I get like one question every once in a while about how to apply for the teaching assistant program, and I always get super-pumped and want to type an essay back in response gushing about France, and going abroad, and adorable children. I thought I’d give an objective-as-possible rundown of the program I went with for any wayward Internet stranger looking to go abroad.
Learning about the program: The official website for the French teaching assistant program is right here. Applications are generally accepted starting the fall of the year before you want to go to France (for example, I applied in November 2009 to get in for the 2010-2011 school year). The application includes standard information, a chance to talk about relevant experience, a medical clearance form, and a letter of motivation (written in French!). I believe there’s a small application fee. To be eligible for the program, you have to be a US citizen (other anglophone speakers can apply! Most English-speaking countries have this program in some capacity), between 20-30 years old, and have completed at least 2 years of higher education — including 3 semesters of French. No teaching experience or TEFL certification is necessary, but I’m sure it can’t hurt.
Another amazing resource is the Assistants in France forum, where you can see what other prospective and current assistants are going through in terms of paperwork, money, spending their free time, classwork, etc. This is also a killer time-waster in those last, lazy weeks (months?) of senior year when you feel like you should be answering Life Questions and Deciding What To Do With Your Future.
Money: If you end up working in France, you’ll get about 780 euros a month — but you won’t get your first paycheck until the end of October, after having lived and worked there for a month. I would suggest bringing $1-2k in savings to pay for an apartment (most places that rent to foreigners might want a couple month’s rent in advance; at the very least, first & last month plus a deposit) and various living expenses until you get paid. After that, I found it manageable to pay for rent, food, and have a little left over for small trips. France is unfortunately not cheap, especially when you compare the euro to the American dollar, but you can make it work. Many assistants find babysitting jobs or privately tutor students to make the sting (“It’s 9 euros? Wait, for one gin and tonic?”) hurt a bit less.
Schedule: For Americans, France is the place to come to slow down and spend less time sitting at a desk. Even full-timers enjoy solid vacation time and a 35-hour workweek, but as assistants, we’re legally forbidden to work more than 12 hours a week. Yeah, seriously. Combine that with a 2-hour lunch break and Wednesdays always free (if you’re in primary schools, at least) and it may seem like you have more time on your hands than you bargained for. It’s easy to fill up, though, with private lessons, class preparation, meandering walks around town (a big fan), cooking for yourself, etc. I never got too bored.
Location: When you apply, you’ll be allowed to select from “academies,” which are large regional districts that include placements from large, bustling cities to middle-of-nowhere towns with nary a train station in sight. I got placed somewhere in the middle, in a smallish city in beautiful Normandy (although, talking to people from the south, most ask why I would ever willingly submit to living in the rainiest part of France) and I loved it. No matter what you get, most people find a way to love it. For all the glamour and intrigue that we imagine for our lives in a new country, it’s overwhelming and scary to pack up and move to a place where nobody knows you. It’s something that’s hard to imagine until you actually experience it, and even in the hardest, most homesick moments, it’s worth it to keep going, to sign up for a library card, to go to that vaguely interesting club meeting advertised in the newspaper. Because you already bought your plane ticket, and you might as well take the experience for what it’s worth — whether your experience teaches you that you never want to keep a home address for more than 7 months at a time or that you never want to venture more than 50 miles from home again. Both options, and any in between, are totally fine — being able to figure that out while eating croissants by the dozen and scribbling journal entries during a winding countryside train ride, well, that’s what makes me recommend this program over and over again.