Whether you’re a student, a parent, or a teacher yourself, you know these past several weeks have not been easy. Even if you’re not a teacher you also may be adjusting to working from home. I won’t even compare my situation to those of you who are essential workers helping those in need and continuing to make the world go round.
This school year has technically been my first year teaching full time. After student teaching French in the United States, I moved abroad to France for the Teaching Assistant Program in France where I worked as an assistant English teacher. Now, I’m working in a university in the South of France as a “lectrice d’anglais,” which is kind of like a lecturer. I teach mostly conversation classes to students studying English as well as other disciplines like History and Geography. From planning my own curriculum to moving to another new city and school, it’s been a challenging time despite the few years of experience in the classroom I already had under my belt. Mid-Spring semester, during a trivia night event for the university’s English association was when I heard the news that starting next Monday, in-person classes would be cancelled indefinitely. We were all in shock, but at least we were able to process the announcement of this change together. In the following weeks I had to adapt my curriculum and learn more about online teaching tools all while getting used to life on lockdown.
These are 5 ways my English teaching job in France has changed since going digital:
1. Lesson Planning
As a lectrice and native English speaker, most of my classes are speaking-focused. When I plan lessons I either think about a goal I want my students to achieve like being able to talk about their favorite music or present a persuasive argument. Other times I look for articles, podcasts, and videos about current events and interesting topics and create discussion questions to get the students talking. With my non-specialist classes I like to add a little bit of grammar reinforcement or speaking tips. Sometimes planning is quick when I have a good idea, but most of the time it takes a lot of preparation because I want to make lessons that are captivating and engaging.
Not much has changed about the content of my lessons, but what is different is how I plan to deliver that content. In addition to creating lessons, I now have to send more e-mail updates, organize meetings on Zoom, and put all materials and discussion questions on Moodle, my school’s online learning platform. Most of the lessons now consist of comprehension and discussion. For example if I shared a video with students about Tiny Homes, I’d ask them questions about the video to see if they understood it, then I would ask them about their own opinions.
As I mentioned before, most of my classes are conversation based. To start class, I usually like to greet students and see how they are doing that day. I often use an activity called “Circle the Wagon,” which I learned in grad school. The basic premise is that the whole class sits in a circle and one by one each person shares their name, an emotion they are feeling that day on a scale of 1-10, and something good that happened to them recently (or another question of the day). Then I like to introduce the day’s topic or speaking focus and have students react to an article, video, or audio recording and respond to questions about it. Depending on the length of the class I’ll include a grammar or vocabulary activity. I like to end the class with some sort of mini-presentation or project. For example, during a class about “Slowing Down” I had students work together in small groups to create a “slow company” and convince the class why they should book a session with them.
Now that my lessons have moved to the Internet, class discussions have become more difficult to organize. Not all of my students have access to the internet or to a device that will allow them to meet virtually, so the class sizes have shrunk dramatically. I’ve used mostly Zoom and Discord to hold video or audio discussions, but I also use Moodle to post articles, videos, and chat discussion boards so that students can still participate if they can’t make the Zoom meeting. I’ve found it difficult to incorporate partner and small group activities, which I usually do a lot of because it helps the more reticent students be able to participate. Although I can teach online at home on my couch, sometimes in PJs, I much prefer teaching in person, even though it can sometimes drain my energy.
Grading is probably my least favorite part about being a teacher. I hate assigning a number to a student who may have worked hard all year only to get nervous during a speaking exam. Working in France has added another challenge to grading: getting used to a different system. In the US, we grade out of 100 and a 75%, or a C is considered average. In France the score is out of 20, and a 10 is considered average. It could be my American optimism, but I think that teachers grade more strictly in France; a 20/20 is almost impossible to attain! However, I try to keep the mindset that as long as I prepared my students well, and they practiced on their own, then a test or oral presentation should be a “celebration of learning.” I also encourage my students to not be afraid of making mistakes in class because that’s how they grow as a learner and become more fluent in English.
Grading tests and papers before online teaching was a necessary evil, but something I could get done without too much hassle while another class was taking their exam, at home on the couch afterschool, or in a café on days when I didn’t have class. Speaking tests went by quickly because they were done one student after another during class time. Grading online is so much worse. To grade essays or written tests I have to either grade on the Moodle platform or sort through my e-mails to find the work students sent me. Perhaps I’m more of a paper and pen kinda gal, but I find that giving students feedback via email or an online comment takes so much longer than just writing it on their test. For oral exams, students either send me audio recordings or we have to schedule zoom/discord meetings. Organizing meeting takes longer because you have to send students a message for when they have to sign up and then schedule the individual meetings. I’ve used Doodle and GoogleDocs to help with scheduling. Luckily not all my students use Zoom, otherwise I would have hundreds of meetings during exam weeks. These meetings take longer than in-person too because you have to account for technical difficulties.
4. Mental and Physical Health
I stated earlier that this is my first year as a full-time teacher. Getting used to being in the classroom all day and having to be “on” all the time even if you aren’t feeling so good sucks the life out of you. Although I love living in France, being away from my home country, family, and culture can make me feel frustrated sometimes. However, I enjoy my place of work and the company of my colleagues. I have been able to travel and experience new places and meet new people. Because I work at a university, I’m not at school for 8 hours a day, and I even have Fridays off, though a lot of the time I use those “days off” to lesson plan. I have a live-able wage and access to affordable healthcare. I belonged to a gym and often cycled or walked to work, and was on my feet all day running from classroom to classroom. I don’t love every aspect of being a teacher, but as a lectrice I have been able to continue my dream of living in France and sharing my passion for language and culture.
After being in quarantine for 7 weeks now, I’ve gotten used to life in my apartment. A few weeks ago, I was scared to go outside, even just to walk or buy groceries, things I’m allowed to do. I was distressed and stressed. I fought more with my boyfriend and worried about our futures. Instead of walking around campus and standing while teaching, I now spend most days sitting in front of my computer or lying on the couch, only getting up to go to the kitchen or follow a YouTube workout video. Nowadays, I’m more comfortable going outside to walk or jog, but I still stick to the mornings when there are less people out and about. My eyes get strained easily and sometimes I’ll get headaches from staring at my computer screen for too long, which is unavoidable when teaching online. The semester is almost over however, so I just have a couple more weeks of virtual exams and grading to do.
5. Human Interaction
One of the best parts about teaching is the human interaction. I love exchanging teaching strategies with my colleagues and sharing our cultural differences and similarities over tea and coffee breaks in the office. I love laughing and having deep conversations with students when our class discussion takes a detour. I love helping students feel more confident and empowered with their English. I also love what the students can teach me.
With online classes, I only see and hear a few of my students, and even though the Zoom meeting was a pain to organize, it’s often the highlight of my day. I hear from other students in the snippets of emails and audio recordings they send me. Other students I haven’t even heard from at all. I wonder how they are doing adjusting to online university. Some of them are home with their families, but others are all alone in their studios. Who knows when the next time I see them will be? The school is supposed to re-open in September, but that’s just an estimate. I don’t know if I will ever see the seniors again.
Luckily, the university allows their lecturers to stay for two years, so in the Fall I will hopefully be able to see my students and colleagues again. I’m hoping next school year’s classes will all be in person, but if another outbreak were to happen, at least I now know how to teach online.
Thank you for taking the time to read about my experience. Let me know in the comments how work has changed for you recently and if you’d like to know more about my life here in France!
À la prochaine,
P.S. Curious to see more of my life as a lectrice d’anglais ?
Check out these vlogs of teaching life before and after confinement: