With la rentrée in full swing this time of year, I am reflecting on my time spent as a lectrice d’anglais back when I used to live in France for work. I spent two years working in the Lyon region between 2017 and 2019, teaching in a mid-size city to first and second-year undergraduate science students. While it wasn’t all smooth-sailing, I can say that, overall, I had a pretty-good experience, and I do miss it dearly.
That said, I have decided to make a list of aspects I learned while teaching English to university students abroad. I need to note that this list does not completely reflect what it’s like to be a lecteur/lectrice at every school in France: I have friends who worked at different universities all over the country, and our responsibilities varied drastically. That’s why I am only going off of what I experienced, so as to give you a general idea of how the job was, should you have the desire to become one in the future.
Brace yourselves– this will be a long one. Let’s begin!
10 Things I Learned as a Lectrice d’Anglais
1. The application process is competitive.
Prior to working as a lecteur, it’s a matter of getting the position in the first place. Honestly, I believe that much of whether you get a lecteur position comes down to timing and luck. Sure, you need certain qualifications in order to be considered, e.g. most universities want you to have at least a year’s Master degree, but ultimately, you’re competing with dozens, if not hundreds, of applicants per school. Really, it’s absolutely insane.
Even though I had a year’s Master under my belt (and prior teaching experience as a TAPIF assistant) when I applied in 2017, I still got many rejections. Of the perhaps nearly 20 schools I applied to, I only received three interview offers (two of which never came to fruition) and eventually, one offer to work. I really believe that I was able to get the job, because my school was located in a mid-sized city, i.e. less competition. Universities in big cities like Paris, Lyon, and Marseille are flooded with applications, and of course, it would be like winning the lottery if you got accepted.
2. Assistance will highly vary.
Similar to being a TAPIF assistant, the amount and quality of help from your supervisor and administration in terms of processing paperwork and getting settled in will be vastly different from school to school. Some will be great, while others not-so-much. I have heard horror stories of lecteurs who had terrible communication with their supervisors and little-to-no guidance on visa procedures, along with gossiping that came along with it– all before they even started the job! Not the best position to be in, especially in a foreign country.
I was extremely fortunate to have a great supervisor, along with a supportive staff at my school. My supervisor (“F”) was a superstar, promptly answering any questions I had via email and in-person, even helping me when I struggled with teaching during my first year. My other English-teaching colleagues (“C” and “N”) were also incredible, occasionally inviting me over for lunch, going on hikes, and doing other little things to make me comfortable while away from home– they even threw a goodbye dinner on my last week in town, with a gift to boot. Truly kind colleagues, and awesome people overall!
3. There’s lots of planning involved.
True, this goes for any teaching job (or any job, really). However, if you’re coming from being a TAPIF assistant or someone who’s had minimal teaching experience, you’ll be doing a lot of prep work, especially when starting your first year. You’ll have to plan weekly (or bi-weekly) lessons that comprises of listening, writing, reading, and oral expression, as well as creating exams that effectively reflect what was learned in class. You may not get a lot of help from your supervisors, which can make you feel utterly lost.
I was given a *sort of* vague idea of what I needed to teach. In other words, my colleagues used these unit packets pulled from an English-instruction book that they used with their students. These packets used themes like global warming, medicine, and psychology– concepts which were relevant to the student’s studies, which were in the sciences. There were also several grammatical points (e.g. future perfect, definitive clauses, etc.) that needed to be covered in a semester. My colleagues used these packets as a base for their classes, but they said that I could modify them as needed.
In my first year, I tried sticking with the unit packets, but I ended up not relying on them at all during my second year, choosing to go carte blanche and catering to each of my classes individually with different lesson themes (e.g. chemistry, biology, engineering, geology…). It was even more work, but definitely more engaging for me and my students, who I think appreciated my efforts. I also learned a lot during my research and, even though I wasn’t a science major in college, I found the topics really interesting (e.g. sports genetics, cosmetic chemistry, 3-D printing) and that actually helped get me excited to teach my students, rather than following a cookie-cutter formula. Some lecteurs might want to be told exactly what to do, but for me, I liked the freedom of getting creative with lessons.
4. Students are a hit-or-miss.
Normally as a lecteur, you won’t be teaching amphitheater-sized classes (100-300 people)– that’s reserved for tenured professors. Rather, you’ll be teaching seminar-sized classes, which ranges from 20 to 40 students. You’ll be dealing with students of varying English levels, from novice to advanced. I’ve had students who were practically fluent in English, while others couldn’t even understand what I was saying.
One might assume that French students would have at least basic knowledge of English by the time they enter university, but this is not the case. Much of this huge divide between good and weak students is due to a multitude of factors, including the general K-12 school system in foreign languages, which isn’t very good (then again, we Americans are worse off in it). That’s why you’ll get extremes: either students know English, or they don’t. As a result, it’s a struggle to plan lessons for classes with students of mixed levels, as you can’t make the material too easy nor too challenging. I’ve found the best way was to hit the majority, and then cater as needed to individual cases, i.e. those who were fluent or struggling.
5. Classroom management is a must.
You would think that students would be well-behaved in university, but this is a lie. While most students are good and hardworking, there are also those whom are anything but. From talking in class to using their phones, some of them have zero respect for their professors, let alone their classmates and themselves. Some of them don’t want to be there, and it can be very discouraging to teach in the process.
Classroom management was, by far, the most-challenging part of my job as a lectrice. I had been told by the previous lectrice that the students were very disrespectful and made her life a living hell. She was right, somewhat: I had a lot of issues with my first-year undergraduate students during the spring semester, to the point that I almost didn’t want to return for a second year.
The reason that I struggled with discipline was because 1) I’m not a confrontational person, and 2) I just didn’t know how to effectively do so. I admit, I was too nice during my first year of teaching, and I knew that I had to toughen up my second year. It was a matter of being firm and, if that didn’t work, sending them out for the rest of the class. Considering they were legally adults, there weren’t repercussions for kicking them out. When it really comes down to it, the hardest part about being a teacher isn’t teaching the material: it’s classroom management.
6. Grading (and more grading).
Besides standing and instructing in front of the podium every week, you’ll also need to give assignments and exams, which then need to be graded. Not to forget there’s also final grades to give out at the end of each semester. It’s a lot of papers, and you’ll quickly find yourself swamped with work to take home.
My second year was especially busy with grading, as I gave myself too much to correct. From in-class essays to oral presentations to written exams, it was a never-ending cycle that nearly led me to burn-out. It was also kind of funny, because I preferred grading to actual teaching, so I often didn’t mind the corrections. Basically, being a lecteur isn’t just about the teaching, but also the grading that comes along with it.
7. Being adaptable in unexpected situations.
My supervisor “F” once jokingly told me that my university still operated in the “dark ages” in terms of technology and equipment. He wasn’t wrong, as I taught in various classrooms with various sort of materials (or lack thereof). Whereas one classroom had a working projector and whiteboard markers, another had nothing but a blackboard (and no chalk). I taught my lessons using Powerpoint, and at times I had to improvise when there was no projector, or when it wasn’t working.
Thankfully, during my second year, my school had gone through some renovations and installed whiteboards in almost every classroom. It made writing on the board much easier and cleaner. However, some teachers would take all of the markers from the classroom, so I ended up having a few backups in my bag in case that were to happen. Similarly, sometimes there wouldn’t be an eraser– I once ended up having to wipe the board with a piece of notebook paper! If there was one thing I learned as a teacher, it was to expect the worst and adapt quickly to get through the lesson in one piece.
8. Short hours, generous vacation days.
One of the biggest reasons I enjoyed being a lectrice were the short hours (14-16 hours/week) and the copious paid vacation days under the French school system, one of the most-generous in the world. I didn’t teach every day, which gave me plenty of time to rest and plan during my days off, and I always looked forward to vacation time every six weeks.
If you teach at a French university, it’s usually a week off every six weeks, followed by the end of the fall and spring semesters for winter and summer breaks, respectively. For me, it was one week off in October and April each, along with a two-and-a-half-month long winter break and a whopping three-plus(!) months summer break. I think I had it better than other lecteurs I’ve met, since I ended my fall semester in mid-November while they had to continue until December. You can bet that I took complete advantage of my time off to travel Europe, and I went to so many places in my two years as a lectrice. And considering that I earned about 50% more than as a TAPIF assistant, I had a larger budget to travel more comfortably, which was a plus!
9. You get attached to your students.
As much as I’m reluctant to admit it, I confess that I’ve grown fond of my students I’ve taught abroad. While some of them were difficult as pupils, they were decent people, and that’s important to keep in mind. Never take their behavior or failure personally, and if they happen to learn something new at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.
Compared to other professors at my university, whom my students probably have classes with more than once a week, I only saw each class once a week for two hours each. It was not a lot of time for them to really get to know me, nor was it for me to get to know them, but I did do my best to know their names quickly. And each time I saw them each week, I tried to gauge their English abilities to help them improve, and in the process I learned a little bit about their personalities and interests. I also had several students for more than one semester, as I had taught some of them during their first year and then in their second year. Many of them were really nice and hardworking, which I really appreciated. Even if I never explicitly told them, I really cared about them and their successes, and I hope they continue to do well throughout their university studies.
10. You’ll miss it.
Even through the trials and tribulations of being a lecteur, you will miss it at the end of it all. I knew that I didn’t want to teach long-term after two years of being a lectrice (and two years prior as a TAPIF assistant), but I still am grateful for what the job has given me. Not only was I given the opportunity to live and travel abroad, but also plenty of skills (e.g. public speaking, problem-solving, confidence) that I can apply in the future. While it’s by no means a permanent gig, it’s definitely worth getting into, especially while you’re young and curious to see a different cultural perspective in terms of education, far different from your own.
Have you ever been a lecteur/lectrice d’anglais? Let me know how your experiences were!