TAPIF | What is a language assistant anyway?

This last September, as I sat on the floor of my room, frantically packing the night away in some kind of panicked fit, I experienced a moment that would have been rather comical, had it not occurred some dozens of times in the preceding months. My friends, friends so close that they had gradually become roommates, had been flitting in and out all night long. Eventually, one planted herself down in the hallway and posed the question, “So, can you explain again? What exactly are you going to be doing?”

Easy for her to say. Of course, I had explained before, several times and to countless people. Nevertheless, it always ended in lackluster explanations and with perplexed faces. But there is something about TAPIF that remains shrouded in mystery, and something about the mystery that makes you pack a suitcase for France anyway, despite being rather confused about what you are actually expecting.

“Are you ready to expand your cultural horizons and share your language and culture with French students?” reads the French embassy’s Higher Education website. Indeed, the average French student or eager traveler could very well respond: “Well, yes, France, yes, I am! But… could I get some more information?”

Clearly, this was not much of an issue for me. Even as I was debating which pea coat to stuff into my bag or how many socks I really needed, I had absolutely no idea where the next 48 hours would take me, much less the next year. And, frankly, it didn’t really bother me. My mother and friends, on the other hand, were a tad on the concerned side.I knew only the following:

  • I was moving to France for a minimum of 7 months to teach English to high school students with TAPIF, or The Teaching Assistant Program in France.
  • The town that I would be living in was called Metz. At the time of research, it had somewhere around 120,000 inhabitants and some very castle-like churches.
  • Someone named Myriam was probably picking me up at the train station.

That was truthfully it. Save for some random facts about which school I was placed in and the paperwork I would be filing after my arrival, I knew nothing else about my French future. Despite the ample amount of people that choose to do TAPIF (over 1,100 American citizens and permanent residents annually, according to the embassy), there just isn’t that much knowledge being passed around.

Granted, after experiencing the process myself, I can confidently say that I understand why information exchange is limited: every school, district, and city is different, and it is therefore extremely difficult to know what you will be doing.

Even among the classes I teach, there is astounding variety in English level, class expectations, and the amount of leading or interaction that I am expected to do. As a seasoned nomad, I would honestly recommend embracing the unknown and doing the program anyway. However, I am not without advice to make the process a bit more comfortable for those that are nervous or curious. (Trust me, I did an astonishing amount of pre-departure googling myself.)

Here are some useful particulars about TAPIF:

  1. You will not be alone. Not only is there a strong, established assistant community, but there are assistants everywhere, and the wonders of modern technologies such as facebook mean that you will probably have some contact with others before you even board the plane. One of my best friends in Metz is someone that I discovered via my academy’s unofficial facebook site. Noticing our similarities, I reached out to a total stranger and eventually, we met face-to-face at orientation.
  2. Assistants come from everywhere, not just the States. Use the opportunity to learn about other cultures or to practice that Spanish/Italian/German that you’ve been dying to learn or brush up on. Side note: Inviting assistants from all over the place forces you, as an Anglophone, to speak French. These assistants are also much more likely to have French friends, as French is typically their primary means of communication and they already live much closer to France than anyone from the Americas or Great Britain.
  3. Even before you make friends, your contact person is there to guide you. So far, I have only heard positive things about contacts; they take you to dinner with the family, show you around town, etc. Usually, your contact person is a teacher from your school, probably someone that you will be working with closely. Be sure to show appreciation; they are taking time away from their busy lives and families to welcome you. Bringing treats from your country of origin is never a bad idea.
  4. You should really save some money. Even though you are getting paid a pretty reasonable sum of money for the amount of work you will be putting in (around €965 gross, approximately €780 net, monthly), if you want to travel or if you end up having to pay rent, things will get tight fast. After deducting my cellular and internet costs, plus my apartment insurance (which is mandatory in France), I was left with an approximate 700€ per month, which is 175€/week or about 25€/day. Though living on the provided salary is very doable, some initial savings are an absolute must. First of all, you don’t get paid immediately. You need to get yourself to France, purchase train/bus tickets to your final destination, and set up shop in a new country. Second of all, you may very well have to put some of that into housing or initial IKEA purchases. My advice? As soon as you know that you want to do TAPIF, start saving.
  5. If you are lucky, your school may provide you with housing. Odds are in your favor if the school has an internat (dormitories) or is a boarding school. However, not all assistants get housing, and some are placed well outside metropolitan areas. With this in mind, it is important to budget for housing before departure, even if you are offered something. Several assistants in Metz chose to forego provided housing in favor of a more suitable location or situation. For example, some did not have kitchens or were in towns too small for their liking.
  6. You don’t have to live in the Hexagon (continental France). TAPIF allows you to choose three academic regions for placement. Of course, all three of your choices can be in France. On the other hand, if you are looking for a different type of adventure, consider choosing an overseas department. Areas offered are: French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Réunion.
  7. Eventually, you will (sort of) know what you are expected to do. As your first week or so is spent observing, you will get a handle on the French school system and class structure before you are expected to go in front of a class. Talk to your teachers. Not only are they eager to meet you, but you can also gauge what type of teaching they expect from you. In some courses, I take half of the class while the teacher takes the other. In others, I take on all of the students. By taking the initiative to talk to the teachers you will be working with, you can get immediate insight. Things to ask include: what kind of equipment you have access to, whether you will be taking on students by yourself, whether you should look for a spare room or whether the teacher will be doing it, and whether or not the teacher has preferences on topics broached.

At the end of the day, being a language assistant is an opportunity to learn and to teach, an opportunity to exchange.

TAPIF is not about the specifics of the program; it is a way to enrich your life and the lives of others. It is a way to live in France. Not be in France, not visit France, but really, truly live in France. Ultimately, you’ll answer your own questions anyway. Besides, it’s more adventurous to just accept the mystery…

For information about the application process, see the “Guide for English Language Assistants” or find the application on the official TAPIF website. Primary photo curtesy of Stephanie Bercht.

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