After graduating with journalism and French degrees, I set out to find myself during a gap year in France. As part of the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF), I taught English lessons in French public schools for a year and then renewed for a second year. During my first year, I divvied up my 12-hour contract among three primary schools on the outskirts of Marseille on Tuesdays and Thursdays and taught six different grade levels in a total of 17 classrooms. For my second year, I was placed at one elementary school near Marseille’s center and taught in nine classrooms during my 12 hours. Despite both being at elementary schools in Marseille, my two years were entirely different. Here’s my TAPIF recap with its pros and cons, ups and downs.
What is TAPIF?
TAPIF stands for the Teaching Assistant Program in France. It recruits Americans to teach English in French public schools from October to April. The contract is for 12 hours each week, and assistants make about 785 euros net per month. I’ve already written about the visa process for TAPIF and how to succeed in your first few months of the program. But with two school years of teaching under my belt, I wanted to give a TAPIF recap on what my experience was truly like.
TAPIF recap: first year vs. second year
Honestly, the first year wasn’t great. Three schools and 17 classrooms during 12 hours is a joke. Many teachers didn’t really care that I was there; they graded their papers on the side or made me wait till they finished their math lesson, leaving us with just 15 minutes to have our English lesson. According to the TAPIF program, we are teaching assistants, not teachers. That means that the teachers are responsible for teaching the lesson and we assist. But during my first year, I did 90% of the work. Some teachers were better than others, but I worked my tail off the first year.
My second year of TAPIF was rien à voir with the first one, truly night and day. During my second year, I was placed in just one school that was classified as an EDIL school, which stands for Écoles d’Immersion en Langues. In essence, it means that the school’s goal is to become bilingual. For example, the teacher may teach history in French and math in English. This school had nine classrooms, so I had one hour with each class. And the classes who had teachers with special EDIL training received the additional three hours left in my contract.
My second year was so much better than the first for several reasons. First, I was wanted at the school. They valued English language instruction, and the teachers were respectful of my time and my presence at the school. And I was at one school, not three. This allowed me to create relationships with the staff and students. And during my second year, I was truly an assistant; I assisted the teachers who did most of the leg work in preparation. They also invited me to go on field trips with them. I had a sense of belonging here.
When my parents heard I would only be working 12 hours a week, they laughed. Is that a real job? Every English assistant’s experience is different, but I felt plenty busy. Here’s a look at what my schedules were like during my two years.
My first year in TAPIF
In those 12 hours, I visited 17 classrooms for anywhere between 30–45 minutes during my first year. I had an immense amount of autonomy to plan my lessons, and the schools furnished me with additional resources like flashcards, books and worksheets.
I taught as young as Grande Section (about age 5) all the way up until CM2 (their 5th grade equivalent). Although lessons vary by age, my rough class outline would begin with having students ask each other “How are you?” And then they’d ask their neighbor so that everyone would have an opportunity to speak.
Next, we’d sing a song, which we would review weekly for a month or two. Think simple songs like “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Next, we would review key vocab words from the song such as “happy,” “angry” and “sleepy.” The Super Simple website was a godsend with its easy songs, helpful worksheets and free resources. After our warm-up questions and song, we worked on different units such as family, numbers or food. After getting a good feel for the new words, we’d play a game like Pictionary or Charades. As repetitive as these lessons could be, it truly takes that much time to get it to stick, especially since the students only had English class once per a week. As far as the schedule portion of my TAPIF recap, the two days I worked were long days, but I also only worked two days per week. Can’t complain!
My First Year Schedule:
7:15 a.m. Take the bus to school
8:30 a.m. Teach morning classes (30-45 minutes each)
11:30 a.m. Lunch break and lesson plan
1:30 p.m. Teach afternoon classes until 4:30 p.m.
My second year in TAPIF
For my second year, I was also placed in Marseille but asked to be placed closer to home. As great as my two-day work week was the previous year, it was exhausting. So, for my second year, I worked Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 8:20 to 11:30 a.m. And even though it was four days instead of two, I enjoyed this schedule much more because it was sustainable and kept me in a good rhythm. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I worked in three total classrooms for an hour each. And on Fridays, it was my EDIL day, so I spent the morning with two different classrooms for a longer amount of time. It was a day to reinforce what we’d learned and do a fun activity like baking cookies or making Valentine’s Day cards.
My Second Year Schedule:
7:45 a.m. Take the bus to school
8:20 a.m. Lead small group games in the preschool
9:20 a.m. Teach a class in the elementary school
10:20 a.m. Coffee break
10:30 a.m. Teach another class in the elementary school
11:30 a.m. Time to go home
Related: Looking for TAPIF lesson plan ideas? Download my free guide, 101 Classroom Ideas for TAPIF and TEFL.
The TAPIF program places assistants all over France from big cities to small villages. I was delighted that I was placed in Marseille because it’s a big city, but that being said, Marseille is huge. I found a studio not far from Notre Dame de la Garde, but the closest metro was a solid 25- to 30-minute walk away. So for better or for worse, I relied on the bus.
My first year in TAPIF
My schools were in a rougher part of town, but I had already found the perfect studio apartment close to the city center of Marseille. That meant my commute each way could be as long as an hour and a half. Woof! On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I left my apartment a little after 7 a.m. to catch the bus and didn’t get home until around 6 p.m. The long commutes definitely weren’t ideal, but I made the most of it with podcasts and music. Oh, and when the weather was good, I was able to take the boat to one of my schools — it’s casual!
My second year in TAPIF
In my renewal application, I specifically asked to be closer to home because j’en avais marre with the commute. And thankfully, they obliged. I worked four days per week, so that meant commuting more often than the previous year. But it was a 20-minute bus ride, plus a 5- or 10-minute walk. It was much more manageable, and I don’t have any complaints for my second year.
Two-hour lunch breaks sound like a dream, right? Well, yes and no. At the beginning of the lunch break, I would heat up my packed lunch and eat in the salle des maîtres, or the teachers’ room, with the other staff members. After about 30 minutes, I’d pull out my laptop and start planning for the next week. Having two hours in the middle of the day to regroup, take a deep breath and plan was very helpful. At the same time, having longer lunch breaks meant that the kids didn’t go home until 4:30 p.m. Honestly, I’d prefer the American style: a shorter lunch so that I could go home earlier.
I only experienced lunch at school during my first year of TAPIF because during my second year, I left right before lunch. That made my days feel much shorter and more manageable.
French schools are very different from American schools. After living in France for some time now, there are many things that I like better in France than in the United States. I’m a big fan of the mostly free healthcare, better work-life balance and multiculturalism. But French schools are not something I prefer. The American education system certainly has its flaws, but after two years of being in the French school system, I still disagree with their approach to education.
In the United States, the educational system often encourages children to be unique, to create and to innovate. Teachers become our mentors and even friends. In France, the children must color inside the lines and do as they’re told, period. Teachers are usually not your friends. For example, I would tell my students to color their paper green, and they would panic over whether to use a colored pencil or marker. Because they would be reprimanded for using the incorrect material. The French system tends to obsess over mechanical, minute details to obtain uniformity. In general, the American system tends to celebrate individualism and innovation.
My first year in TAPIF
I worked in REP and REP+ schools, or schools that receive extra help from the government due to their disadvantaged status. This meant I worked in rougher neighborhoods and taught students who often lacked stability or even necessities. The schools had few resources beyond the basic chalkboard, pencil, paper and maybe a white board. You were lucky if the school had any type of projector. As in any country, working in an impoverished neighborhood comes with its own set of challenges, and France was no exception. I’m grateful for this experience, but at times, it wasn’t easy in terms of lesson planning or even classroom management.
Some of the children’s teeth were rotting, they had holes in their clothes and complained of hunger. There were children in my kindergarten class who couldn’t count in French, let alone English. There were so many extenuating factors that made English a back-burner issue.
The frustrating thing was that not all teachers saw the value of having a TAPIF assistant in their classrooms and didn’t make it a priority. Sometimes I spent half of my 30-minute window just waiting for the teacher to finish their math lesson. The schools gave me a lot of autonomy to plan lessons, which was a plus, but given my lack of teaching experience, I was at a loss sometimes for how to organize everything.
Many teachers gossiped about, screamed at or insulted their students regularly. I don’t have a problem with strict teachers, but I felt that some of these teachers were simply mean and did not genuinely care about their students.
Despite the teachers who more or less pushed me aside, I did have some amazing teachers who were very good to me. I had one school with whom I got along very well, and they were so excited to have me there. There, I was able to teach the “Cha Cha Slide,” play Two Truths and a Lie and genuinely laugh with my students.
My second year in TAPIF
Night and day, I tell you. During my second year of TAPIF, I still wasn’t in an extremely rich neighborhood, but there was much more stability to the family structure. I loved the diversity of the student body; I had students from France, Turkey, Romania, Kurdistan, Algeria, Portugal and Libya. Of course, there was still the French mentality of coloring within the lines and following the rules. But even when the teachers were strict, I know they truly cared about their students. They were much more gentle with their kids and used discipline when necessary. They were much less harsh and created relationships with their students.
The teachers invited me on their field trips, and two times I was able to join their boat trips on the Mediterranean. I felt appreciated and respected and valued. I cannot express how much better my second year was in comparison to my first.
In any TAPIF recap, you’ll hear about the salary, as you should. Unless you’re in D’outre mer like Guadeloupe or La Réunion, everyone makes the same 785 euros net per month. Yes, even in Paris. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that $800 per month won’t get you far.
Here’s what’s complicated: in terms of hourly wages, it’s very well paid. From the beginning of October to the end of April, there’s about 30 weeks. But about every six weeks, you get two weeks of school vacation, for a total of 8 weeks during the program. And you’re paid the same every month whether you work all four weeks or just two. If you do the math for 12 hours for 22 weeks of teaching, that’s a total of about 264 hours during your entire contract. Roughly, that ends up being a rate of about 20 euros net per hour, which is nearly three times the hourly minimum wage.
But you’re not allowed to get a second job. The handbook says you can babysit or tutor on the side, but getting an official job on the side isn’t permitted. So even though the hourly rate is good, the monthly salary is nearly impossible to live on by itself. Especially because many people do this program in order to travel during the school vacations and to experience France to the fullest. I worked the summer before I started the program and saved a crazy amount of money so that I could enjoy my time abroad.
TAPIF recap: Is this program for me?
The TAPIF program is highly disorganized, and there’s very little oversight in the day-to-day activities. To succeed in this program, you need to be independent. Opening a bank account, apartment hunting and dealing with French administration demand energy and determination. There’s very little teacher training, and making friends in a foreign country is no simple task. If you’re someone who needs their hand held, this isn’t a good program for you. Because so much of this program is autonomous.
I didn’t have a prof référent because I was placed in primaire, but I was assigned a conseillère pédagogique, who was assigned to many assistants across many schools. And I saw my conseillère pédagogique maybe five or six times total during my two contracts. I know other assistants who had amazing profs référents who helped them along the way, but I can’t say the same for my conseillère pédagogique because she was responsible for many assistants.
But Kristin, why did you renew if it was disorganized and not sustainably paid? Great question. As many bones as I have to pick with this program for its lack of oversight, limited assistance for its employees and low salaries, it was still worth it. TAPIF allowed me to live in France, to engage with the culture and improve my French. No, I wasn’t paid a lot, but I also didn’t work a lot. I renewed because I fell in love with France and wasn’t ready to leave. Yes, there are other ways to stay, but TAPIF is very uncompetitive and a simple way to secure a visa.
TAPIF recap overview
Listen: the program has its flaws, and it’s not for everyone. But TAPIF was an amazing way for me to live abroad, improve my French and to experience the culture firsthand. Teaching English certainly isn’t my passion, but I’m extremely grateful for the experience, specifically the second year. The first year was challenging, but I only taught two days per week, so I pushed through. The second year was truly a joy as I loved my co-workers and my school. Whether you want to teach or not at all, TAPIF is an option worth considering for those who want to experience the thrill of living abroad and to improve their French.
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