“Re-entry”

It’s the term study abroad professionals often use to describe a student’s return to his or her home country after an extended period of time living and studying abroad. It has become increasingly common for professionals in the study abroad field to design all sorts of seminars and programs to ease the student’s transition back home.

 

However, if you’re a teaching assistant abroad (or really anyone else outside of a university or military setting who goes to live abroad), you don’t get a “re-entry” program to help you reflect on your experiences and adjust back to life at home. It just hits you.

 

“Excusez-moi de vous déranger, Monsieur, mais pourrais-je emprunter votre portable?” I began. “What?” said the man whom I had addressed, in a very American accent. And so began my “re-entry” to the U.S.—and I hadn’t even left Europe yet.

 

I was at the Geneva airport, after a long morning of travel as the only adult passenger on tiny, sleepy trains filled with middle school students going to school in the Swiss mountains. I was desperately trying to make phone calls to my water, electric, and insurance companies to tell them the readings on my meters and to inform them that I had officially moved out of my French apartment that day. Unfortunately, the minutes on my prepaid Orange cell phone ran out just as I was beginning my calls. The previous day, I had turned in my French bank card to my banker, so I couldn’t refill my phone by entering the card number. None of my American bank cards worked either. To complete my frustration, there was no Orange store or tabac in the airport selling phone cards. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make these calls from the States without paying a hefty international fee, so I started approaching random people to ask if I could use their phone. The first several I asked responded in American English, jarring me a bit. I finally ended up finding a sympathetic security guard at my gate who lent me his smartphone, which he told me to use for as long as I needed because he had unlimited minutes.

 

Disembarking the plane at Washington Dulles airport, I found my ears straining to pick out the bits of French conversation that were intermingled with the English flowing around me. It felt strange not to exercise my brain in the way it was used to being worked when thinking and speaking in French nearly 24/7.

 

Driving home from the airport on large, open highways, I stopped at a gas station. About to automatically respond with a “Bonjour” and a curt nod to the attendant upon entering, I stopped myself when the cashier leaning on the counter didn’t even look up.

 

Over the next several weeks, I adjusted to American life and speaking English without too much difficulty . . . although listening to lots of French music eased my feelings of “withdrawal,” as did going to the Richmond French Film Festival and attending a job orientation for a summer program which was conducted completely in French.

 

Designing your own “re-entry” program, where you get infusions of the language and culture of the country you recently left, can definitely be beneficial to acclimating back home.

Three days in Paris with my students: A European exchange project

The French, German, and Swiss middle and high school students chattered excitedly in three different languages despite the fact that they were huddling at a bus stop at 6 a.m. in the chilly mountain air. They were going to Paris!

The students had the opportunity to take this trip through the Comenius Project, a European Union educational exchange project. The project is sponsored primarily by the European Commission, which then affiliates with other partners, such as the French Ministry of National Education.

John Amos Comenius, born in 1592 in Moravia (in what is now the Czech Republic), was a teacher, educator, writer, and philosopher. His ideas for reforming society via education, published in his pamphlet “Universal Education,” laid the foundation for modern education.

The students from the French high school where I teach took a special English class during the school year, “Classe européene,” whose goal was in part to prepare them for this exchange with the German and Swiss schools. At one point, there had been the possibility that Turkish and Spanish schools would participate in the project as well; however due to various reasons they were obliged to cancel.

The visit to France was the first exchange in a series of exchanges. In 2015, the schools taking part in this project will visit the German partners in Berlin.

Earlier the same week, the German and Swiss students and teachers had been welcomed to the small French village where I live and work. They stayed with host families of the French high school students (lycéens) from Monday until Wednesday. Each day, project coordinators at the lycée planned cultural activities for the visiting students and teachers. There was a scavenger hunt throughout the village, a visit to the local museum, and an afternoon spent in the mountains with raquettes (snowshoes). In the mornings, students from each school gave presentations about their countries, regions, and schools.

There were nine accompagnateurs traveling to Paris with the 46 students, including myself and eight other teachers. I had been invited to join the group by project coordinators at the lycée. Since the official language of the project was English (although none of the participants spoke English as their native language), the coordinators asked me to help with written and oral translations, in addition to assisting with the supervision of the students.

The bus arrived in Paris just after 2 p.m. Being February in Paris, naturally it was raining. We weren’t going to let that deter us from following the carefully planned itinerary, however. Students and teachers spilled out of the bus to take pictures of the Arc de Triomphe. I had been to Paris three times before, but had never climbed to the top of the Arc. The view of a rainy, gray Paris was spectacular all the same.

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Our next stop was to lead students on a guided walking tour through the Place de la Concorde, le Jardin des Tuileries, le Louvre, le Palais-Royal, and la Conciergerie. We shared umbrellas around and the guide stopped the group under various buildings to present the main talking points.

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It was typical Paris. Gypsies hovered on the fringes of our group, hawking their cheap souvenirs or approaching students directly to try to trick them into signing a piece of paper so that they would be oblivious to a pickpocket’s sleight of hand. The metallic silver man posing on a stool captivated students’ attention as they poked their heads around a building’s pillars to get a better glimpse, then shrieked and giggled when he turned toward them.

At 6 p.m., we checked into the large hostel where students would be rooming together in groups of three. The hostel also provided breakfast, picnic lunches, and dinner. After dinner, some teachers headed down to the large common area in the basement to plan the next day’s agenda.

On day two, the first item of the day was to take a trip on the Bateaux Mouches on the Seine River. Luckily, it was a beautiful, crisp day. We arrived early, so students had a chance to gather by the nearby Tour Eiffel and take photos.

We had a picnic lunch sitting by the pyramids outside the Louvre, then students had time from 2-4 p.m. to walk through the museum, filling out worksheets about various art exhibits. They had a bit of free time to wander through the shops after seeing the museum.

Next, there was a visit to the Sénat scheduled. This was highly impressive. The visit commenced with a short video, then our guide showed us around various gilded rooms. Upon walking into the golden main hall and seeing the throne with the capital “N” (for “Napoleon,” of course), students gasped, “Oh là là! Le roi, il est où?” They came up with several good questions for our guide, including, “Do senators have another job or career outside of their political work?” The response: Most senators have already had a career, usually as a fonctionnaire de l’état. Typically, they retire, then they go on to work in the Sénat.

The group ate a late dinner at the hostel that night. Most of the students and teachers wanted to go out for a night in Paris. I stayed at the hostel with two other teachers and 12 students. The hostel manager lent us speakers so the students could play music and dance in the common area. We procured some board games. I saw one of the middle school students setting up a chess board by himself, and scrutinizing the pamphlet listing the rules. I asked if he’d like a partner to play with. He agreed, and I showed him the rules for moving the pieces, while he taught me the names of the pieces in French.

The third morning in Paris, the Swiss and German students left for their home countries. I gathered the keys from students as they left their rooms and were hustled downstairs to the bus. The French students, teachers, and I continued on to the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration for a short morning visit. Opened in 2007, this controversial museum is located in the Palais de la Porte Dorée, which used to house the Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie. Students seemed genuinely to enjoy this museum, with its interesting stone facade of 1,130 square meters depicting scenes representing French colonies. The purpose of this museum is to pay tribute to the history of diversity in France.

There were all sorts of social and political commentaries written on the glass windows of the museum:

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Overall, the exchange program was a success. The students enjoyed themselves and were in awe of Paris, since it was the first time most of them had visited the city.

We departed Paris at 11 a.m. that day. Students rocked out to Stromae’s hit songs “Tous les mêmes” and “Formidable” played on repeat on the bus’ loudspeakers on the ride back to their villages.

Sources:

www.2e2f.fr/page/comenius

www.moravian.edu

http://www.histoire-immigration.fr

What’s it like to be a young, public educator in France?

I write this post as an observer of and participant in both the French and American public education systems. Educated in U.S. public schools from first grade through twelfth grade (with a brief two-year stint as a homeschooler), I have also attended a public university in the U.S. as well as a public university in France. No longer a student, I teach in public schools in both countries.

To clarify, I am not a certified teacher. In the U.S., I have worked as a substitute teacher for grades K-12. I have also taught an after-school introductory French class for 3rd-5th grade students within the public school system. I am currently an English teaching assistant working part-time for Education Nationale at a lycée (high school) in France.

This post will address my understanding of: 1) The system of points for teachers in France; 2) Why teaching in public schools can be simultaneously an attractive and unattractive occupation in France; and 3) Substitute teachers in France versus “subs” in the U.S.

Several things inspired me to write this post. Namely, I was puzzled by the transience of the young teachers with whom I work in France, and whether they were satisfied with this aspect of their jobs. Like me, several of them just began teaching at the lycée in the fall of 2013 to fill temporary positions. Unlike me, they are fully certified, full-time teachers with one- or two-year master’s degrees and each has several years’ experience teaching in other regions of France. Their contracts at the lycée terminate at the end of this school year, at which point they will be sent by the French government to another school, and quite possibly to another region of France.

When I first heard of this, I was surprised. I asked my colleagues, “How can the government uproot teachers from one year to the next, sending them far away from their family and friends?” They shrugged and responded, “It all has to do with the system of points. The number of points a teacher has is based on his individual and personal circumstances, and his seniority among other things.” Basically, this means that the more years a teacher has taught, the more points he or she has. Additionally, one’s family situation determines the number of points one accumulates. If a teacher is married, has children, or is pacsé(e) (meaning he or she is not married but is in legal cohabitation with another person, with whom he or she enjoys insurance and tax benefits), that teacher gains more points. If the teacher gets divorced or breaks the PACS agreement, the points are lost.

When newly minted teachers graduate from their bachelor’s or master’s degree programs, they have a set number of points and are viewed by Education Nationale as being equal in ability, according to my colleague. Again, I was surprised. “What about merit?” I asked him. “It doesn’t seem to me that all graduates are created equal—some are more passionate or informed about the subject they teach, some are better with kids, and all have had different upbringings.” My colleague shook his head, indicating that merit and factors outside the degree itself seem not to be major considerations for the government in placing new teachers with no experience.

To obtain the best placement in an attractive city or at a high-ranking school, a teacher must accumulate a greater number of points. I asked a colleague, under 30 years old, how many points he had. He told me, “Moi, j’ai 50 points. C’est rien.” (I have 50 points. That’s nothing.) Having one child, for example, credits a teacher 100 points. Completing a one-year internship is another 100 points. Being placed by the government in a region away from one’s spouse and children also allows one to gain points (190 points for the first year of separation, and so on). This benefit could eventually allow a married teacher to accumulate enough points to request a change of post so as to be nearer to his or her family.

I asked my colleagues about why they chose teaching as a profession, given the uncertainty of job placement as young teachers with few points, and whether they were satisfied with their education system. The teachers’ response was simply that they are passionate about their job. They want to positively shape the lives of future generations, to the point that they are willing to move around the country for work and pay high taxes to support education, which is free for students in France (including most university education). My colleagues also combat the disparaging view many French people have about the teaching profession. As in the U.S., in France teachers are often undervalued, according to my colleagues. In their opinion, however, the positives outweigh the challenges of this occupation.

One such positive aspect is that teaching, like most civil servant jobs in France, provides a high level of job security. When I mentioned to one colleague that I am interested in eventually creating my own international education business, she was surprised. “People in France don’t often immediately think of things like that,” she commented. “There’s a lot of bureaucratic red tape and it’s just not viewed as a valid, safe option.” I noted that starting one’s own business is hardly a “safe” option in the U.S. either, but that it is often encouraged and that if run well, it can be a fulfilling and lucrative alternative to the traditional route of asking employers for jobs.

Lastly, in talking with colleagues, I mentioned that I had been a substitute teacher in the U.S. They were unsure about exactly what that was, until I described it further in both French and English. “We don’t have that here,” they informed me. It turns out, at least at the lycée where we work, if a teacher is absent for a few days, class is canceled, just like in an American university. If a teacher is absent for several weeks, a fellow teacher is asked to cover their class. The idea of someone substitute teaching as a means to gain a full-time teaching position is not a familiar concept in France as it is in the U.S.; rather, one must go through a traditional certification process.

This post just touches the tip of the iceberg regarding the subject of young teachers in France and the system of public education in general. In future posts, I hope to address differences in the organization of public school administration in France and the U.S., discipline of students in these two countries, parent involvement, the structure of a typical school day, and extracurricular activities for students.

Please leave your questions and comments below!

Sources:

http://www.education.gouv.fr/cid4175/rapprochement-de-conjoints.html

http://www.education.gouv.fr/espace-recrutement/

Teaching my ESL students: What works and what doesn’t work

Teaching ideas that work:

A pen pal exchange. I set up a pen pal letter exchange between my students here in France and students at a high school in Virginia. The French students have to write their letters in English, while the Americans have to use French. So far, I have 65 French students participating (more to come in the following weeks), and around the same number of American students. As I distributed the first batch of letters from America, my students could not contain their excitement. They passed each other’s letters around the classroom, exclaiming at the comments their new pen pals wrote and remarking on the Americans’ ability to write in French. After classes let out, I saw groups of students clustered around tables in the hallway, heads bent over the letters from abroad.

Role-play activities and anything to do with realia. Group activities that involve role-playing real-life situations are typically successful classroom activities. For example, I created a worksheet based off of an ESL activity I had seen used in the U.S., in which students had to play the roles of either the employees or the boss. “Employees” had to justify (in English) to the “boss” why they should be promoted, based on various characteristics and their work performance. The “boss” then had to explain to the class why he or she chose a certain employee over the others for promotion.

Anecdotes about personal experiences in America. Two of the biggest reasons teaching assistants have it easier than regular teachers in terms of keeping students’ attention is the fact that (1) we are a novelty, and (2) we are not responsible for giving grades or raising test scores. That means we have a fairly large amount of latitude in creating lessons that are based on group activities, videos, etc., rather than worksheets and readings. One of the things I like to do from time to time in class is use personal anecdotes. If the lesson is about jobs, I have students try to guess what jobs I had in high school and college. Are they jobs a French student might have? I find that personal anecdotes about school and life in general are a good way to relate to students while teaching them something new.

Being approachable and willing to talk with students and teachers outside of class. I let my students know that I am glad to answer their questions in either English or French outside of class. I want to clear up any confusion they may have had during class and give them opportunities to ask me questions that we may not have had time for earlier.

Likewise, I think building good rapport with teachers is extremely important. First of all, they have a lot of insight into the French education system and can help the confused American assistant navigate it. Secondly, I’ve noticed that classes tend to run more smoothly when I work fairly closely with the teachers. It’s nice to provide a certain amount of continuity for the students; for example, if a class is working on numbers in their regular lessons, I might use my American currency lesson plan with them that week. Finally, teachers realize that living alone in a foreign country can be tough, and I have found them to be extremely kind and supportive.

Incorporating other disciplines into lessons. One activity I did involved using real U.S. dollars. After teaching students the value and name of each coin, introducing slang terms for money (e.g., “greenbacks”), and having them guess which person appears on each bill, students had to calculate correct change in English. The class was divided into two teams, and they had to compete with each other to be the first to come up with correct change.

Asking students for their opinions. On the first day of each new class I taught, I asked students to write three things they are interested in learning about American culture or the English language (see my previous post). This allows students to be creative, makes them think, and shows that I value their thoughts.

Warm-ups. A 5-10 minute warm-up is always a good idea. A warm-up can be a brainstorming activity, students’ reactions to a political cartoon, tongue twisters, a song, etc. It gets students focused and thinking in English.

 100_5475(This photo I took of the Alps is not related to this post. I just like it.)

ESL teaching methods that don’t work so well (generally speaking):

Lecturing. Most of my students are high school-aged. Even among those who are older, college-aged students, I’ve noticed that I lose their attention quickly if I talk for longer than five minutes at a time. So I keep the PowerPoints to a minimum and get students to do the talking as much as possible.

English only. I’ve heard other TAPIF assistants advise new assistants never to let students know that they can speak or understand French. I disagree with this advice. While I understand that one popular method of foreign language instruction is to conduct classes solely in the target language, I find that this is just not practical for my situation. What with limited class time (30 minutes to 1 hour per class, once per week), the level of the academic material I want to convey to students, and the wide gap in English language comprehension within a given class, I have to use French. The few times I have tried conducting a class solely in English, a sea of faces stared back at me blankly and I lost students’ attention rapidly. My goal is to avoid having students feel frustrated or bored. The minute I lose their attention, they start furtively texting or staring out the window. They don’t respond to my requests in English to “Please put your cell phones away,” but they sure pay attention when I say, “Pas de portables en classe, s’il vous plaît.”

Teaching another teacher’s lessons. I don’t mind teaching a lesson another teacher comes up with; however, I usually don’t have as much success with it as I do with lessons I create myself. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, students hear about the lessons I do with other classes, and they want to hear about American culture, money, etc. (They’ll use anything as an excuse to deviate from their regular lesson plan!) Secondly, the other teacher’s lesson might be about a topic with which I’m not familiar. Students can tell in a heartbeat when a teacher is not 100% confident in what he or she is teaching and that generally makes for a rough class period.

Not establishing authority, rules, and expectations immediately. This is pretty straightforward. If you don’t have students’ attention and respect from the first day, you’ll have an uphill battle with their behavior for the rest of the year.

This list is by no means exhaustive. As I create my lesson plans for the upcoming week, I just thought I’d share these ideas. Thoughts?

“Hamburgers are better in USA than here?”

“What do you want to learn about American culture or the English language?”

I recently asked each of my students in France, who are ages 14-22, to write three anonymous responses to this question. I am an assistante d’anglais teaching in a public lycée that also has a post-baccalauréat program. I have the freedom to create my own lesson plans for the majority of the classes that I teach. I decided that my lessons would have a good chance of success if they targeted aspects of American culture in which the students are interested.

In working with several hundred students this week during half-hour and full-hour lessons, I gradually got an idea of their primary interests. However, I am not a specialist in all of the areas that their questions address and I obviously can’t represent the huge diversity of opinions in America regarding politics, sports, etc. So, I’d appreciate reading any (school-appropriate) input you’d like to leave in the comments section below!

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A sample of French students’ questions:

“What are the famous legends/myths in America? I want to learn about how does the school scheme in America? I really WANT to learn colloquial/familiar expressions in English that we couldn’t understand if you were not here to teach us, or expression which can be complicated to get for a french people.”

“The misteries about Area 51, The vehicles vocabulary (like mechanic), The food vocabulary”

“I want to know what is a large way (km) for an American”

“I want to learn about what US university’s ‘confrerie’ [fraternities]. I want to learn about US sports cars. I want to learn about US technologys.”

“I want to learn about the California, What people are doing in California. I want to learn more about Monsanto, the FDA and all the groupe, who are feeding the American like Mcdo [McDonald’s], etc… I want to learn more about ‘what the American think about there president’. and our president [François Hollande]

I want to learn about -American football -Politic -Junk food”

The army”

What university students do for fun? How was America created? Talking about arms (weapons) in USA.”

I am interested in American 70’s music, like Woodstock festival. I am interested about the american history like the secession war. I am would like to know more about Spring break and Rap US”

Read and understand sing. History of England.”

-I want to learn about gangs in America”

I want to learn if the life is expensive.”

Famous person like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, etc.”

-Pompom girls existe really or not? -American dream is it idealist as many films?”

I’d like to know more about: -your diplomes -your glasses shops -the way “normal” peoples lives in USA”

What are hours for students at school? Have students the same schedule that us? Is Louisiana beautiful like in photographies? Hamburgers are better in USA than here?”

“Vocabulary of “old time”, vocabulary for example of years 60-70, and before, 1800…example = To verbe SHALL. Today it means a proposition and it’s not a verbes. “SHALL we go on?”

I want to learn about the ethnic diversity in USA”

When to use ‘the’”

“I don’t want to learn something special. I’m ready to learn everything!”

It appears that I have my work cut out for me.

Small-Town France Vs. Small-Town America

I enjoy trips to the city and have lived briefly in medium-sized cities in the past. However, I have to say I connect with rural towns on a certain level. After all, I grew up in a town in central Virginia where it was completely normal to see an escaped calf loping across high school property, men and women in hunting gear trekking through Walmart, and a farm-use tractor going ten miles per hour on a local road with twelve cars lined up behind it. Now that I’m living in a rural French town, I thought I would write a post comparing small French towns to small U.S. towns in general.

 

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Small-town France

So how is small-town France similar to and different from small-town America? Based on what I have observed so far, I would argue that there are more similarities than differences. While I can answer this question solely based on the few small U.S. towns in which I’ve lived and the one small French town in which I’m currently living, I feel that I can make a few generalizations which hold true regardless of the town’s exact location.

Since this is an education-related blog, I feel that I should begin my comparison with student opinions on small-town life, which are usually freely offered:

A 16-year-old small-town American student: “Living here sucks! There’s nothing to do.”

A 16-year-old small-town French student: “C’est le pire! “Il n’y a rien à faire ici.” (Translation: “It’s the worst! There’s nothing to do here.”

In both countries, students ask me, with a certain amount of disbelief in their voices, “Why did you come to teach here?”

I sympathize with the students briefly, then ask them for positive reactions to living in [insert name] small town. Responses are generally along the lines of, “Well . . . you can go hiking/biking/skiing here.” I then ask whether students have to worry as much about problems like excessive pollution or high crime rates. The answer: “I guess not . . .” For those students who grew up in the town and are not recent transplants, another (generally) positive factor is that much of their extended family lives in the area.

I understand students’ (and adults’) frustrations with living in a small town. I freely admit that at times, it’s simply necessary to leave town to meet friends or just get a change of scenery. In Virginia, I had a car and left town many weekends. Here in France, I don’t have a car, but I am getting better at figuring out the infrequent train and bus system, as well as determining opportunities for covoiturage (carpooling).

As with living anywhere, there are trade-offs to living in a small town versus a city. The higher cost of living and increased crime, pollution, and stress that often correlate with city living are offset by perceived benefits such as more varied and higher-paying job opportunities, an increased number of venues for intellectual engagement, and a wider range of social events from which to choose. Furthermore, “outsiders” wanting to blend in usually have an easier time doing so in the city.

Here are some further similarities I’ve observed in small-town France and America:

  • In a time of need, there is almost always someone “just down the street” who can help you out. You’ll likely be expected to repay the favor sometime, but it’s nice to have someone you trust help you out without expecting monetary compensation.
  • Businesses often operate in unexpected ways. Here in France, my WiFi box was not delivered to the post office as one might anticipate, but to the épicerie (a grocery/ABC-type store).
  • There is a close-knit culture among co-workers, especially teachers. They understand the need for support in a small town, especially for those who are not natives and have few contacts in the area outside of work.
  • Small-town natives often have an intense amount of pride in their town, which sometimes is only evident when an outsider makes a disparaging remark about the town. The native vehemently defends the small town, despite just having complained about the lack of things to do in said town.

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Small-town America

Now for some differences I’ve observed:

The small French ville is different from the small American town in certain ways. Notably, the French ville has a tightly clustered nucleus. The post office, schools, mairie, grocery store, médiathèque, banks, etc. are all typically within a five- to ten-minute walk from one another. In contrast, a “small town” in the U.S. may in fact sprawl for miles so that it’s unreasonable or impossible to walk from, say, the library to the post office.

Another difference is that French towns typically shut down for one to two hours in the middle of the day. They also shut down on Sunday and partially on Monday–banks are closed. Yes, boutiques and novelty shops typically keep similar hours in American small towns, but the U.S. still has many stores that remain open 24/7. In the small French town in which I’m living, the main grocery store and a few other stores are open until 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, but that’s about it. The kebab joint a few blocks from the center of town is one of the few available options for dining out on Sunday.

Keeping businesses open on Sunday in this region is a controversial topic. It made front page news in the regional paper, Le Progrès, last Sunday. The headline was, “Travail le dimanche: le Jura n’est pas Paris.” This translates to, “Work on Sunday: the Jura isn’t Paris.” Michel Dronier, president of the Jura Commerce Federation, opines that the weekend should be devoted to family activities. “Sinon, cela posera un problème sociétal…” (“Otherwise, there will be societal issues.”) He goes on to say, however, that it might be a good idea to reflect on having businesses stay open in tourist areas on Sunday.

So there you have it. Small towns in the Jura are caught in a conflict. From the paper’s stance and its opinion poll, it seems that many people (perhaps a majority) believe that businesses in the region shouldn’t have to adhere to big-city commercial standards. Family togetherness on weekends is of great importance. Notably, religion is not mentioned as a reason for closing businesses on Sunday. The flip side of the issue is that businesses need to combat economic stagnation and/or failure. Staying open on Sunday is often a good way to do that. I don’t recall the American towns in which I’ve lived having this discussion, but perhaps other towns in America have done so.

To sum up, I look at living in a small town as enjoyable, although sometimes a challenge. I do feel like an outsider here in France, for obvious reasons, despite the welcoming efforts of teachers and students. Yet I also felt like an outsider when I moved back to my hometown in Virginia to work for nine months after graduating from college this year. The town had changed a lot, but I had changed even more. I knew a couple friends from high school who were living in the area, but I mostly recreated my life in the town. I was now an employee of the public school system, not a student. As a substitute teacher, my elementary, middle, and high school teachers were now co-workers. I also made friends with people of all ages and various professions, whereas my younger self would have made friends only with people around my age.

Despite my limited experience in small-town France, I’d say that the majority of differences between French and American towns are actually larger cultural and linguistic differences characteristic of each country as a whole. There are many more similarities between small-town France and small-town America than I initially would have thought.

First Impressions

“Ah, les États-Unis—ils existent!” As possibly the only American living in this small industrial town of 6,000 people in eastern France, I have encountered several such reactions to my presence here, both joking and serious.

One of the things which has surprised me here so far is that people can’t necessarily tell that I am American. Of course, they know immediately that I am a foreigner when I speak French, and usually that I am a native English-speaker, but my American accent isn’t as easily recognized as I originally thought it would be.

It took me three days of continuous travel by plane, train, car, and foot to make it to this French town, where I will be teaching English for seven months. I have been living here for exactly one week now and it has been one of the busiest weeks of my life, second only to final exam week at William and Mary. I have been extremely fortunate to have had several people affiliated with the lycée here help me with the transition. Not only did one of the teachers from the lycée let me spend my first night here at her house, but she also reserved my apartment for me in advance, assisted me with setting up utilities, and helped me to open a French bank account.

My first few days here were a whirlwind of paperwork, moving into my apartment, meeting teachers and students at the lycée, and filling out more paperwork.

I am living in a valley surrounded on all sides by the Jura mountains. Apparently, I arrived during a rare period of sunshine. This town is known for gray weather, great ski slopes, and of course, la lunetterie (glasses-making and optics).

To give you a sense of this petite ville, here is a picture taken of the view from my apartment balcony:

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I won’t begin teaching right away. I have un stage (an orientation) this coming week in Besançon, France. After that, I will observe classes at the lycée for several days before teaching on my own. There are at least five teachers with whom I will be working. I will teach primarily English conversation to high school students and to students in a two-year post-high school optician program. Each teacher with whom I will be working has different expectations for me as an assistant d’anglais, which will make my job all the more interesting.

The town doesn’t sell very many goods apart from food and glasses. I needed a cell phone. Thus, it was necessary that I venture out this week by train to a nearby town in order to buy one. Seizing this opportunity to buy other exotic goods, I not only bought a cheap prepaid phone, but also towels, a commodity which I honestly had not been able to locate in my new town.

Despite the difficulties of living in such a small town, I am glad that I’m teaching here. In the larger cities in France, not only is the cost of living higher, but so too are the chances that people will switch to speaking English with anyone they detect as having an American or British accent. Aside from teaching French students English, my objectives here are to learn to speak French more fluently, to determine the similarities and differences of the French and American education systems, and to challenge myself to create a new life in a place where I am several thousand miles away from anyone I know.