‘Ow is it – in Australia?

Halfway through a sentence and in the middle of teaching a class, I paused briefly and bit my lip to keep from laughing at what I was saying. I had just realised that – quite unintentionally – I was explaining to my students the best way to turn down a dinner invitation in English. I guess it’s true what they say about introverts.

Of course, the whole class wasn’t about that – this is English, not Introvert Boot Camp – and the French are pretty good at being introverts already without my help. “What do you do if someone invites you to dinner, but you don’t want to go?” is one of the dozen or so warmup questions that I have in my repertoire for getting the students talking before we move on to something more serious.

Sometimes – for me, at least – switching between languages feels like trying to throw an ancient, rusted switch in your brain. It’s absolutely essential to overcome that resistance before trying to talk about something important, otherwise you tend to end up making a fool of yourself. Well, I certainly do, anyway. That switch gets easier and easier to pull the more you learn, and I’ve discovered that starting classes with these sorts of inconsequential questions seems to help – even if it does turn into brainstorming creative lies like “I’m joining the marines.” Could come in handy, right? Plus that’s a great example of the Present Continuous Tense, which French kids have a lot of trouble with.

My very first week of being an assistant de langue has gone fairly well, but I’m already starting to learn where the problem areas will be – both for me and for the students. For example, the bigger the class is, the more difficult it is for everybody. The big problem in a language class is that the students’ fear of failure is multiplied by the number of other students in front of whom they might fail – and this does not make for a very talkative class.

By contrast, the small classes are a joy, and it’s here that the students show their real skill. The great majority of my élèves are in Terminale. This is the final year of High School in France, and comes complete with the dreaded baccalauréatusually referred to as le bac. It’s the essential qualification required to go to university in France and the exams to obtain it seem to really strike fear into the hearts of the students. However, fearful as some of the terminales may be, they’re also very good – the general level is quite high and I’m consistently impressed with their performance. Shyness and fear of failure are their real enemies, and part of the mission of assistants is to try and help them overcome that.

The material they studied is quite varied, but I was simultaneously pleased and horrified to discover one of my classes is presently studying Australia. Pleased, because hey, I know some stuff about that place. Horrified, because it turns out they’re studying the Stolen Generations. I sat in on a class where the students watched Kevin Rudd’s apology speech  and talked about what it meant, and to whom it was important. It’s an ugly, but very important piece of Australian history, and I couldn’t help feeling a bit ashamed. However, the treatment of the subject was mature and fair – it’s not as though France doesn’t have its share of unpleasant colonial history, after all.

At the end of the day, I sometimes find myself sitting in the blissful stillness of the cathedral in the centre of town, wrapped in the sheer, literally monumental weight of the silence inside. I hold no gods and make no prayers, but it’s a perfect place to contemplate and organise my thoughts about where life is taking me. And here they are: I like teaching. Even if what I do isn’t real teaching, I really enjoy sharing knowledge with people. It’s a bit surprising – even to me – that this apparently includes children. Whether my good feelings about it will last is anyone’s guess, but so far I can at least say this: I don’t hate it. And that’s a good start.

To see a gallery of photos relevant to this post – but not of the children, you deranged pervert – click here. For a guide on how to costume your family as the titular characters of The Incredibles, click here. Personally, I would never do this, but I hate costume parties. Enjoy!

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