Saturday, September 22, 2007

Recommended guide to France

If you're looking for a guide to France, you could do worse than read the Instructions for British Servicemen in France, 1944, which Mme le Prof bought the other day. It makes fascinating reading for two reasons: firstly, a lot of its advice would be well heeded today by anyone abroad, and secondly because of the insight it gives into how the Brits saw (or were encouraged to see) France and the French. It's certainly a far cry from hop off you Frogs or cheese eating surrender monkeys!

Here's what it says about the fall of France in 1940: A great many of us [the British] ... blamed the French. [...] The French remember an aspect of the war which we sometimes forget: the fact that Britain was not overrun in 1940 was due not only to Mr Churchill and "the few" of the RAF, it was also due to our being protected by 20 miles of sea and the Royal Navy. If the Germans could have crossed ... the Channel ... are we quite sure that Britain would not have suffered the same immediate fate as France? (page 33). On the French military: It is time for us ... to think rather less about the French collapse and rather more about subsequent resistance in France (page 31). Remember, too, the heroic French stand made at the battle of Bir Hakeim and the way the French drove the Germans out of Corsica (page 32).

Hmm, I never saw that in the Sun or the New York Post.

There's plenty of stuff here that's still valid 60 years on: Drop any ideas about French women based on stories of Montmartre and nude cabaret shows. These were always designed as a tourist attraction for foreigners (page 26). Do not grouse at the French in general if you should meet a French "bad hat". There are probably one or two "bad hats" in every British unit (page 41), but my favourite is Remember to call them "Monsieur, Madame, Mademoiselle", not just "Oy!"

There are a few useful French phrases with pronunciation (commont-allay-voo? and Ee-ah-teel kel-kern key parl ongly?), and it makes the point that French nouns are masculine or feminine, noting that English is the only language without these gender complications (page 45), which sounds suspiciously like "English is simpler and easier than French". On the whole though, the guide is highly respectful of France: they [the French] think that France is a very great country, with a great record of civilization and they have every reason to do so.

But its general message is probably best summarised on page 11: There is another kind of thoughtlessness ... commoner among British peace time visitors abroad... It consists of airing the opinion that such and such a foreign country ... is very lucky to have chaps like us passing through ... It is amazing how many people ... can imply by their whole manner that the world in general, and the place where they have just arrived in particular, hardly come up to their standards. Well, that kind of attitude, however innocently silly, will be out of place in France.

60 years on, people still need to be told this kind of thing.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Back to school

Went back to the school again today, got shown where my pigeonhole was, where the photocopier is and so on. You can tell the English teachers' classrooms by the faded posters of Big Ben, Scots Guards, Beefeaters and so on. One of them avoids being too British-centred by having a picture of a Mississippi steamboat and the Twin Towers... I don't have my own classroom; I have to go to the top floor, then take a turn into a dark passage marked "Here be dragons", and the four rooms on the left are the ones I teach in. Pity, I would've liked to put some classroom language on the walls.

I observed a class today, to get some idea of what would be expected. It was actually pretty communicative (lots of monitored pairwork and so on), which surprised me as everything I've heard about the French system led me to believe it's all drilling and grammar-translation. Some of them seemed to have a level of spoken English on a par with the first year university students I used to teach! Do they forget everything at lycée (high school), I wonder? At the start of the lesson, the kids all have to line up outside the classroom, and they aren't allowed to sit down until the teacher says so. Sounds a bit disciplinarian, but it helps to make a clear break between playtime and getting down to work. Sarkozy would be pleased; in a recent open letter to teachers, he said pupils should stand up when the teacher enters the room, like they used to.

First actual teaching tomorrow. Gulp!

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

To serve the Republic

Yesterday I finally got to visit the school and meet some of the staff. It really looks like a desirable area; no buildings over three storeys, no concrete blocks, clean streets and so on. The school itself has no graffiti and there's a wide age range of staff (too many young teachers is usually a bad sign as it means no one stays any longer than they have to).

The deputy head seemed a bit suspicious of me, but the head welcomed me with open arms and said, without irony, how glad lucky they were to now have un citoyen de Sa Gracieuse Majesté working in their school! Good thing I didn't mention how I feel about the monarchy... The English-teaching staff are very excited to have a native speaker on the team, although they speak to me in French most of the time. Most of my classes are 11-12 year old beginners so I shouldn't need to put the fear of God into them to get some work out of them since they've only been there a week longer than me.

The only cloud on the horizon is that someone from the academie rang to say there was a problem with la D.O.S. (I don't know what it stands for either -I'm still brewing a blog post about initials in this country), which means I can't be officially installé yet, which might mean a delay in getting paid. Probably means there's yet another paper in the President of the Republic's in-tray waiting for his signature. Well, I suppose he is my boss now...

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Gotta job, gotta job, gotta job...

So, after four days' wait (after being promised a call at the start of the week - see Talking to the Organ Grinder) and yet another phone call, I finally get told where I'm supposed to be teaching! Vivent les fonctionnaires!

It actually doesn't look half bad. Obviously I can't go into details, but it's in a very nice area, and the languages it offers include Russian, Latin and Ancient Greek. It also has a school choir and a special music section. Now I'm guessing that a school that's able to offer that probably has nice kids to teach. It's a collège, which means the kids will be 11-14. Young enough not to give too much grief, and their voices won't have broken. Squeaky kids' voices can go through your head a bit when they all talk at the same time, but you can conserve your larynx by speaking in a low tone, which cuts through all the high frequencies without the need to shout them down. (Top tip for all you TEFLers with kids' classes!)

Anyway, it looks like my main worry won't be getting stabbed while trying to teach conditionals (If you stab your teacher, he will scream; If you stabbed your teacher, he would scream; If you hadn't stabbed your teacher, he wouldn't have given you 10000 lines and a detention), but whether my clothes will be smart enough.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

New EFL website - worth checking

Regular contributors to Dave's ESL Cafe might have noticed how threads on his discussion forums mysteriously disappear whenever anyone says anything bad about his advertisers. Well, now he has a rival.

David's English Teaching World has lots of really useful information, plus forums that aren't censored just to keep the advertisers happy. Of course, this means that anyone with an axe to grind can log onto the forum and slag off a school just because the DOS didn't give them a day off, but the schools have just as much right to reply. Apparently Dave is riled enough that posts on his forums referring readers to David's site don't stay up long themselves! Anyway, I wish David (not Dave!) all the best with his website, and hope all you TEFLers will get over there and start posting, safe in the knowledge that you can criticise the advertisers without getting banned.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

England vs Israel

OK, it's not a football blog, but it's only fair to point out that today's game actually made for a more enjoyable evening than I'd been expecting when I last posted. Doesn't mean I now think Steve McLaren is a master tactician, as the Israelis tonight couldn't have defended a bird table from the local squirrels, but the England fans couldn't really have asked for more than what they got. Now let's see what happens against Russia on Wednesday...
Aaargh! It's after our nuts! Defend! Defend!
(Image from )

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Talking to the organ grinder

I got through to someone at the academie yesterday. It was the number I'd been promised was the right one, which I'd been dialing for days and when I finally got through, the person said I wasn't supposed to be doing a full time placement, but studying at the IUFM (teacher training college). When I pointed out that I had a letter from the Ministry specifically saying that I'd be doing a full time placement, she, true to form, said she wasn't the right person to handle my case, took my number and email and promised to get back to me later that day once she'd found out who the right person was.

24 hours later.... I ring, speak to the same person and get passed onto yet another person. I swear I'll know the names of everyone in that building by the time this is over. However, this new person actually seems to know what he's talking about, asks me to fax the letter over, tells me that there are no full time placements (full time = 18 teaching hours in the French system), but would I be happy with a 12 or 14 hour week? Wahey! More blogging time - you lucky readers, you! I've been told which part of the academie it's likely to be, and expect another phone call on Monday. He also took my mobile number so I can leave the house now. Oh, the joy of feeling the breeze on my face again!

Anyway, the moral of this story seems to be if at first you don't succeed, keep trying until you get to speak to someone with the authority to do something. In France that can take a while, because people are afraid to do anything without permission from their boss, who in turn won't give permission unless his or her boss says it's OK, who in turn...until you reach the President. Sarkozy probably spends most of his time signing forms for trainee teachers and other bottom feeding civil servants.

Think I'll celebrate by going out to watch England vs Israel tomorrow. That should make for an enjoyable evening...

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

They won't get me, I'm part of the union...

Since I hadn't had any news about my job, and since no one was picking up the phone at the academie, someone suggested I give the unions a call. Now I know French trade unionists generally get a bad press and the general impression is that they call a strike any time they're asked to do any actual work, but I have to say I was impressed. Someone actually picked up the phone withing ten rings, listened to me, sounded concerned and didn't just try to pass me over to someone else. Result!

They actually rang me back the same afternoon to let me know they'd been in touch with the academie, and there were, indeed, some serious delays going on. Quite reassuring to have someone else tell me that I'd done all the right things as you expect fonctionnaires to try to make out it's all your fault because you put your signature two millimetres the wrong side of the dotted line or something (the best tactic in this kind of situation is to be stubborn enough that it becomes more work for them not to solve your problem).

What impressed me most was that I'm not actually in a union right now. I was a very active union member in my last job in England, and there was no way I could help anyone who wasn't a member, and not even then if the problem had arisen before they'd joined. It seems that over here they can help anyone. Maybe that would explain why I read somewhere than only around 10% of French workers are unionized as opposed to around 30% in the UK. Why hand your money over if they provide services like this for free?

The trouble is that most people only hear about unions in the press when there's a strike on, so they naturally think that all they do is pick fights with le patronnat. OK, every union has its headbanger loony members who joined up to smash capitalism, but the good work they do hardly ever gets mentioned. Of course, if certain people did their jobs properly, unions wouldn't need to get involved.

BTW I did actually get through to the academie myself this afternoon, but I'll tell you about that later.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Nothing succeeds like success?

Today's Guardian reports that an MEP for the BNP lite UKIP has been jailed for benefit fraud. So far so good, but one particular phrase caught my eye: The court heard that Mote ran a successful public relations company employing 30 full-time staff until it collapsed in 1990.

A successful company that collapsed? What would an unsuccessful PR company look like?

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Still no news

Phoned the academie today to find out what was happening. Got to speak to a rather irate jobsworth administrator who wanted to know why I wasn't at my place of work and getting ready for the kids who come back tomorrow (erm, because you people haven't yet told me what my place of work is, and your academie is one of the biggest in France). She did give me a couple of direct lines to people who should be able to advise ... or at least might have been able to if they'd been in their offices to answer their phones.

In the meantime, I'll tell you about part 2 of the Capes; the oral exams.

There are 2 tests, one in English, which is about English-speaking culture, the other in French and about teaching. In the first, they give you a literary extract, a nonliterary piece of writing and a picture, and you have 5 hours to prepare a 20-minute talk (plus Q&A) on any common themes you can identify. In my case, I got an extract from Bend it Like Beckham, some equal opportunities info about educational achievement and a photo of a muslim woman wearing a Union Flag as a veil. Given all the talk about veils lately in the UK, this one was a bit of a gift, but fair's fair, I'd had to write in French about The Scarlet Letter to get this far so I figure I deserved a break.

For the second test, you get some teaching materials which you have to comment on in French. Again, five hours prep for a 20 minute presentation. It shouldn't be too hard if you've taught before, but you need to arm yourself with a few educational buzzwords. Having taught in the UK for six years, including running a department, I could talk the talk in English but in French it was a bit harder.

Anyway, these certainly have more to do with actual teaching than the written stuff; if you can't carry off a 20-minute talk in front of a jury of 3 adults, how are you ever going to cope in front of 30-40 teenagers? However, I have my own ideas of how the second test could be improved further and made more realistic:

1) Provide the candidate with a book of photocopiable activities (Hadfield's Elementary/Intermediate/Advanced Communication Games, for example), a grammar book, a pair of scissors and access to a photocopier.

2) Reverse the times - 20 minutes preparation for a 5-hour class. (OK, so few classes are 5 hours long, but 20 whole minutes of prep time? That's generous!

3) Set the photocopier to jam every five or six copies. Any self-respecting teacher should know how to unjam photocopiers.

You now have an accurate simulation of a teacher at work. Tough but fair.

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

MPA's Laws of Friday Evenings

Still no news from the academie. I was planning to phone them on Friday but it completely slipped my mind, so I'll try on Monday morning.

The reason I forgot was it was my last day in a summer teaching job that I'd agreed to do before I'd found out my Capes result. Being the last day, there were end of course tests to mark, and the obligatory party where each group performs, then long, drawn out goodbyes. After finally extricating myself about an hour after I'd hoped, I was finally half way down the road when I remembered I'd forgotten the cake tin I'd used to carry my contribution to the party. This has led me to postulate the existence of what I call Monsieur le Prof d'Anglais' Laws of Friday Evenings:

MPA's First Law of Friday Evenings:
The probability of leaving a personal possession behind in your place of work is PROPORTIONAL TO:

1) the number of people you say goodbye to
2) the effusiveness of said goodbyes
3) how glad you are to be getting away


1) the number of days remaining in your job
2) how glad your employer is to see you go

MPA's Second Law of Friday Evenings:
The value and importance of said personal possession is PROPORTIONAL TO the SQUARE of the distance travelled from your place of work before discovering that the object has been left behind.

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