Language Assistants
My friend Rachael and I spent our third years of university abroad as teaching assistants in French schools. We decided it would be useful to share our tips for people about to go through the same experience! I know that personally I had no idea what to expect before I started and Rachael and I had quite different placements – she in a primary school near Cambrai (North-East France) and me in an upper-secondary ‘Hotelier’ in La Rochelle (West coast). We hope that these tips will give you some helpful ideas of what to expect, and alleviate any worries you have! If you have more questions, leave a comment 🙂

What do you really wish you’d packed, and are glad that you did?
Charlie:  I really wish I’d had an mp3 player or iPod… for train journeys, walking into town, and just days travelling on my own! But I’m glad that I took a netbook instead of a laptop (it’s so light!) and also I planned my clothes really carefully – everything could be layered up and mix & match-ed!
Rachael:  I should have packed more warm clothes – it was freezing in the Winter! I am glad I packed my laptop – I don’t think I would have coped without it!

What was the best part of the experience?
Charlie:  I think getting really involved in the school made it an unforgettable experience… I was teaching English in a catering school and I ended up cooking in the trainee kitchens, wine-tasting with the Sommelier students and eating in the trainee Brasserie every week with the teachers!

Rachael:  Probably travelling during my weekends and holiday. I got to see some beautiful places in both Belgium and France! 

Language Assistantship

What was the hardest part of your year?

Rachael:  The first month was the hardest – French bureaucracy is a nightmare and it felt like there was an overwhelming amount of things to sort out.
Charlie:  I totally agree… make a big list of everything you need to do (I actually split it into categories to make it more palatable… school admin, uni forms, insurance etc.) and just tackle a little bit per day. And make sure you treat yourself to lots of nice coffees & invest in anything you might need (for me… a duvet!) that will help you settle in! You’re earning… you deserve it 🙂

What was the biggest culture-shock for you?

Rachael:  The difference in the education system – the way they teach in primary schools seemed very old fashioned to me
Charlie:  Unfortunately I found that the attention from French men was often pushy, even aggressive and rude in the street. Make sure you stay safe & are sensible, even if where you live seems like a nice place.

Language Assistantship

What was your experience of the food in France?

Charlie:  Be prepared that supermarkets will be a lot smaller & less common, with short opening hours… always plan Sunday’s food beforehand! If you’re near a market, lucky you… this is where the cheaper & better food is to be found! It’s worth trying lots of the local food too… in La Rochelle I ate lots of ‘moules’, wild boar, French dishes cooked in the school’s trainee Brasserie, and even frog’s legs! I had really limited cooking equipment, but thanks to making a good friend, I was able to go and cook with her instead!
Rachael:  My advice would be to try out your region’s specialities and get advice from locals on where to eat out. The French are proud of their food and want to make sure that you have a good experience of it.
How was your accommodation?

Rachael: I had a lovely little apartment but it was really just one large room with an en-suite. Very small and cosy!
Charlie: My accommodation was free, and part of the school… great in one respect – extra money, not far to travel – but if I did it again I would actually find something nicer and more central in town. It got a little lonely and basic… I needed more cooking facilities!! Sometimes it’s worth paying a little more, and being more comfortable (and not having to go outdoors & down the lane to get to the kitchen!)

Lycee Hotelier Kitchen

Do you have any advice about getting on in the school & coping with lesson planning? 

Charlie:  I think it’s important to spend some time getting to know the teachers… as the school will take up quite a bit of your time! Rachael & me were lucky enough to only have one school each to work in, and it definitely paid off making friends with teachers there. Planning a lesson doesn’t have to take very long… think of perhaps 3 tasks for one hour, an introduction (like making a mind map based on a theme together), a first task and a second task – often this involved getting the students to make mini-presentations on things/role plays/interviewing each other.
One more thing… if I did it again, I would do what Rachael did and learn my students names as much as possible! It sounds obvious, but you may have a lot of them, and if you don’t commit to trying from the start it’ll be too late!

Rachael:  Definitely build good relationships with your teachers and spend time hanging out in the staff room. Build up a bank of interactive activities that work and re-use them when lesson planning.
What can you expect when trying to communicate with French people?

Rachael:  French people tend to be a lot more upfront than English people when speaking but a lot more formal in written communication. Don’t expect replies to texts or emails. Do expect to say ‘bonjour’ to everyone you see. I still haven’t worked out the kissing on the cheek rules! 
Charlie:  Yes, say ‘bonjour’ all the time..! Remember that nearly always bars and cafés are table-service. If you want to get through to someone, phone them, don’t email! 

Nantes Sketchbook

Any top tips on being savvy & saving money?

Rachael:  Get a SNCF 12-25 card and make sure that, if you’re entitled to housing benefit, that you are persistent with it and don’t just leave them to sort it out! They won’t.
Charlie:  I didn’t qualify for the CAF (housing benefit) but the 12-25 card was great… Make sure you book your flights home (if you go back for holidays) well in advance and you could save a lot – even get them for about £5. Also you’ll find the market might be a lot cheaper than the supermarket, so look up when your local one is on.

What would be your advice for coping with homesickness & difficult times?

Rachael:  Take photographs of family and friends with you. Keep in touch with other assistants in France who are going through the same things – going to see them and escaping from your town for a while can really help!

Charlie:  I also found it hard going back after a really short Christmas break and having a long term ahead. Just keep plodding on, getting out and about and organising things to do with people as much as you can. The busier you are, the less you’ll be worrying. Also, I found that especially when things were a bit quiet and lonely where I lived… listen to music! It always cheered me up 🙂 In short – don’t isolate yourself too much. I also kept a sketchbook… this meant that when I didn’t have internet, I still had some way to keep my mind occupied – and a lovely illustrated journal!

Language Assistantship
Other posts about La Rochelle, year abroad & teaching:



I’d like to possibly do a separate post on Rachael & my tips for lesson planning, and something for people starting a work or university placement so stay tuned! Leave a comment if you are interested and if you have any more questions. Good luck and have a great year!

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