Jumping over the lazy dog

or, taking the bull by the horns.

The downside of up.


I might have mentioned this before, but I love Paris. I love the cobblestones  under my black boots and the crisp wind whipping my trendy scarf as I cross the Pont Neuf. I love the hot chocolate at Angelina’s and the occasional treat of Ladurée macaroons. I love being able to walk to the Louvre on Friday evenings for a quiet afternoon with the Masters.

I am not so in love with my job.

I’m technically in Paris as an English teaching assistant. Sometimes, however, it feels as though I’m in Paris as an under-paid, under-trained, under-worked disciplinarian. Here’s the situation:

Two times a week I take on a batch of 15 sophomores and attempt to do fun things like play a speed-dating game or watch clips from American TV shows to learn slang. And I’m quite enthusiastic about the lessons I plan – I try not to do anything that I wouldn’t have considered fun when I was a sophomore learning French at Salem High School. That might actually work in American classrooms, where students are relatively disciplined and stay quiet while the teacher is speaking, even if they sulk when assigned any tiny amount of work. But oh no, not in a French classroom (the film The Class comes to mind).

The problem occurs both because of students, and because of the system under which I am supposed to be working.  First, let’s deal with the system.

  1. I only see these students every other week. Sometimes, they have tests, so I might not even see them that regularly.
  2. Their presence is mandatory, but I do not know the names of the students to be present beforehand. So I cannot take roll, and therefore cannot punish students for absence.
  3. The students are not graded based on their performance in my class. They, in essence, have no motivation to attend nor to participate, and therefore they don’t.
  4. During orientation, I was not made aware of my rights as an instructor; for example, I don’t know the protocol for when a student is tardy and claims to have been at the nurse’s office. When I ask for a note, they shrug and feign incomprehension.

I cannot imagine these students are deliberately malicious. They are talkative and I perceive them to be disrespectful, but perhaps that is because their teachers let them to speak among themselves in class, and I, as an American, see that as impermissible – a cultural difference. But the fact of the matter is that when I do reprimand students for disruptive behavior, they simply talk back and refuse to do their lines, or put down their head, or accept responsibility for their actions.

I’ve spoken to teachers about protocol, but it seems there’s not much I can do. I can send the students to the CPE, essentially to the principal’s office, but I’d rather not. Surely there is a solution to keep them  in the classroom and to engage them in the activity – positive reinforcement, rather than disciplinary action.

A few of my readers are teachers, high school teachers, in fact. What do you do when your class is rowdy, shows up tardy, or refuses to participate? How can I make my activities more engaging or enticing to adolescents? Is punishment the only answer?

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Filed under: All things French, , , , , ,

3 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    Well, my primary experience is having been in high school, and even then I was with the crowd that saw doing well in school as an imperative.

    I think they’re either seeing your class as a break from regular studies (what else can you call a class that meets every other week) or this is just their attitude toward school in general. Either way, I think your approaches have to include

    A) Direct communication of the issues

    B) Get even more creative

    A. Have you tried getting up in front of the class one week and explaining what you’ve been observing and how it frustrates you and disadvantages them? Yes, not everyone can be Michelle Pfeiffer from Dangerous Minds, but it doesn’t mean you can’t try to level with them. Kids appreciate honesty and if you make them aware how they’re making you feel, they might consider readjusting. The worst thing you can do is let them think they’re just getting away with it because you’re oblivious or too shy to confront them.

    And if you have to sort of fake more authority to get them in trouble, that always helps too.

    B. It sounds like you’re already trying hard to spice up the lesson plan and that’s good. I think you probably just need to up the ante and really try to get inside their heads. What are French teenagers really interested in that can be related to English (and yes, just about everything can be related). Sometimes games and visual media isn’t enough, it really has to speak to them. Maybe start asking around about what it is that gets them excited or listen to their side-conversations and incorporate them in class. Putting kids on the spot might also discourage them from devoting personal time to class.

    It’s a challenging situation, Am, but it sounds like it’s really worthwhile! Best of luck, miss ya lots.

  2. Queen of the Lab says:

    I’m a mean person. I’d give them a lesson about what it means to be in an American classroom, not just in a classroom learning American, so to speak. Maybe add a few barbs to their French pride?
    I’m also the TA who, when I found one of my English students trying to cheat during a quiz in the practical, snuck up behind said kid and clapped really loudly behind his head. A couple of evil eyes kept him in line. I’d probably be the teacher that mentions what she expects from kids in classrooms whenever they mess up, though I have to admit them not getting graded really messes things up.
    Good luck! (And if I get this job at the boarding school, maybe I’ll learn something more for you.)

  3. amritaraja says:

    Good advice from the both of you! Well, I agree with Phil in that I can try harder to find things they’ll find even more interesting and some how connect them to English…but I also think I need to be more firm. I had a talk with The Brit and he mentioned that he had teachers who would make you leave class if you were disruptive, but those are the teachers that people often respected more because they took their job seriously. I think I can do a combination of the two. Prepare better for my courses, and stop being a rug. Leveling with the kids at the next lesson is my plan for now…

    P.S. Queen of the Lab, what’s this about a boarding school?

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