Taking a trip abroad is complicated enough, but moving abroad has its own set of challenges. If you’ve been accepted to the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF), you’ve probably already received multiple handbooks and links with all sorts of information. It’s overwhelming, no doubt. The months leading up to TAPIF are stressful when it comes to visas, flights and such. But what should you do once you arrive to teach English in France? In this post, I’ll explain what you need to do during your first months of TAPIF. Stick around to grab my 101 TAPIF + TEFL Classroom Ideas freebie.
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But first, a deep breath
You’ve heard the rumors about France’s notoriously slow bureaucracy and inefficiency. And they’re absolutely true. Things are slow and take forever. Take a deep breath and buckle up. The process of finding housing, setting up a bank account and validating your visa can get exhausting and annoying. But what helped me most was going into these processes with low expectations. Start early because the word “hurry” doesn’t exist in French culture. And take heart! So many other expats have been in your shoes and are there to cheer you on. (I sure am!)
This should be at the top of your to-do list because for Americans, getting a French bank account has a lot of red tape. When it comes to TAPIF, the tough thing is it really depends on your town and area. I can’t tell you one bank that accepts assistants in every region. In terms of what you need to do during your first months of TAPIF, this step is crucial.
For me, it took over a month between having my first bank appointment and having a fully functional debit card. Yikes. I came to my first appointment with all the necessary documents, including a handwritten note from my French guarantor along with his carte d’identité. But BNP Paribas didn’t accept it; he had to fill out the bank’s specific form and sign on their dotted line.
I told the banker I could email it to him that night. Nope, I had to hand it to the banker in person and had to schedule another appointment to do so. So, two days later, I returned with the signed form, and we continued the process. The United States makes it a pain in the rear for all involved parties. There’s a lot of paperwork. The bank will ask you for your American social security number and may ask you to fill out a W-9. This is normal!
Then I had to wait to be approved to open the account. This approval took about a week. After they approved my application, I eventually received a debit card in the mail. But then I had to wait for the code to come in the mail in order to use it. And that took maybe another week. GAH. So, all in all, it took over a month to have a fully functional checking account.
When you receive your RIB, IBAN and BIC, send this info to the person who handles payroll for your académie immediately. These numbers are essentially routing numbers to allow for direct deposit.
My TAPIF pro tips
Ask other assistants from past years what banks they used; it really depends on your town. You can find former assistants easily through the Facebook pages. If you have a prof référent or a French friend in the area, ask them if they can go to your appointment with you. I’ve heard that assistants can get a free guarantor through Visale, but I can’t speak of its efficacy from experience. Be sure to ask your banker how you’ll access your RIB, and stress that it’s urgent. Make sure you save up enough money to live through the first two months without salary. Because I didn’t get a dime from the Académie till the end of November.
I also recommend you get a free TransferWise account. I still have recurring subscriptions on my American credit card, but all my income was in euros. TransferWise allowed me to send money from my French account to my American checking account for mega low fees.
Ah, another doozy. Finding housing in a foreign country and in a foreign language can be sticky. But take heart! Thousands of other assistants have been in your exact shoes. Once you get your arrêté, reach out to your prof référent (if you have one) or your conseiller to introduce yourself and ask about housing. Sometimes the school offers dormitory-like housing at a very cheap rate. You’re more likely to find this at the secondary level, not the primary level.
I teach in elementary schools and therefore don’t have a prof référent nor did I have school housing options. Once I knew for sure that I was placed in Marseille proper, I started searching for foyers (similar to a dormitory but not only for students) and listings on leboncoin.fr and bienici.fr.
I stayed pretty active on the TAPIF/Assistants de Langue Facebook page over the summer before the program began. I started messaging with another girl who was going to do the program. We FaceTimed and discussed rooming together. In the end, it didn’t work out, but keep your eyes peeled for potential roommates.
One former American assistant posted about her experience in Marseille, and I started messaging with her. She was able to help me find housing. Moral of the story: don’t be afraid to ask former assistants for help.
Most former assistants suggest renting an Airbnb for the first week or two so that they can look for apartments once they arrive. I also have a friend who decided to keep renting her Airbnb as an apartment. This is usually on the more expensive side, but you don’t know until you ask. As stressful as all this is, this allows you to look for apartments once you arrive and make sure the photos are real.
My TAPIF pro tips
The best advice I can give is to ask for help. Even if your school doesn’t have housing, ask if they know of any good places to look for apartments. I also strongly recommend keeping active on the Facebook page prior to departure. I don’t check it as much now that I’m in the program, but before the program, I received some extremely helpful information. Look for other people in your city who you might want to room with or at least share an Airbnb with for the first week or so. Get $65 off your first Airbnb stay with my link.
One amazing thing France has going for it is its public transportation system. The United States could take some notes! Once you get to France, be sure to look into transportation plans (metro, bus, boat, etc). I arrived to my city with about a week or so to spare before my contract began. I practiced taking my route to school several times, which helped me big time. Depending on how big your town is, it may be a great idea to practice several times to get the hang of it.
The program also offers partial reimbursement of your transportation costs, but the process varies by Académie. When you go to orientation, be sure to ask about this reimbursement process. If you forget or aren’t able to attend orientation, email your Académie, who should be able to help.
In Marseille, I have a pass that gives me unlimited rides on the metro, bus and several boats. And it costs 49,50 euros. I can get really anywhere I need with my pass, and I’m even able to take the boat to school. I mean, how cool is that?! To get reimbursed from my Académie, I have to fill out a form every single month and mail it in with a receipt. The reimbursement is supposed to be added to my salary the following month.
The city of Marseille also has public bikes, which are ridiculously inexpensive. It costs about 5 euros per year to be a part of the bike program, and the first 30 minutes are always free. There are kiosks all over the city, and if you need a bike for longer than 30 minutes, you can simply switch bikes at another kiosk before time is up. So, then it’s still free!
My TAPIF pro tips
Depending on how big your city is, public transportation may be free. Check to see if your city has a public bike share program or if you’re able to rent a bike, if necessary. Download your town’s public transportation app. This comes in handy, especially in Marseille because there are always strikes interfering with the routes. And the app lets me know when buses are coming and if the routes change. To find the best route to your school from your apartment, I recommend Google Maps.
Validate your TAPIF visa
Depending on your citizenship, you may need to apply for a visa to do the program. I wrote a post on how I applied for my TAPIF visa. If you have a visa for the program, you need to validate it within three months of your arrival in France. You must have permanent housing before you begin this process. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is: Simply visit this website and follow along the handbook’s instructions. They now charge around 200 euros for this validation process. At the conclusion of your online instructions, you’ll be given a PDF saying your visa is now validated. Save this somewhere safe!
Some time after validating your visa online, you will be required to go to a medical visit at the OFII (Office Français Immigration et Intégration) in your préfecture. This notice may be mailed or emailed to you. The important thing is that you don’t miss it. If it’s during your teaching time, ask your school if you can change your hours. Because you cannot reschedule this appointment.
Once I arrived in France and my housing was set, I started the online process, which took very little time. Several weeks later, I received an email from my conseillère with an appointment letter for my medical visit. It was, of course, during a school day, so I alerted my principal. I lucked out because the office is in Marseille and maybe 30 minutes from my house. However, other assistants from the Académie had to travel for hours to get to this appointment.
The actual appointment didn’t take too terribly long. You arrive to the office and check in. They first take an X-ray of your chest. Ladies, I didn’t see this on any TAPIF blog before departure and it’s a little awkward. But wear a wireless bra. Otherwise, you have to go topless for the X-ray. Okay end awkward paragraph.
After your X-ray, you meet with the nurse and tell him or her any medications you’re on. They may give you a mental health questionnaire. I certainly didn’t bring my medical records with me to France, but before my appointment, I asked my mom to send me a photo of my vaccinations. And I showed them to the nurse. This isn’t required, but it’s nice to have. Then you meet with the doctor, who may ask you a couple questions. It was a fairly painless experience, and it’s nothing to be afraid of. They will give you a piece of paper at the end of the appointment that is signed by the doctor. This proves you successfully completed your appointment; don’t lose this!
My TAPIF pro tips
Be sure to validate your visa very soon after solidifying your housing. Yes, you have three months to do so, but do it soon so you don’t forget. Make sure you’ve budgeted enough for the 200 euro charge. If you’re able, get copies or even just photos of your vaccinations prior to your medical visit. And don’t lose the papers confirming your validated visa and medical appointment. As for what to do during your first months of TAPIF, definitely do not wait till the last minute for validating your visa.
Plan a Lesson
Ah, finally we’re getting to the reason you came: teaching. Some teachers might have everything prepped for you line by line, but there’s a good chance they will want your ideas, too. Before I came, I started a Google Doc of different themes, songs, game ideas, etc. So that when teachers and I brainstormed what to cover, I could look back to see what I’d found.
Students love to see real photos of you and your culture, so start digging. I made a PowerPoint slide of how I celebrate winter holidays and another about me and my family. Bring little trinkets like American candy or stickers as incentives. I also recommend getting a small bean bag or plastic ball to use for classroom games.
I created a freebie with 101 Classroom Ideas for TAPIF or TEFL. In this 14-page free guide, I shared my favorite game, activity, subject and resource ideas.
Across my three schools, I’m in 14 different classrooms and ages range from 4 to 10 — yikes! It was a stressful start, but I feel like I have a better rhythm now. For my first lesson, I made a PowerPoint slide about me and my hometown. And the kids loved it! I started out the year by doing the same theme for every grade level (colors, animals, etc.) but changed the difficulty. As the year progressed, topics were more staggered. The lower levels were following the same themes while the older grades obviously progressed faster.
As far as resources, my schools have chalkboards, whiteboards and a couple projectors. Even though they have projectors, they are so few, that it’s a pain to do lessons mainly through PowerPoints. Be sure to ask your schools about their resources because that definitely affects how you plan.
My TAPIF pro tips
Talk with the teachers and ask them their goals. Is there an English curriculum the school follows? Do they have a list of objectives for their students by grade level? What do the teachers want to accomplish this semester? During my 2-hour lunch break, I talked with the teachers about next week’s lesson. And I brought my laptop to plan and research during this break.
Bon courage, les TAPIFers
(Oh, and British Council-ers!) Whew, that was a LOT of information. Go ahead and pat yourself on the back. There is an awful lot of paperwork and technicalities, but keep pushing. It has been worth all the hassle for me, and I am loving living in France. You’re most definitely not alone in this process, and there’s a bounty of assistants who have been in your shoes and are happy to help you on what to do during your first months of TAPIF.
Looking for more tips on how to be an expat in France? Here are the six things every expat needs.