Friday, October 17, 2008

Perpignan Schools and the Paris Complex

I am currently sitting in my room (still without internet, although the telephone company is coming to install a phone line on Monday. I hope this means I will have internet soon, but I can imagine that it might take at least 2-3 more weeks after that. Ooft. Wifi in France totally sucks) typing this blog entry into a Word document, so that I can upload it later.

I should be in class right now, and I got up at six this morning to be ready for an eight am class, to which the teacher did not show. She is sick, and apparently there is no such thing as substitute teachers in France. Which means that I got up at the crack of dawn for nothing. She reserved three of my six hours today, which means that I just don’t have to be there. This is my third week, technically, of my teaching position, and I am required to teach 12 hours a week. With all three weeks combined, I have been in class for a total of 14 hours. First it was the other school that still hadn’t contacted me. Then, I have spent at least three hours that I should have had class in the staff lounge, because my supervising teachers neglected to tell me that their classes would be in the multimedia room for a cinema session. So I show up to a locked classroom, with no indication of where anyone is. And then the teacher who is ill today makes three more hours of missed class. And next week, I have a doctor’s appointment (for immigration services…I guess to make sure I am not harboring any contagious diseases) next Tuesday morning, and my classes in the afternoon are cancelled too. So next week I will only be teaching about 9 hours. And then the next two weeks are vacation. Fortunately, I get paid no matter how many hours I teach a week, and I never have to teach above twelve.

Also, at Marcel Pagnol, they are having me stay for a half an hour in each class, meaning that even though I only teach 6 hours at Pagnol, I am seeing twelve classes a week. Do you have any idea how hard it is to accomplish anything in an hour, let alone a half an hour? I completely lost track of time in a class yesterday, and stayed in one room for the whole hour. The teacher whose class I missed found me afterwards and was furious. She said that because she knew I was coming she had only planned for half an hour, and so she had nothing more to do than play hangman with her students. What kind of an ill-prepared teacher doesn’t have a back-up plan? I’m not even a real teacher, and I know that! I felt bad for missing her class, but jeez…Take some responsibility in your own class’ planning, lady!

Needless to say, the teaching experience seems a bit disorganized and hectic so far, which is definitely not the way I like to work. I don’t think teaching is going to be my favorite part of being in France. Unfortunate, because I really enjoy teaching. But the assistantship program, as one of my colleagues pointed out, is a really weird set-up. She said is creates this false relationship (that sounds better in French, and much more eloquent, I assure you), a false environment, if you will, in the classroom. Two teachers in a classroom like that is not a normal classroom, and the students know it and the teachers know it and act accordingly. None of the teachers really seem to know how to “use” me effectively in class yet, either. There are some teachers that want me to take half of the class and teach them myself (although they haven’t given me any clue as to what I should be teaching them), there are some teachers that want me to help them throughout the class, with them doing the teaching (this “help” includes requests for me to interrupt the students’ speech and immediately correct errors, which is something I was not taught to do. In fact, it was something I was taught not to do), and there are some teachers who tell me not to prepare anything and they will do it all but then when I arrive to class expect me to conduct class (this actually happened this week…talk about a nightmare! I improvised, and had the class ask me questions the whole period. It was pandemonium). So yeah…I really am not sure what is expected of me. For now, we are still in the beginning phases, so the students are getting to know me. My next step, for those classes where I am expected to teach on my own, is to have a class discussion of the topics that the students want to cover throughout the year. I would rather be teaching material that they are interested in, and conform that material to meet educational standards for their different levels. After that, I guess I will discuss the material with the teachers, and double-check on what sort of grammar and expressions the students are expected to know.

The classes so far have been…rowdy, to say the least. The students will not shut up to save the world, and it takes about 5 minutes (this is not an exaggeration) for them to take out a piece of paper. Apparently this is normal, too, because one of the teachers told me that it is impossible to finish everything that is planned because they are just so slow at everything. In one class, however, I spent the first 20 minutes or so having them ask me questions about myself, about America, and about anything, really.* Throughout the whole 20 minutes, the students were talking over each other, talking over me, and just talking in general. They couldn’t possibly have been listening, or have heard any of the questions or answers. I finally got sick of it and told them to take a piece of paper, and I wrote ten questions (that they had asked) about myself on the board. They all kind of freaked out, and asked if it was a test, and if it was graded. I said yes. But I’m not really going to grade it. After they finished, I collected the papers, and was reading them in the staff room. Almost every student got almost every answer correct. I couldn’t believe it! They actually were listening, and learning. They were just really chatty. I will have to amend my teaching style (and lesson planning style) to account for this, however. I can’t wait to get past this initial period in the teaching program. I think that I might like teaching a lot more, once it’s not just “How old are you? Do you have any pets?” et cetera et cetera… Maybe after vacation.

I’ve written before about how I am teaching in two really “difficult” middle schools, I believe. One of the teachers at Marcel Pagnol, during our first meeting, mentioned how difficult the middle school was. Most of the other teachers at both schools have done the same. The conversation went something like this:

“You know this is a very difficult school, right?”

“Well, yes…That’s what people have said.”

“It’s true. The violence, the behavior problems. It’s unbelievable. It’s almost as bad as Paris. In fact, I think you can make that comparison—the schools here are just as bad as in Paris.”

Paris, of course, is known for what are called its “banlieues”. There is no easy way to translate this word, but the banlieues are the areas on the city’s edge, filled with HLMs. The banlieues are Paris’ suburbs, but not suburbs in the nice, Bothell/Woodinville kind of suburbs. Not American suburbia. Paris’ surroundings, Paris’ suburbs, are some of the most impoverished and violent areas of the country (for a snapshot, rent the French film “La Haine”. It’s quite good). And the teachers at Marcel Pagnol compare their students and their school to the schools in those Parisian ghetto districts.

Honestly, I don’t believe it. I haven’t been here for very long, and I have only been to the schools a few times, but I don’t see the kind of behavior problems that all of my colleagues insist are present. The students don’t seem like gang-bangers, they seem like 13 and 14 year olds. They may be a little flippant towards their teachers, but so was I in eighth grade, and I was even a good student. My hypothesis about this whole situation in my middle schools relates directly to a phenomenon in Perpignan that I have dubbed “The Paris Complex”. I cannot count the times so far that I have heard, referring to Perpignan, or another small village like Collioure, or even a larger city like Montpellier, “It’s okay, but it isn’t Paris!” It’s seems like everyone outside of Paris has this inferiority complex about not living in Paris. The city centre in Perpignan is “ok, but it’s little. We don’t live in Paris, here!” The night scene in Perpignan, “it’s not Paris…you won’t find much.” The selection of stores in Perpignan, “there are very few stores here to choose from. It’s not Paris, you know!” Over and over and over again. Alright already! So we aren’t living in Paris! I really didn’t want to live in Paris anyway. Suffice it to say, every French person who doesn’t live in the city of lights wishes they did, and constantly compare their own small city or village to the offerings of the big one.

My colleague’s equation between the Parisian schools and Coll├Ęge Marcel Pagnol, I think, is a product of this “Paris complex” too. Perpignan is by no means Paris, but Nathalie (the teacher at Pagnol), used to comparing her city to Paris, is grasping at the one similarity between the two very different towns. Perpignan may not be Paris, but hey, our schools are almost as bad if not just as bad as those in Paris.

I guess I really am not sure how bad the schools in Paris are (maybe they aren’t actually that bad, and my prejudice based on films and hearsay is misguided), or for that matter how bad the schools in Perpignan are. I will have to give it a few more lessons before I really decide.

*Some of the weirdest questions:

Have you ever met Tupac/Eva Longoria/Fifty Cent?

What are your phobias?

What do you eat for breakfast?

What do you want to eat?

For this last one, I had to clarify what the kid meant. Like for dinner, tonight? Yes…That’s what he wanted to know.


BEQN said...

Alexis said that she experienced there being two places in France "Paris" and "la campagne." If someone was not from Paris they were from la campagne. Where in la campagne? Doesn't really matter unless it's the south or coast or anything. Just la campagne.

Weird. That can't really happen in the whole US.

Also - I love that they asked if you met Tu Pac. Don't they know he's dead (or is he?)!

Chelsea said...

I've met Tupac. Obviously. And "Fiddy" and I are having some Hypnotiq later tonight. I guess that's why I'm not teaching impressionable children in France :)