Teaching in a Primary School: What to Expect - Part 1
I feel so lucky to have the chance to feature Anne Donnelly - a major TAPIF player - on So You Think You Can France. This coming year (2017-18) will be her THIRD year as a primary teaching assistant in France. I don't have extensive experience with primary school teaching, so I was so delighted when Anne offered to share one of her posts from her AMAZING blog, Present Perfect, which will provide you with everything (seriously, everything) you need to know about teaching English in France, especially at the elementary level!
In my time spent stalking all TAPIF blogs past, current and future, I’ve noticed the prevalence of secondary assistants across the interweb. It makes sense: there are way more of them! There are many commonalities between the expectations and experiences of primary and secondary assistants, but there are also many specifics that are quite different. Seeing as most of the information out there seems to be geared towards the secondary level, I want to share some ideas that will be specifically helpful to current and future primary assistants, as they can be very different jobs.
Now that I have my assignments, who are the people I should know?
Sometimes it can seem like finally getting your arrêté de nomination (work contract), creates more questions than it answers! Some assistants are assigned only to a local school district (DSDEN, IEN, or IA) and will learn their specific school placements on arrival. Others will be assigned directly to 1, 2 or even 3 primary schools (pro tip: anything starting listed as E.E. PU (école élémentaire publique) is a school!). Here’s a list of the various people you may work with over the course of the year and whom you’ll want to get in contact with. In secondary schools, these roles are usually held by people who work at one of your schools, at the primary level, many of the administrative aspects are handled outside of the schools. It’s good to be aware of the various roles and how each person can help you!!
1. Conseiller pédagogique - this is your primary contact, who works for the local school district and will be responsible for helping you settle into your new town and schools. (In secondary schools this role is usually held by a language teacher at one of your schools, but in primary it is someone who works in the admin office.) The CP can also help you with ideas and resources for your lessons over the course of the year, and especially if you are having any trouble with your schools. They are initially a liaison between you and your schools when you arrive, and will probably be somewhat involved with organizing your timetable, especially if you are assigned to more than one school.
(1.5) Gestionnaire - if you teach in a large city with lots of primary assistants, you may also have a separate administration “gestionnaire” to help you with the more logistical aspects of enrolling in health care, getting your salary, etc.
2. Directeurs/ices - I’d definitely recommend sending a quick introduction to the directeur/directrice of each of your assigned schools! You may not get a reply until after the summer vacation, but I’m sure they’ll appreciate hearing from you, and may even be able to give you advice on logistical things like searching for housing or figuring out public transport! In France, the directeur of the school also teaches a certain amount of hours during the week, so you may teach English lessons in their classroom, or you may not… They will however, be responsible for organizing your time within the school - deciding which classes you’ll intervene in and for how many hours. If your arrêté doesn’t mention how to contact your schools, you can search them in this directory to contact them directly!
3. Colleagues - These are the teachers in whose classes you will be intervening!! Each will have a different style of interacting with their assistant: There are the Teachers who leave it all up to you, Teachers who send you with half the class, Teachers who prepare everything for you, Teachers who co-teach with you. Some will be really strong in English. Some will barely speak more English than their students… You’ll turn to them for advice on what to do day-to-day, what subjects to teach. Technically, they are responsible for planning the subjects their class will work on, so be sure to ask them if they already have any routines or a program established.
4. Students - TAPIF officially states that primary assistants will be dealing with children ages 8-11. Well, I am here to tell you that is not necessarily true at all. The grade levels you may be intervening in will depend on your school. I have worked with every class starting with the youngest 3-year-olds in preschool to the 10 and 11-year-old CM2s. A friend of mine only had classes of CP (age 6), while others worked exclusively with the oldest two classes (the advertised 8-11), and still another worked almost exclusively in preschool and kindergarten classes.
(tl;dr on Grade Levels):
Here’s a quick breakdown of acronyms and grade-level equivalents:
PS: petite section, 3-year-olds
MS: moyenne section, pre-K
*GS: grande section, Kindergarten
*CP: cours préparatoire, 1st grade
*CE1: cours élémentaire 1e année, 2nd grade
*CE2: cours élémentaire 2e année, 3rd grade
+CM1: cours moyen 1e année, 4th grade
+CM2: cours moyen 2e année, 5th grade
*These classes are considered part of “Cycle 2: cycle des apprentissages fondamentaux”
+These classes are considered part of “Cycle 3: cycle des approfondissements/consolidation“
So, what’s it like in the schools?! What is my role?
My first time as an assistant, I had a fairly unique experience in an English immersion school, with three designated English teachers, where students have several hours per day of English instruction. As a result, I planned only about half of my own lessons, and the levels for said lessons always skewed a few grade levels ahead of the norm. I had very competent colleagues, almost all of whom spoke nearly fluent English, and who gave their students a lot of English instruction outside of my time in their classrooms.
During my second placement in Marseille, this kind of support was definitely not the case. Split among three different schools, I was treated more like the English teacher and given a lot of autonomy with my lessons. In some classes, I was pretty sure the teachers weren’t doing much English outside of the time I was there, and while all of my colleagues had minimal command of English basics, some were not very confident in speaking or teaching it at all.
Your role will depend on your colleagues. Most of mine gave me a calendar of topics they wanted me to cover, but then pretty much let me do whatever I wanted. A few were true co-teachers with me, which meant I would just show up and we would lead games or other activities together. Some of my first colleagues were so confident in their English skills that my role was basically to circulate throughout the room and help out any students needed it.
Cara is a former primary assistant in Auch (académie de Toulouse) with a very classic assistant experience, and she writes about her various roles here. Beccy was a primary assistant when I lived in Chambéry, who worked in neighboring Aix-les-Bains. Read her retrospective list of things she wishes she’d known about the assistantship here.
What will my schedule be like?
In my experience, most primary assistants are assigned to at least 2 schools, and often 3. This means you’ll be teaching around 4-6 hours at each establishment. I would, however, plan to spend closer to 7 hours at school each day to account for lunch and recess breaks. In Chambéry, I lived close enough to my school that I usually went home during the lunch break. In Marseille, this wouldn’t have been possible, so I packed my lunch and ate it at school. I really enjoyed the time spent with my colleagues in the teacher’s lounge, and know that it helped me improve my French and gain some insight on French school culture. In both cases, I never went to school more than 4 days per week, and my colleagues made a concerted effort to condense my hours as much as possible — this won’t be the case for everyone, but since primary teachers have more autonomy in organizing their daily timetables, they can often be more accommodating than secondary teachers who are dealing with a fixed timetable. Check out my two schedules below.
2016-17 Marseille Timetable (3 schools) -
014-15 Chambéry timetable (1 school) -
I hope this very long article is helpful to all future primary assistants! Please visit my blog Present Perfect for more tips and stories about my two years as an assistant, and don’t hesitate to contact me or comment with more questions!!