Bonjour, future assistant(e)s!
With less than two months until the start of your work contract teaching in France, it’s no doubt that you’re counting down the days until you touch down on French soil. You’re gearing up for the next six to seven months abroad, as you can almost taste the excitement of living in the land of your high-school French class dreams. There’s so much anticipation: you’ve probably started envisioning just how it’ll be, let alone created a blog to document your soon-to-be amazing and crazy adventures (don’t deny it– I’m the same as you!).
Having been an English assistante for two years (in the Normandy region– represent!), I’ve gone through different experiences teaching and living in France, as well as traveling throughout Europe. I will admit that, like many of you first-time assistant(e)s, I had idealistic notions of what to expect while teaching abroad. Just like many of you, I’d also studied abroad in university and had a blast, which motivated me to find a reason to return to France after graduation. This isn’t to say that the TAPIF experience is not a good one, but I will be honest and say that it won’t be what you’ll expect, let alone perfect.
That said, I’ve decided to share some of the pros and cons that I’ve found while doing TAPIF. Granted, no person’s experience will be the same as others, but these are general points which I’ve acquired from my peer assistant(e)s’ experiences, as well as my own. I hope they offer some sort of guidance to fall upon as you navigate through this year of teaching and living la vie française.
Without further ado, here they are!
Pros of Doing TAPIF:
1. You will have lots of free time.
Seriously, c’mon…with a 12-hour work week and two-week vacances every six weeks, what’s there to complain about?! Plus, depending on your schedule, you might only need to work two to three days a week, which offers the perfect opportunity to take three to four-day weekend trips out of town. That, or take the time to veg out in your flat, drink wine, and do absolutely nothing, which is sometimes the best thing to do.
From experience, I’ll tell you that the “standard” 12-hour work week is a *very flexible* condition that might not apply to every assistant(e). In fact, don’t ever expect to work exactly 12 hours each week– I’ve had at times as low as five hours, and I never had to teach over 12 hours…ever. Perhaps you might find the amount of free time excessive, even a waste of time, but I saw it as an opportunity to fully enjoy it, especially being fresh out of college during my first year teaching. You can pick up hobbies, travel, even pursue online courses, which I did (not as fun, but still productive!).
2. Easy access to travel everywhere.
Especially if you’re coming from a large country like the United States or Australia, never has traveling been as easy as in Europe. It’s a small continent, so most places are easy to get to with any of the numerous modes of transport (airplane, train, bus, etc.) out there; you can pretty much be in a new country within an hour or two! Not only that, but also it’s very budget-friendly, meaning that the barely-800 euros per month can go a long way (and then some!).
I traveled extensively during my two years of TAPIF. Granted, I wasn’t very good at first with budget-traveling, but over time, I was able to budget like a pro. From knowing how early to book flights to choosing modes of transport, I was able to save a lot of money, all the while even having some money left over after my contract was up! Plus, the chance to take in all of the diverse countries and their culture was absolutely priceless.
3. Your French gets better.
You might think your French isn’t up-to-par, but I assure that you’ll be much more comfortable speaking and understanding it by the end of the year. There’s also the feeling of not improving as much as you might’ve wanted to (trust me, I can attest to that), but what you think isn’t very good might not be the case for others. In other words, you’re probably better at French than you might believe!
Having minored in French (and studied abroad) in college, I admit that I had a decent level when I arrived in France my first year. I would say I was somewhere between an A2 and B1 level, and by spending an extended amount of time immersed in the language, I would say that my French improved, albeit gradually. By having using it to read work documents, speak with bankers and landlords, and make friends through my travels, it did a lot to boost my confidence in the language. While I’m far from becoming a native speaker, I am more at ease with it than I’d been just two years prior.
4. You will make friends.
Whether it’s through TAPIF or outside the program, you’ll definitely establish at least a few good friendships. What makes it special is the fact that you meet so many people who share common passions, such as travel, the French language and culture. Perhaps you’re all recent college graduates with no idea of what to do after TAPIF, or maybe all of you love to share crazy experiences getting drunk in Paris– either way, you’re bound to meet people who are so alike with you, but at the same time so different that it adds many perspectives to your experience as a whole.
Despite living by myself in an isolated town my first year, I still managed to put myself out there and make it to several assistant(e) gatherings in the city, as well as traveling with some of them during les vacances. I also established friendships through my travels, such as Couchsurfing with locals in other French cities (e.g. Montpellier, Toulouse, Paris) and practiced French in the process. Since I consider myself both *incredibly* shy and introverted, having this experience of meeting people really got me to venture out of my comfort zone…for a good reason! I still stay in touch with some of them today, which is great.
5. You learn how to deal with inconveniences.
From a delayed train to CAF payment, there are so many things that we as foreigners come across during our long stay in France. It might be a first-world nation, but it’s still different from what you are accustomed to in your respective country. Bureaucracy is the bane of every foreigner’s (even French’s) existence, which can be really frustrating to no end. For instance, what might be as easy as buying OTC medication at your local pharmacy back home might be a hassle of requiring an authorized note from your doctor in France to obtain it.
You might find it extremely irritating at first, but soon enough, you learn to deal with it– at least, you learn to accept it. Learning to take things lightly, even laughing at the ridiculousness, of certain things will offer a clearer head to figure out solutions, all the while reduce stress levels. Learning to be persistent in getting your CAF money or establishing set schedules with your colleagues will pay off in the end. And finally, learning to be *incredibly* patient with the French system will keep you sane while navigating throughout the year.
Cons of Doing TAPIF:
1. You will deal with a lot of inconveniences.
This point goes hand-in-hand with the last pro point– yes, it’s true that there’s lots of paperwork in whatever you do, anywhere in the world, but in France, it feels especially challenging. Getting your VISA is one thing, but completing your OFII appointment is another: I’ve heard assistant(e)s in other regions have struggled to secure an appointment to legalize their work in France: some of them never even do so, which technically makes their seven-month job illegal.
Setting up a bank account, along with renting a flat, can also be a nightmare. I’ve heard of assistant(e)s who didn’t get a bank account set up until January, or had to move flats in between months because of some rent dispute. Getting the monthly paycheck into your account is always a waiting game, especially if you need that money soon. I had issues setting up Internet in my flat during my second year of teaching, which I hope not to repeat anytime– certainly was a headache, to say the least.
2. You will struggle with teaching.
If you’re a first-time assistant(e) who has little to no experience in teaching, you’ll find the school-teaching experience to be overwhelming. You’ll definitely struggle at times with classroom management, messy time-tables, and colleagues who might not be very helpful. Teaching is certainly not an easy job: after experiencing it first-hand, I admire just how much my colleagues have to put up with it every day, often with longer hours than ours.
Now I’ll admit, there are some assistant(e)s out there who have teaching experience, and they’re relatively independent when it comes to planning lessons and effective at managing students. However, there’s also the issue of dealing with school administration, which may or may not be on top of processing your papers to legally work at the school. That, or having to constantly find a classroom which is available to teach in– face it, there’s always something happening at school every day which will challenge you!
3. There will be the winter blues.
Let’s be honest: no matter where you’re placed in France, you’ll be hit with the winter blues. This period usually occurs between January and February, right after returning from the vacances de Noël. During this period, the weather is cold, the days are short (dark by 16:00?! C’mon…), and disillusionment starts to settle in. You start having doubts of why you chose TAPIF in the first place, as well as feel alone in the struggle and miles away from your home country. Really, it’s not a good time for anyone to be in.
There were times during my two years in TAPIF which made me really depressed. Not to the point of being clinical, but it was very rough: I felt at times that I wasn’t being a good teacher, that my colleagues and students didn’t like me, that I wasn’t being a good person to friends and acquaintances. I became paranoid, wondering if people thought I was a fraud in trying to be better than what I’d made myself out to be on social media, e.g. photos of my travels and weekend parties with flatmates, etc. I wasn’t happy, and I kept wondering what was the matter with me, let alone wondering how I could fix my situation.
I’ll tell you this: things will get better. The winter cold will subside, the days will get longer, and you’ll feel a sense of being reborn (I’m not exaggerating, well, maybe a little…). You’ll find your stride with teaching and you’ll be happier, which I would say should be the best things you take out from your TAPIF experience.
4. You will not make a lot of money.
To be fair, considering how little hours you have to work, getting paid barely 800 euros per month is not too bad. At the same time, however, it’s not a fortune. You’ll most likely not be able to save a whole lot by the end of the year, especially if you have to pay a lot for rent and traveling expenses. Don’t expect to save enough upon returning home– more likely than not, you’ll have to move back in with your parents (just like the good ol’ days in primary school!). Basically, it won’t be enough for retirement.
I did manage to save a few hundred euros after my first year of teaching, then even more after my second year. Early on did I learn the importance of saving up, and I was lucky to have lived in school-provided housing for cheap to keep more pocket change. I budgeted heavily, knowing how much I should spend for my travels and how much to save for food and rent. Learning to work with the limited resources you have teaches responsibility, along with knowing just what your priorities are in life.
5. There will always be culture shock.
Culture shock applies to everyone: even if you’re fluent in French or the most open-minded person out there, you’ll at some point come across something which will challenge your beliefs. Perhaps it’s the fact that the French kiss each other when greeting each other or the sheer amount of dog shit that’s left on the sidewalk– any case, there will be things which you might have a hard time accepting, which can cause a strain on your perception of la belle France.
I’ll say that, no matter just how long you stay in France, you’ll always have that culture shock. Maybe it won’t be as strong as it was before, but it’ll still linger. However, it’s a matter of not getting upset over it, especially if it doesn’t actually harm you, or at least knowing how to deal with it accordingly. Same goes for cultures all over the world, and that’s what makes the globe so diverse and fascinating!
Although this post is by no means a comprehensive list of TAPIF pros and cons, I hope you see it as a good start to your soon-to-be experience working in France. If any past assistant(e)s have more thoughts, I’d be glad to hear them!
Finally, if you would like to learn more about dealing with TAPIF, here are links to my previous posts:
Bon courage, future assistant(e)s!