Today is National Teacher Day, and it’s hard to imagine that almost exactly a year ago today, I was preparing to leave behind a year of teaching English in France. This time last year, I was attempting to pack an entire bedroom’s worth of stuff into a suitcase. I had spent the previous eight months assistant teaching English in three primary schools in the French city of Angers with the French Éducation Nationale’s TAPIF program… and I was exhausted. Mind you, I had no reasonable excuse: I worked 12 hours a week and got two weeks of vacation for six weeks of school (totaling a whopping two full months!). Plus I was living smack in the middle of a wine region in the Loire Valley; I was living, by definition, the good life.
But many of my students weren’t. Two out of my three schools were officially classified as being in the ZEP (Zone d'Education Prioritaire), the French classification for high poverty schools - the kind of environment that can really wear a teacher down. I entered the school year expecting my students to be little French angels, enchanted by the idea of meeting an American straight from New York. And, indeed, my first few classes were peppered with adorable questions along the lines of, “Do you have to take an airplane home after school everyday?” but my novelty quickly wore off. Many of my students were born outside of France and were already familiar enough with the experience of the foreigner. Class time with me quickly became an opportunity to throw paper at the back of my head, imitate me to my face, and kick me in the shins (who knew how easily Simon Says could become a contact sport!). By the beginning of my second week, I was taking breaks to secretly cry between classes.
Yes, I was basically living the first half of “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” but with 8-year-olds… and in France. And, yes, my story also has a reasonably happy ending. By the end of the year, we had grown accustomed to each other; we had learned each other’s boundaries, but more importantly, we had learned to laugh together. Teachers in the ZEP and in schools around the world work hard to create safe, supportive classroom environments – becoming masters of the alchemy of turning aggression and frustration into laughter and trust.
As I said goodbye to the kids who made me cry, one boy came up to me on the playground and pulled this note out of his sleeve (transcribed exactly as written): “Dear Théa, We miss you already, you are fantastic. We were happy end when you were in our class room. We wish you good holidays. Hello Théa good bay thea!” Undoubtedly, he and his classmates had put their heads together to compose this masterpiece (with outside help, I’m sure), and I was grateful. Of course I was thrilled by this somewhat unexpected display of affection, but more than that, I was gratified that they had created something for me in English even though they knew I understood French. They had reached across a gulf much larger than that between teacher and student.
Today, of all days, I’m thinking back not only on my year in France, but also on all the amazing teachers who made my experience in France possible. My engaging, imaginative French teachers ultimately enabled me to apply (and be accepted) to this teaching program, and inspired me to smile through the tears. Today, let’s all think about the amazing educators in this country and around the world who practice patience and compassion to create a classroom environment that is both supportive and inspiring.