My hands were trembling and covered with white chalk dust and there was no space left on the board. Every inch was covered with words – words fresh from the mouths of my wonderful French students. They did so well this week, I could have kissed them – if I hadn’t promised the French government I wouldn’t.
Sometimes, everything just works. I’m starting to get an idea of my basic format now; I sandwich the boring, coursework-based activities in delicious slices of fun activities. Actually, it’s less like a sandwich and more like a Big Mac – I do a fun activity in the middle, too. The most important thing (the “mission” of assistants in France) is to motivate the students to talk, and that I think I can do. Most of the time.
This week, this meant talking about superpowers. My favourite. Subjects like this really let the students be a bit creative – why do you want to be able to read minds? What makes you want super strength like the Hulk? (they often pronounce “Hulk” as “Ulk”, which is charming, but something I’m obliged to correct them on). Recalling an activity I had done previously about lateness and being polite, one girl insisted she wanted the power to control people, and when asked why, she explained that she would force everyone to be on time to meet her. Very sweet – I want to live in her perfect utopia.
I’ve also been piloting an activity about stereotypes – first and foremost this means talking about Australian stereotypes and whether they’re true, false or somewhere in between. I was touched when a student told me it was impossible that Australians are all fat, dumb and racist, since I was none of those things – it’s a good opportunity to talk about my country and its culture, and also that stereotypes don’t always represent reality. Except I’ve been informed that the stereotype of French women being beautiful is indeed 100% true, no argument permitted. This very reliable information comes from my class of 10 girls and 2 boys, an eminent think-tank which also debunked the idea that French men are romantic – apparently they are hopeless. You heard it here first – a country of beautiful women and the incompetent men who try to woo them.
Sometimes, when I’m laughing at a perceptive comment a student has made, or one of them has that flash of understanding, I find myself thinking; maybe I do want to be a teacher someday. It scares me a little – changing career ambitions and all – but it’s also a bit exhilarating. We’ll see if I still feel that way in six months.
Of course, this exhilaration can be flipped immediately to a sort of frustrated dismay if the class doesn’t go well – which it sometimes doesn’t. The students are generally quite talented at speaking, but if the topic doesn’t interest them, or they’re too shy to try, you’re left with a class in total silence. It’s awkward and unpleasant, but fortunately represents the minority of my courses so far.
One thing I’ve also discovered is that judicious use of French in class can be a very useful tool for keeping the students on task – and is more effective than slapping them on the knuckles with a ruler would be, were I the sort of 1960s nun who was into that. I will forever treasure the horrified looks on my students’ faces when I changed mid-sentence into (pretty good) French to explain something. The appalled silence which followed told me everything I needed to know: before, they didn’t think I could understand their cursing and witty banter. That’ll show ’em – no more whispering after that. We’re not supposed to speak French, of course, but a little show of competence now and then is okay.
Outside of class, the process of adaptation has started to wind down. More and more, I feel at home here – starting to become one of the Moulinois, as it were. This is hugely aided by how friendly and welcoming everybody has been, right down to the mayor, who held a public reception for new arrivals at the town hall, shook my hand, and welcomed me in English, before doing the same thing in Spanish with my housemate from Mexico. And as I ride my bike along the picturesque shoreline of the Allier river – no helmet, my hair being whipped into an afro by the afternoon breeze – I reflect that you could certainly do worse for places to call home.