Teaching Assistant in France Survival Guide/Living
Once you've found a place to live and filled enough paperwork to avoid being deported, you can relax a bit and enjoy your surroundings. You'll suffer through periodic intervals of démarches administratives, but remember that you only work 12 hours a week and have ample vacation time.
Your teaching responsibilities will depend on your school level you work and where you work. (The assistantship program is not well standardized across the country or even across académies).
In any case, the work will almost certainly be better described as “teaching” than “assisting:” you will make lessons on your own, teach class on your own, and often discipline students on your own. This may come as a surprise, since everything about the assistantship program implies the opposite (the name, the salary…).
The first classes
You will have a week to two of "observation" before you actually begin teaching. Take advantage of this time to see how teachers interact with their students — it can be quite different than in the US. Attend as many classes as you can, especially with the teachers you'll be working with (but you could even attend ones in other subjects — it's interesting), and insist on observing before you jump into teaching. It helps a lot.
Your first few classes will probably be the most difficult to prepare for since you won't know what to expect. Fortunately, you can take advantage of your “new, interesting foreigner” status to entrance the students for at least the first few lessons without really teaching very much.
When you first appear in front of the class, introduce yourself in English with detail appropriate for the students’ English knowledge (name, age, home country, etc…). Before everyone's eyes glaze over completely, stop and ask “Qu'est-ce que vous avez compris?” Through comprehension and guesswork, they should eventually recite most of what you said.
Continuing your introduction, ask the students if they have any questions about your home country. They should have a lot of questions, more than you'll likely want to answer. When this becomes tedious, you can move on to a lesson about the anglophone countries of the world — the only required material is the classroom's world map — and before you know it your three quarters of an hour will be up.
One way or another, you’ll need a copy of the class roll to learn the students’ names. That is, unless you remember names like Anaïs the first time you hear them. Get a roll from the teacher or administration office, or make your own.
It's also a good idea to let the kids introduce themselves — it gets them to talk instead of talking about yourself. Give them a model, then when they tell you something, ask open ended (not yes or no) questions about it — what kind of movies do you like? Where do you play basketball? etc.
If you are teaching high school, expect the first few lessons to be more demanding. The kids will likely understand nearly everything you say in English, so you will need to have a lesson or an activity for every class.
One important piece of advice from the assistant from the UK to anyone going to a collège or lycée: Don't ever, ever speak French in class. Your aim is to get them speaking English, not French, and if you start by speaking French, they'll know you can, and won't bother making the effort to communicate in English. Your perfect English is going to be way better for them than slightly flawed French! It might be harder at first, but they'll get used to it. If they don't understand, repeat, rephrase until they do. Give them the benefit of assuming they CAN understand English, and that if they don't get something at first, they will after a bit of explanation - remember to be patient. Insist on an English-only classroom as one of your rules from the beginning, along with giving you as much respect as their normal teacher - tell them you'll exclude them and never teach them again if they disrespect you - usually works as they often see the classes with you as more fun than normal class! You do need to set down rules from the beginning - no good doing it three months when you're having a few problems getting them to speak or to behave!
A different opinion on speaking French in the classroom from a French and English teacher having a stint as an assistant: Sometimes it's just much easier, quicker and more effective to quickly translate into French. The students understand, feel comfortable and speak LOTS of English in my classes :) And the empty threat of "tell them you'll exclude them and never teach them again if they disrespect you" is just ridiculous. You have absolutely no say in who you teach. And most students wouldn't disrespect you anyway, so don't worry!
Lessons you can live with
Since you're only paid to work twelve hours a week, and you’re assigned twelve hours in front of students, you’ll probably be reluctant to do much class preparation work. But out of charity for your students and your own self esteem, you should probably devote some time to it.
You will feel better about your job if you teach your students something new with every lesson. Don't get too caught up the official vocabulary lists and séance guidelines. The best way for you, a native language speaker, to contribute is to pass on useful, popular vocabulary.
Work in language units (family, animals, food…) and come up with games. There are a lot of things you can do with a minimum of preparation, and a lot of things you can reuse. Just don't repeat the same exercises too much or you’ll bore the students into misbehaving.
You may also bore yourself. One thing that helps is to keep a detailed record of everything you do with every class in every session. This will help you make sure that you can repeat your lessons for all of your students. Depending on your school and teachers, you may have one group of kids twice a week or just once a month. You might have one student at a time; you might have 30.
It's not easy to teach English to French kids of any age. If you're not a natural teacher, you may get frustrated. Don't expect too much help from the teachers. Either they'll be eager to help you, or you'll just be a way for them to get an hour off. Remember that it's a part-time job, and that you're in France to learn French, travel and drink wine. Class time passes and, every couple of months, you get two weeks off.
Too little work?
You will discover that you have a lot of free time on your hands. This can be a good thing, but this can also be very depressing. Twelve hours a week is already very little, and many assistants never even work this much (especially in a lycée situation). This is because your classes depend on the teachers you work with, and if they don't work, you don't work. Whether there's a strike (which happens often), they're sick, they can't organize the lessons to fit you in because they're behind, the students have to have a test, it's the day right before or right after vacations... And then they forget to let you know you aren't needed so you go to work and voilà, no students.
You could travel with all your free time, but the €750 salary doesn't really permit much of that. Trains are expensive in France (check out the SNCF website for prices), though certainly not as expensive as in the UK. A Carte 12-25 will help cut costs too. Do whatever you can to find extra things to do. Do not depend on your assistant job as your life, because it's not much of a life. It's not an engaging job. If you're lucky and extremely outgoing, you'll make friends with teachers at your school. Some of the teachers will see you as a way to get some time off, others may possibly even see you as a nuisance. Some assistants have found that "French people aren't very friendly in general, and you're a foreigner who's only there temporarily - DON'T expect a warm welcome". Many other assistants, however, experience quite the opposite and you may be pleasantly surprised at the warm welcome you receive! Probably there will be other assistants around to hang out with. The feeling of having very little to do and having very few obligations can be a shock after the rigorous university life which typically precedes the assistant experience. However, it's worth bearing in mind that the assistantship is what you make of it. Depending on your school and the work you are expected to do, putting in a bit of extra effort during the week can be rewarding and fantastic CV fodder!
If you're in large town or a city, give private English lessons. This work will be fairly easy to obtain if you live in a sizable town or city and if you advertise yourself as soon as you arrive as "Anglais Langue Maternelle". Set yourself up from the beginning. Schedule as many students as possible, and don't worry if it seems like a lot, because every week a few of them will cancel for one reason or another. Look for places you can leave "petites annonces" - university billboards, the local newspaper, bookstores or even the laundromat. If your French needs work, say you want to do conversation exchanges. If there's a university, you'll have even better luck as students will call you for translations or to do their homework for them. Asking about €10 an hour is normal.
You are probably used to handling much of your personal business over the phone. The idea of going to a local office to talk about a billing issue seems quaint. Why not just call the free customer service number, wait on hold for a few minutes, and settle things from the comfort of your living room?
This is not the way things are done in France. First of all, free numbers are rare. Most customer service numbers in France are toll numbers that cost much more than calling a standard number in France, or even calling the United States! With the discount phone company TELE2, calls to the U.S. cost 0.06 € a minute; calling the SNCF for information on the latest train strike will run you 0.34 € per minute.
Even if you are willing to pay the high price of the call, you will find you can't accomplish very much as the minutes are ticking away. You'll be working in a foreign language without the aid of gestures and aren't likely to get much empathy from your interlocutor.
The better alternative is to use services over the Internet or, if so equipped, over the Minitel.
If necessary, show up in person. If it's possible to make an appointment somewhere, make one. Otherwise, wait in line. That way you won't waste any money, and your chances of resolving the problem are better. As a teaching assistant with more free time than disposable income, it's the sensible choice.
Before launching into your problem, it is extremely important that the French person you are dealing with perceives you as polite. You should ALWAYS start the conversation with "bonjour" and a smile, which will cause them to overlook all your grammatical mistakes and then some! If you omit this, the French person will often tell you very coldly that there is nothing to be done. Again, thank them at the end of the interview whether they were able to help you or not. You may have to deal with them again. And don't say anything unkind in English--even if they don't speak English, a colleague might.
Language assistants have all of the vacations that students have. That means you have about a week off at the end of October, two weeks off at the end of December, a week off in February, and two weeks off in April. Don't go home unless you have to. Instead, take advantage of France's central location and travel as much as you can.
As mentioned elsewhere in this survival guide, the Carte 12-25 is essential for young assistants, saving you 25 – 50% on every trip. If you're over 25, you can still benefit from Prem's fares (which must be reserved on the Web from two weeks to two months in advance, with no possibility of changing or cancelling the ticket). Take a Prem's to Paris and then a night Prem's to Rome, for example.
For complicated SNCF reservations (excepting Prem's), find out if your town has a Boutique SNCF separate from the train station. There, you can sit down with a usually capable employee and work out a complicated itinerary of which the Web site is incapable.
Don't be afraid of night trains. Traveling in a sleeper car is an effective way to get somewhere far away without wasting too much time. Usually it costs a bit more to travel in a couchette (sometimes you can opt instead for a siège inclinable), but with a Prem's fare it's the same price. Furthermore, in many night trains, special compartments have been created for women travelling alone (compartiment pour femmes voyageant seules). When you travel overnight on some international trains (to Italy, for instance), the ticket controller will usually hang onto your ticket and your passport all night. This is nerve-wracking, but you can't do anything about it. Remember to put your belongings somewhere safe while you're sleeping.
It is possible to buy Eurail passes before you leave the USA (or for your parents or friends to buy them in the USA and send them to you). You can get a train pass good for 30 days with unlimited travel for much less than you would pay purchasing tickets on a case-by-case basis. Depending on whether your city has a TGV, it's possible to get away even for an afternoon. With a day off, and a TGV available, it's possible to go from anywhere in France to Paris, spend the day, and be back for tomorrow morning's class.
Depending on how close you are to another country, you might also benefit from that country's or that region's train service. If you're in the Southwest and want to go into Spanish Basque Country, look into Euskotren which extends all the way to the SNCF station at Hendaye. Within other countries there are whole train and bus networks, just as in France. In Spain, there is Renfe, Autores, and Alsa. Spanish trains aren't great, and the Spanish seem to get around mainly in buses, which are cheaper and faster.
In Italy, there's Trenitalia. The Italian version of their website is much more useful, and even if you don't speak Italian you can probably navigate it with your knowledge of French. Italian trains are cheap and frequent. They tend to move slowly and sometimes off-schedule, but their ticket machines make it seem easy to get anywhere. Prices of Italian trains depend on the distance you're traveling and what kind of train you are in. Look at a few different fares on the machine before you decide. Prices from Naples to Rome, for example, vary from 10 € to 30 €.
Resist the temptation to buy a Eurail pass. Unless you can determine that it will save you money, it probably won't. Furthermore, many Eurail pass-holders have to pay supplements on certain trains (like the TGV and night trains).
Don't forget to validate your train ticket when necessary. Most countries require it.
Apart from trains, you might be able to take advantage of cheap European airlines, like RyanAir, Easyjet, and Volare. Sometimes you have to fly through London, but if you're near another hub airport (such as in Nice or Lyon), you might not. Keep in mind that these airlines have extremely rigid luggage limits and arrival times. You might forfeit your ticket by arriving less than an hour in advance. Also keep in mind when using these discount airlines that the planes often land in small airports outside of the destination city named (planes heading for Brussels land in Charleroi, a town nearby.) Usually these airports don't have close connections to train stations, so you will probably have to buy a ticket for the shuttle bus the airlines provide in order to get into town.
Americans are allowed to rent cars in France, and sometimes this is the best option if you're traveling with three or four other people. Rates vary, and there is usually a surcharge for those under 25. Some sites to look at:
For driving directions, the best site is Mappy. On their site you can select directions for toll roads or free roads, and unlike Mapquest, they give you toll and gas costs. This is useful when making a budget.
On that note, you should know that there are two ways to drive around France. One is on the modern and expensive Autoroutes, the other is on the free, but slower, routes nationales. If you're not in a hurry, the free option is nice. But remember that your kilometers are probably limited in a rental car, and that free roads use more of them. Plan accordingly.
Make sure you don't surpass your kilometrage, because it gets expensive per kilometer once you're over. Also, make sure the gas tank is full when you return the car or you'll be charged la peau des fesses.
Similarly, if you're traveling with a bunch of friends, consider renting an apartment for a long weekend in foreign city. Flatsbydays has great rates in Barcelona . That way, you can buy your food in a grocery store and not have to go out for every meal and cup of coffee. If you must stay in a hotel, shop around before reserving. Eurocheapo has good, cheap suggestions for numerous European capitals. You might also benefit from last-minute hotel sites, like Rates to Go. Even if you're staying in a hotel, you can drop by the local market and stock up on foods you don't have to cook, such as pastries, fresh fruit, and cured meats, and save yourself quite a bit of money.
Most European cities have an abundance of pension hotels, which are in between a hotel and a hostel. You have your own room but share a bathroom with other people. Many of these establishments do not take reservations. They ask you to just show up in the morning and see what's available. This may seem totally illogical, but if you get to a city in the morning you're sure to find something quickly.
If you're driving a long distance and need to stay somewhere on the road, look into Formule1 hotels. Rooms are in between 20€ and 30€ per night for up to three people (but the entire system is automated, so no one will notice if you walk in with four or even eight people).
Another good option, whether for short or longer stays, is a youth hostel. You don't even have to be young. Merely buy a hostel card (either at the hostel or even before you leave the USA). They are sparse (you'll usually have to share a room with up to 20 other people), but they include breakfast and the best have lockers and safes for valuables. Some hostels have more private rooms, and if they're not full, it's easy to get one of these. Be warned, you will have to share a bathroom, and the hostels are notorious for particularly virulent strains of athlete's foot, so wear flip-flops in the shower! Some hostels will take reservations; if you arrive without a reservation and they are full, most will call around to the next hostel down the road. Most hostels close between 9 am and 3 pm, so make sure you take what you need with you for the day if you're planning to stay longer than one night. A good site to check out for reasonable, usually clean hostels is http://www.hostelworld.com.
The rumors about thieves are true. Be unreasonably cautious with your belongings at all times, especially on trains and at beaches. Don't fall asleep in a public place, and don't carry anything important in your back pocket.
Renting an apartment in Paris
A good resource to find an apartment to rent in the Paris area is the free FUSAC magazine found at many spots where foreigners go. It's web site is: 
You will find offers for apartments from agencies and directly from owners who don't ask for a finders fee, such as this one: 
Some owners who rent directly also offer help with various administrative procedures for your move in: EDF, telephone, internet, bank, rental insurance, CAF….