Assistant Spotlight with Amber Sweat
I knew I wanted to eventually feature Amber on the So You Think You Can France blog when I'd watch her Instagram stories (really!!).
Although we've never met (although I know I will when I venture up to my sweet Paris!), I just had a hunch that she was a rad chick because of her mentions of cool lessons she was planning, how she was making her life in Aubervilliers (just outside of Paris) her very own, and her boldness at being silly and real for people watching!
I'm so excited to share this version of Assistant Spotlight with you all and I hope you enjoy Amber's interview as much as I enjoyed receiving her answers!
Hi Amber! First things first - where do you come from?
Howdy! I hail from the great state of Texas! I was raised in the Dallas area, but lived in Austin for college.
What made you want to teach English in France?
French was my major and has always been a huge part of my life! My ultimate goal is to become a French Professor in the United States. After some mentorship, tutoring and teaching gigs at UT Austin, I decided to flip the switch and try teaching English in France for a while. For a few months, I lived in Paris as a research fellow at the Sorbonne, but fell in love with the hustle and bustle of the northeastern banlieues. With this in mind, I applied to the Académie de Créteil, was accepted, and I have never looked back!
What level do you teach and how do you like it?
I teach at a lycée and I absolutely love it. I work with students in 2, 1, and terminale (equivalent to sophomores, juniors and seniors in the USA). My kids vary in their English levels -- from very rudimentary to near-fluent -- but they are all incredibly curious and enjoy asking me about life in America! Even with the lower levels, I've been so lucky to have some great talks from subjects like rap and race relations, to fast food, to pets, to Pictionary and everything in between.
What are three tips you have for future language assistants who want to teach in France?
1. When you get assigned to a school, you will be given a contact teacher known as a "tuteur/tutrice." They are going to be an indispensable force. I've been very lucky to have an awesome mentor teacher (and really amazing colleagues in general), and if you find that y'all are able to maintain good conversation and a positive rapport, keep it up! They will help you with everything, from finding temporary lodging, to ameliorating situations with difficult classes, to recommendations for lunch and so on. Some people do not have this connection, and if that's the case, look for a surrogate in the form of a secretary, another teacher, a landlord, or a speaking group, and so on! This also greatly helps mollify loneliness when the holiday season comes.
2. On loneliness, you may very well get lonely/homesick and that is completely, completely okay. I think when people move to France, we don't have "the right" to complain, because getting a funded work opportunity in Europe is a privilege. However, you are allowed to be homesick and ask for help. A lot of the time, this happens because we assistants have too much time on our hands (12 hrs/week is not a lot!) and we spend a lot of time alone or in our own minds. Try to get involved in those other hours, as much as possible. In a large city, this is pretty easy- in smaller cities, think about keeping pen pals, writing letters, volunteering more of your time at the school, etc. Boredom is dangerous, and if you feel it creeping, start looking for involvement or travel opportunities. Also, reach out to other assistants; even a sporadic Facebook message can remind you of the awesome community you're a part of!
3. Always remember that your job is not to teach English in a formal sense, but instead show your students that English rocks, and they have all of the potential to learn it and speak it! Students tend to love assistants and have tons of questions, but they may be nervous and stay silent. Make sure you break that wall as soon as possible by being a "no judgement, no grading" type of zone. Reassure them and remind them that they're doing a great job. What's also important to note is that, because we're native anglophones, we can understand them completely fine, even if they make mistakes -- this is something that sets us apart from other teachers, and makes them more comfortable with us. Flaunt that you're American/Canadian/British/Irish/Jamaican/Australian/etc.! I think that, for the most part, we work really hard to integrate into French society through bureaucracy, the way we dress, etc. Celebrate the fact that the school is the place where you're allowed to be unabashedly and proudly Anglophone :)
As a language assistant, what resources do you find useful (for planning lessons, for using in class, etc.)?
Honestly, the various assistant Facebook groups have been awesome. Assistants list tons of ideas that I've been able to bounce off of or recalibrate for certain levels, and people are so generous and willing to share what does and doesn't work for them. Make connections with other assistants in real life, as well! Being able to brainstorm with people in your position makes life much easier.
What has been your favorite lesson or activity you've been able to do with one of your classes?
I wanted to teach in a ZEP (zone d'éducation prioritaire) and have since been placed in one. As mentioned, I love it, my kids are amazing, but traditional topics aren't the most fun or engaging for them. I was really concerned with making sure the kids talked about what they *want* to talk about and, on the first day of class, "rap" and "music" were very common responses to "what interests you about anglophone culture?" This made me incredibly excited, because I LOVE rap as well, and grew up on hip hop. From that, I made a lesson on rap, and it has been my most successful to this day. I had the kids watch a music video (I heavily recommend "i" by Kendrick Lamar, the studio version) and had them brainstorm certain subjects that rap talks about (racism, money, luxe, gangs, etc.) From there, I had them create a rap persona, tell me what they would rap about, and why. The responses were hilarious, but also incredibly sentimental and profound.
What are you currently doing or working on in your free time in France?
I'm in the process of finishing up my applications to PhD programs in the States, so that's taken up most of my time this semester (cross your fingers for me, please!) I started learning and practicing German, and am also refining my Spanish, so I imagine that those languages will take up a nice amount of my time in the spring. I also do some freelance translation, and plan to start tutoring when I find an opportunity!
Have you done much traveling since being here? Any favorite places?
I haven't done a lot of traveling just yet, because I've spent the first few months relaxing and settling into the flow of life. That said, I just got back from my first trip, which was a weekend stint in Amsterdam -- heavily recommend, (especially around Christmas; it's GORGEOUS and you can find some AMAZING bus deals!) In the spring, I'm going to Spain, Portugal, Germany, various (undecided) countries in eastern Europe, and hopefully some Nordic countries.
o you have any budgeting advice for assistants in France?
On rent: I'm placed in a school that is a 5-minute walk to Paris, and, like many people in the Paris region, I really wanted to live in Paris (which makes total sense, since it's beautiful!) This tends to be the case for most big cities. However, I chose to live in my banlieue, and I've had a very positive experience. Rent tends to plummet once you leave the city limits, and that has given me more money for travel and experiences. Of course, this is completely up to your comfort level and what you want/availability, but it is possible to be immersed in big city life, even if you're not living in the proper center (bonus points if you're lucky enough to live on the metro line!)
On travel: Look as far in advance as you can. Buses are cheap and actually relatively comfortable if you want to visit bordering countries like Brussels, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Italy, etc. I even took a bus to the Netherlands, and it was great! When going to a farther country, planes are typically cheaper. Travel with only a carry-on to save money on checked baggage, and stay in hostels (they're tons of fun, and meeting other travelers is awesome!)
On everyday life: Try as much as you can not to eat out; this is always my cardinal sin. Cook, cook, cook, and don't shy away from getting a carte de fidélité at your local supermarket or squatting to the bottom shelf of the wine aisle :) If you have to buy food, local boulangeries and small businesses tend to offer better deals on quick meals like lunch, as opposed to fast food places or big-box markets. I know self check-out/those machines at McDonalds are tempting because you don't have to speak French and can get in and out quickly, but nothing beats a warm boulangerie quiche after classes on Wednesday!
That's about it! Any last things that you'd like to add or any parting words to current and future teaching assistants in France?
Feeling grateful and being frustrated are not mutually exclusive. You may be so happy to get into TAPIF, but a little sad that you didn't get into your top choice region. In one day, you can take an absolutely beautiful and breathtaking walk, then get rejected by the third bank you've visited just one hour later. One day, all of your classes will give you amazing answers to prompts on gun control, then the next, they may not be able to say their own age. That's okay, and it's normal, because it's life! The bad doesn't always have to cancel out the good. The TAPIF experience, as with most experiences abroad, is very idiosyncratic and all about balance -- balance within yourself, balance within your school and balance within society. Try as best as you can to balance yourself and find ways to maintain this equilibrium. Also, always feel free to ask for help from your mentors or friends, and keep communication fluid.
France is such a grandiose and amazing country, and social media has become so powerful, that we feel inclined to do big, amazing things on the daily (like scale the Eiffel Tower, pop champagne or fall in tumultuous love with a stranger.) Not only is this not realistic, but when you become a worker in a society, you'll start to get used to the quotidian, dumb, day-to-day frustrations that become that much more evident. To combat this, always celebrate little victories, like the sun being extra warm, the 45 cent coffee in the workroom, a student smiling at you in the hallway, a really good croissant, your bank card coming in, or a kid perfecting the past tense of "to go" -- there are so many little things to celebrate during assistantship, and remembering them will make the experience that much better (the Eiffel tower is pretty cool, too!)
APIF is an amazing experience and I am so, so happy that I have the opportunity to work with such a great program. The connections and friendships I have made are lifelong, and I encourage everybody who is considering it to go for it -- you won't regret it!
Where can people find you in the online world?
Wow, isn't she lovely?! A BIG thank you to Amber for taking the time to answer these questions in such a beautifully thoughtful way.
If you want more insight into Amber's French life, DO check out her blog Amber is a Person - her writing is charming and silly and will 100% make you smile (I'm sure of it!)