Studying languages comes with one undeniable perk (amongst many others, of course) – a compulsory year abroad. Away from university stress, and with the chance to explore somewhere new, as well as practice and improve your target language, going abroad for the year seems almost too good to be true.
But with any adventure there must also be the stress and anxiety of planning. Choosing exactly where to go and what to do can be a minefield, and the pressure to make the most of your opportunities can be overwhelming.
When faced with this dilemma, I asked myself why exactly I was studying French, and where exactly I’d have the best time. Of course, like with most existential questions facing a student, the answer was “I’m not too sure”, so, instead to painstaking over the options, I left my fate up to the higher powers of the British Council.
This meant that I was signing up for a seven-month placement as an English language assistant somewhere, anywhere, in France (…or its overseas territories if you fancy further afield). Whilst the application process allows you to express some preference – which age group you can teach, whether you’re looking for a city or rural experience – the truth is you don’t really have any idea what to expect.
Whilst this seems incredibly daunting, I found the mystery of it all quite exciting, and told myself I would make the most of the experience no matter where I was placed. After all, it’s only seven months, and the French school system notoriously has a lot of holidays.
The application also allows you to suggest a preference of location, however this comprises of different academic regions in France (different to the départements). So when I selected the académie de Grenoble in my application, I still wasn’t really too sure what that would entail. Nevertheless, I was attracted by its proximity to the mountains and the south, and thought to myself that despite my poor knowledge of French geography I had made the right decision.
And several painstaking months later, in April, I found out that I had indeed been placed in the académie de Grenoble. Success! I had secured the seemingly impossible and been placed in my first-choice region. But what next? I asked myself. I wasn’t set to start until October, and I would not find out exactly where I would be working for several more months, so as time went on my optimism and excitement turned to nerves.
Curious family members and friends would bombard me with questions, and I found myself at a loss for answers when even short weeks away from starting my job I had nowhere to live in France, and extremely limited contact with my employers. “It’ll be fine!” I reassured myself and worried parents, but the truth is there was really no way to no what was going to happen.
As it happens though, I was right. It was extremely fine. Better than fine, even. It was great!
The catch with British Council placements is the numerous and cavernous unknowns. It can seem so overwhelming to even the most carefree and spontaneous students. But I can attest to the fact that dealing with the logistics of moving away with little time for preparation and organisation make you a much stronger person.
When I was given details on the high school in which I had been placed in Chambéry, Savoie (I had never heard of it either), I immediately sent emails and tried to make contact with English teachers I would be working with. Of course, this was in the middle of July, and extracting a reply from a teacher in France even during term time can be a herculean task, so I had to wait until much later to receive a reply and some much-needed reassurance that I would not be totally alone in an unknown town in the middle of the French Alps.
As it happens, the colleagues I had in my high school were unbelievably friendly and helpful, but they did not fall short on the French stereotype of being laid-back and disorganised to an alarming extent. This did not mean that they could not put me up in a house for a week when I arrived whilst I found a flat-share in the town, or that they did not invite me to staff meals and drinks, and help me to navigate opening a bank account and a million other bureaucratic tasks which gave me a near-constant headache.
I soon learnt that nothing involving paperwork in France gets done easily, and more importantly, I learnt that this did not really matter and to just go with the flow. This was such an important lesson, because whilst I went into a friendly and welcoming work environment, many assistants are not so lucky.
Working as an English assistant can certainly have its downfalls, and some schools have a reputation for being particularly flakey and disorganised. This can be a massive problem for student arriving and being given little support and structure. Whilst scary, in my opinion this should not be a deal breaker.
The French educational authority organises a training weekend for all language assistants in your académie at the start of your placement. Assistants can be from all over the globe, so it’s a great opportunity to meet people in a similar position to you and find a support base. This is usually a very international experience, so expect to use your French language skills, but equally don’t feel pressure to be perfect because it is not going to be any of the assistant’s mother tongue.
All assistants share similar concerns of loneliness, homelessness, and embarrassing yourself in front of a class of unimpressed teens, but the good news is that you will not have to look far for other people in exactly the same boat. It can take time to adjust to the language, the bureaucracy, and the unknowns, but by taking each challenge as it comes and by finding others who can relate to your experience, you can ensure that you have an exciting, challenging and ultimately rewarding year abroad experience.