26th May 2000 at 01:00
Seven months in Paris working a 12-hour week must seem like an easy life, but the job of an English assistant is harder than it first appears. I work in Cesson, 40 minutes from central Paris, as my year out of an English and French degree at Manchester university.

Arriving in Paris homeless and with no teaching experience was terrifying. I was sent on a two-day training course and was then lucky to have nearly three weeks of lesson observation.

As new "teachers", our task was daunting. One assistant arrived at a school to a display of confiscated knives and news that the English teacher was leaving after a fight with pupils. Expecting short lessons with a few pupils, I was surprised to find that I would be teaching in four different schools with classes of up to 30. I spend nine hours a week teaching nine to 11-year-olds and three hours with 14 to 16-year-olds. I have a syllabus for the younger pupils, but there is no guidance with the older classes. As their only English teacher and first contact with the English language, I feel under some pressure.

Unexpectedly, lessons with the larger groups are enjoyable, partly because a teacher helps with discipline, a problem for many new assistants. However, in another school, I take responsibility for half the class in a room without chairs, and pupils find it difficult to remain still. I am learning to have no qualms about sending children out of lessons. Although some pupils can be troublesome, it is immenselysatisfying when beginners learn something new. However, I do feel that unqualified language assistants should not be allowed to teach such a vulnerable age group - an opinion reinforced by a Sunday Times (February 13) survey which revealed that "English children's language and problem-solving skills surpass those of their French counterparts". How is an unqualified teacher supposed to teach them a new language?

We are doing a teacher's job without the money or respect and credibility enjoyed by the rest of the staff. Some teachers are friendly but many ignore you. We sometimes feel like an "inconvenience".

French schools can also appear disorganised. Our timetables had not been arranged when we arrived and even now do not take into account the long distances some of us have to travel to work. One assistant has to get up at 5.10am to get to work on time. I do not have a set register, making it hard to get to know pupils or even what lesson to teach. It is also hard to occupy older children who think it uncool to learn English. There are problems of resentment with pupils who have been kept back a year, as can happen under the French system.

My experiences have taught me valuable skills; I am more independent and know how to command respect and authority. I consider teaching as simply an obligatory part of my degree. But the really sad thing is that many assistants had thought of teaching, but are now considering other careers.

Katie Samuel

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