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Why the Teaching Assistantship Program in France is Ideal for Young Writers

Teaching Assistantship in France

A joint initiative of the French Ministry of Education, the Centre International d’Etudes Pédagogiques (CIEP), and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy [1]; the Teaching Assistantship Program in France (TAPIF) is open to US citizens who would like to teach English as a second language to elementary or high school students in France on a 7-month contract (October through April). Candidates should have completed at least two years of higher education by the beginning of the program and have attained a B1 level proficiency in French (pdf), roughly the equivalent of having satisfactorily passed three semesters of university-level French. The job itself consists of providing English conversation exercises to small groups of students and occasionally giving talks about some aspects of American culture. So, considering these qualifications and expectations, why do I claim that this particular ESL position in France is ideal for young writers?

Time

First and foremost, the TAPIF affords young writers time to hone their craft. The job itself is quite manageable; assistants are only required to maintain a teaching schedule of 12 hours per week. In terms of preparation time, I spent 8 to 10 hours per week preparing for my 12 hours of small-group conversation exercises. It helped that I communicated often with my head teachers, not only to maintain a collegial atmosphere, but also to make sure that I remained current with class curriculum. That way, I did not have to draw exercise curriculum from scratch, and the students benefited because they were able to put content and ideas relevant to their class in practice with me.

In addition to the light weekly schedule, there is plenty of vacation time in France. First, there is the Toussaint holiday, which is two weeks off starting in late October. Then, there are the two weeks off for the Christmas break. Winter break is two weeks off at the end of February or beginning of March. Finally, the assistantship contract ends with a week off; the last week in April. You are therefore provided with seven full weeks of paid vacation out of a 28-week contract. A young writer could utilize this time to produce important work or travel for yet more experience and inspiration often historically conducive to writing. Not to mention, when I worked as an assistant in Saint Jean d’Angély, I had an extra week off because it snowed five inches one day. On day four of the school’s closure, I sheepishly asked a colleague if I would still be paid my usual salary.

His reply: “Bien sûr!” 

Qualifications and Teaching Experience

This position is ideal for young writers because the qualifications are not unreasonable. You need not have a teaching certificate of any kind, just the following:

  • Three semesters of French.
  • At least two years of higher education.
  • A desire to work with young people.

Experience teaching or tutoring is of course helpful, but not required. Once one has landed the job, there are a few mandatory training days where a representative from the French Ministry of Education helps the assistants come up with ideas for their sessions and lets them know about helpful resources online. I found that this was also a fantastic occasion to make social and professional connections with counterparts from my assigned region.

Furthermore, we all know how difficult it is to make a living solely as a professional writer, and the TAPIF helps young writers with an interest in teaching gain initial experience that is crucial in the competitive world of writing and writing pedagogy. As an assistant, I found out how rewarding it can be to help others improve their language skills, which inspired me to pursue a dual career in teaching and writing. My own language skills in French also improved a great deal naturally, with no formal courses, just from immersion and everyday use. Young writers who participate in the assistantship program will thus find themselves more marketable as writing teachers and tutors, and their foreign language skills will be greatly enhanced.  

Health Insurance/Social Benefits  

Along with ample paid time off and professional development, the TAPIF is an ideal job for young writers because it offers full health benefits. Assistants are covered automatically by the French “Sécurité Sociale” which covers 70% of medical costs, 35-65% of prescriptions, and 80% of hospitalization fees in France. Supplemental health insurance, which I obtained for less than 30 Euros per month, covers the rest. Every American in a creative field, whether they are a writer, artist, or musician, knows what a luxury health coverage is; this post in France allows seven glorious months where one need not worry about going bankrupt from medical bills.

In France, there are also many social benefits for young writers. In terms of transportation, the French train system, Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (SNCF), offers a reduction card for riders ages 12 to 25. This card discounts train travel from city to city in France. The “Jeune 18-27 Railcard” costs 40 Euros and is good for a year, but I made up the value of the card the first three times I used it. France also rightfully prides itself for its world-renowned museums, which are often also discounted for students. The many world-class museums, monuments, and parks can serve young writers well as sources of artistic and intellectual inspiration.  

Respect!

There is a famous story that when William S. Burroughs was arrested on suspicion of importing narcotics into France in 1959, Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press published Naked Lunch. This move, the story goes, was helpful in getting Burroughs a suspended sentence. The French-American writer Ted Morgan remarked that Burroughs should not be surprised; a literary career is actually respected in France. Respecting writers, from my experience, is a tradition that continues to the present day in France. My colleagues were very interested to know that I had published poetry and nonfiction articles, and one colleague, a history teacher with whom I did not even work directly, was thoughtful enough to give me a copy of a novel by a local author (George Simenon, born in Belgium, but representing La Rochelle). Obviously, this anecdote is from my particular experience, but it seems representative of the respect that French people tend to have for writers in general.

Realities to Bear in Mind

To be fair, I should mention some potential downsides of the TAPIF. The first is, of course, the frugal living the job necessitates. The job pays 790 Euros after taxes and some schools provide housing (mine did, which helped a lot) but others do not. Therefore, assistants do not live like rock stars, but perhaps this will prepare young writers for the years of frugal living which likely lie ahead. All in all, though I had to keep a tight budget, I always felt the terms of the job — with seven weeks paid vacation out of 28 and only a 20-hour workweek — were more than fair.

In addition, there is the waiting to consider. Candidates for the assistantship must be flexible and patient while contract decisions are made. The TAPIF website has a typical timeline, and some of my fellow assistants were waiting for long-stay work visas until September. Accepted assistants then had to immediately buy plane tickets, travel to France, find housing, and get settled in — all before their obligations began in October. Submitting paperwork as promptly as possible and keeping meticulous track of documents helps with the process, but it is important to bear in mind that TAPIF candidates must be flexible and patient while paperwork is processed and contracts are assigned.

A Unique Opportunity

In closing, the Teaching Assistantship Program in France is ideal for young writers because it affords them time to write, valuable professional development opportunities, and an occasion to share their love of language with younger learners. The social benefits of living in France are outstanding, and travel to a foreign country, especially one with such a rich literary tradition, is sure to inspire any young writer.

I remember, in the Jardin du Luxembourg on a sunny April day near the end of my time in France, I opened Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast and picked up where I had left off earlier that day. Sure enough, the particular passage chronicled a time when Hemingway was writing on a sunny afternoon in the Jardin du Luxembourg. He was hungry because he had skipped eating lunch that day to save money.

It was three in the afternoon, and my stomach growled. I took out my pen and notebook.             

Reagan Sova Reagan M. Sova, a PhD Student & University Fellow in the English Department at the University of Louisville, has published work in Ghettoblaster Magazine, Consortium (University of Colorado), and Slughorne (Eastern Michigan University), as well as in various print zines and on his blog, reaganmsova.com. During the 2011-2012 academic year, he worked as a teaching assistant in Saint Jean d’Angély, France.
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