Ciara McLaren on a day trip to Biarritz, a seaside town on the southwest coast of France.
Ciara McLaren on a day trip to Biarritz, a seaside town on the southwest coast of France.

After graduating with her master’s degree, Ciara McLaren moved from Florida to a small town in western France to work part-time as an assistant English instructor at a public school.She was paid roughly half the French minimum wage and lived in a dormitory for young workers.McLaren says the beginning of her stay in France had many challenges, from overcoming the language barrier and experiencing culture shock to learning how to work well with teenagers.Still, after two years in the program, McLaren says she would do it again “in a heartbeat,” and encourages others interested in teaching English abroad to go for it with “eyes and mind wide open.”Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

For the past two years, I’ve taught English for 12 hours a week in small, idyllic French cities. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. 

Before you start playing the world’s tiniest violin, hear me out: I was an assistante de langue, a classroom aide for English teachers at French public schools. As nice as it may seem to work part-time in the land of baguettes, champagne, and bimonthly vacations, teaching is tough. It’s even tougher in a culture that is not your own. 

The Teaching Assistant Program in France recruits Americans ages 20-35 to work part-time providing English instruction in French public schools for €785 per month, plus health insurance. I was fresh out of a rigorous graduate program and having conversations in English  for 12 hours a week seemed like a vacation in comparison — I applied, got in, and made plans to move to France. 

Lesson learned: Moving to a foreign country is not a vacation. 

By the time I applied to TAPIF, it had been three years since I’d spoken a word of my intermediate college French. I tried my best to prepare by watching every French movie on Netflix, but with the school year rapidly approaching, I could still barely string a sentence together.

Immediately upon arrival in Paris, it became clear that this would be a problem. It’s one thing to be an English-speaking tourist, and quite another to be an English-speaking resident. I did my best to express myself using an expansive English vocabulary, my best French accent, and elaborate hand gestures. The result of these attempts was usually tears: tears at the bank, tears at the train station, tears at the phone shop, etc. 

Once I had cried my way to a French phone number and rail card, I traveled south to the city where I was assigned: Niort. The small city has two main claims to fame: One, it contains the headquarters of several insurance companies, and two, the great writer Michel Houellebecq called it one of the “one of the ugliest cities” ever. (For what it’s worth, I actually thought Niort was quite charming.)

The view from the Donjon de Niort, a medieval castle in the downtown area of Niort. Ciara McLaren
The view from the Donjon de Niort, a medieval castle in the downtown area of Niort.

To make ends meet on my minimal salary (half the French minimum wage), I lived in a foyer des jeunes travailleurs, a dormitory for young workers. With CAF, a government housing supplement, I paid just over 50 euros a month in rent for a small room next to a shared toilet. Not exactly Versailles, mais bon. 

My first day on the job, the culture shock hit me before I walked through the door. 

Outside of the school gate, dozens upon dozens of teachers and students alike were chain-smoking cigarettes. 

The school where I would be working was a lycee professionnel, a vocational school, with students ages 15-18 (with some older and younger outliers).  It specializes in automobile repair and bodywork (which I knew nothing about), and the student body was made up of about 95% boys. 

This turned out not to be much of an issue. Most of my students, regardless of age, gender, or career path, asked me the same questions during class time. “Do you have a gun?” “Do you like Trump?” “Have you met XXXTentacion?” No, no, and no. 

I turned their questions back on them. Do you have a gun? Do you like France? Have you met Macron? Also no, no, and no. But it provoked a conversation, in English, which was really my only job. And I liked my job, most of the time.

ciara mclaren Good bread, jambon cru, and courgette salad from the local market of Pau, France.
Good bread, jambon cru, and courgette salad from the local market in Pau, France.

Speaking English with students was simple, but not easy. 

Teenagers are teenagers wherever you go, and discipline was a constant issue. I sent students to the principal’s office for everything from sexual harassment to physical fights. Despite my part-time hours, I always looked forward to school vacations. 

On a hike in the Pyrenees (don’t look too closely as the sheep). Ciara McLaren
On a hike in the Pyrenees (don't look too closely at the sheep).

Many weeks, I didn’t even work my full 12 hours. Shortly after I arrived, the gilets jaunes protests erupted across the country, and more manifestations against austerity and school reform followed throughout the year. Daily life was so disrupted that some days I couldn’t get to school, or would arrive to find the gate locked and nobody there. 

In those moments, I turned to my profs référents, the teachers assigned to look after me. They answered my questions, invited me to their homes, and included me in conversation in the break room. Sometimes, they’d forget to tell me there was a strike going on, but they were always very apologetic afterward. 

Fresh pastries from Le Pain Pascale in Pau, France. Ciara McLaren
Fresh pastries from Le Pain Pascale in Pau, France.

Looking back on my two years spent teaching English in France, I feel both privileged and exploited. 

On the one hand, I worked 12 hours or fewer a week, with frequent vacations, in one of the most beautiful countries on earth. On the other hand, the job combined two very difficult things: being a foreigner and working with teenagers. 

In testimonials on the TAPIF website, former assistants describe freedom, friendship, and growth. They don’t mention the long hours spent fighting with French bureaucracy to accomplish basically anything, from getting an apartment to validating your visa. They don’t mention how hard it is to control your temper when your students won’t stop asking you whether you prefer “French fry or French kiss.” In Facebook groups and local assistant meet-ups, we would commiserate over our difficulties and celebrate our triumphs. 

In quarantine in Pau, France, in March 2020. Ciara McLaren
In quarantine in Pau, France, March 2020.

Despite some challenging moments, I would do it over again in a heartbeat. Two years working part-time hours in France gave me the time and space I needed to become a freelance writer. My contract ended earlier this year, and after months of quarantine in France, I returned to the US in early July. (Despite everything, it’s home.)

On a balcony overlooking the Pyrenees, January 2020. Ciara McLaren
On a balcony overlooking the Pyrenees, in January 2020.

Still, I would tell anyone considering teaching English abroad to go for it — with eyes and mind wide open. 

Being an assistant de langue may seem like a dream job, but it’s really just like any job, with one big difference. Some days it’s great, other days it’s awful, but either way, you’re in France.

Ciara McLaren is a freelance writer with bylines in HuffPost, Gastronomica, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work on Substack. 

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