get around France for some of your vacations and short trips; although covoiturage is almost always cheaper and faster, you won’t always be able to find a covoiturage that’s going when and where you want to go.  Also, you can reserve train tickets much farther in advance and bring larger bags with you.  (You may be able to bring big suitcases in a covoiturage too, but you’d have to ask the driver about it.)

SNCF has a carte jeune (youth card) that you can get if you’re between 12 and 27 years old.  It’s valid for a year or until you turn 28, whichever length of time is shorter.  The carte jeune costs 50€ (40€ if you catch it during a sale) and can be renewed every year for the same price until you get too old.  It’s well worth it—you get a 25-60% discount every time you use SNCF transportation.  The money I saved on a single round-trip to Aix during Toussaint paid back the cost of the carte jeune.

To get a carte jeune, you need your passport, a spare ID photo, a French address, and probably a French cell number too.  You can order the carte jeune online, but I went to the gare (train station) in person because it’s within walking distance.  The woman who helped me kindly asked me when my next SNCF journey was going to be.  Then she made my pass valid from that day onward.

For shorter trips, the ticket prices will vary only slightly and it doesn’t matter when you buy them.  If I want to go to La Rochelle, which is 30 min away by train, the one-way carte jeune price is either 3,20€ or 4,80€.  If I want to go to Poitiers, which is 2 hours away by train, the price ranges between 14€ and 26€.  And if I want to go to Aix, which is 9 hours away by train, it could be as cheap as 42€ or as expensive as 85€.  It’s best to buy your tickets early for longer trips because the prices go up as the departure date approaches.

Personal anecdote

Sometimes, you might book a ticket from A to C, and find that you have a transfer in the middle at B.  Sometimes, this part of your ticket is marked “autocar” and you assume that this means “train.”  It doesn’t.  It means “bus.”  You’re going to arrive at B on a train, and then you’re going to have to look for the gare’s bus stop to take a bus to C.

Sometimes, if you’re me, you don’t know this, and you’ll get very sad when no train arrives at Middle of Nowhere B to take you to C.  But luckily you’ll have a host family who’ll send Hostbro #1 to pick you up 30 min from home.  You’ll say thank you ten or fifteen times with increasing sincerity and self-deprecation.  Your host family will laugh when you finally get home at 10:30 pm, but they’ll readily admit that you had no way of knowing what to do.  You’ll accept being a cultural buffoon and non-native speaker with grace, by lying down on the floor and saying, “Je vais mourir maintenant.”  You’ll thank them some more and then retire to your room to put your sorry self in bed.

Heartwarming conclusion

Despite struggles like these, I love the train system.  Coming from the US, a country that has lousy or nonexistent public transport except in major cities, it’s a dream come true that I can get anywhere I want to go in France with a combination of determined walking, buses, covoiturage, and trains.  I like watching the scenery go by.  I’m thrilled by the coffee vending machines in the gares.  I love spotting the occasional tiny dog sitting next to its owner.

And the entraide mentality I’ve witnessed in train situations has impressed me.  Strangers help each other heave their suitcases onto the luggage racks, ask each other for tampons, give each other 15 centimes to fill out a bus fare, and fish each other’s train tickets out of the gap between the tray table and the back of the seat.  Once I was buying a ticket from a machine in a gare and an elderly French woman asked if I could show her how to use the machine.  I was tickled that I could help her out!  She was impressed by my French and said that I was very cute.

Manon is “assured”

This is an update on the MAIF situation.  Around December 12, I received a letter from the MAIF stating that they would charge me 76,33 € for the “assurance de la vie quotidienne et de l’habitation” that I have bought for 2015.  So this price reflects the “primordiale”-level insurance, which is the most basic, for the coming January through April.

The MAIF have put in this letter the information that I gave them about my living situation, and apparently they believe that I am renting a studio apartment.  This is not so.  I am renting a bedroom in a French family’s house.  But my memory of the MAIF paperwork is a shadow of a glimpse of a blur.  It may have been the case that “studio apartment” was the closest option to my actual living situation.  Or I may have checked off several features of my living situation that caused the MAIF to categorize it as a studio apartment.

It helps to be reminded every now and then that not all of my paperwork difficulties are due to my imperfect French abilities.  Just last week, I overheard a teacher wailing in the staff room that the MAIF had sent her two copies of the same letter and she was afraid that they were going to bill her twice.