I can’t remember when I first decided that I wanted to flee the country and live abroad for a while – it may have been a part of my craving for language and cultural immersion as a French department nerd in high school, or a side effect of the travel bug, which bit me hard around the same time. It could be that I didn’t seriously consider it until I was sitting in my first cubicle after college, the inside of which was papered with post-it note doodles and despair.
Study abroad hadn’t worked out for a number of reasons, and a “gap year” wasn’t even in my vocabulary– I had neither the funds nor the justification. But one evening, a half-serious Google search (something about as specific as “work in France?”) presented me with another option: the Teaching Assistantship Program in France. The compressed version: I applied, I was accepted, I taught English to high school and middle school students in a small town outside of Lyon, France for the duration of one school year, and even returned to do the program a second time several years later.
The deadline for application is coming up, so if you’re thinking about doing TAPIF yourself, here are some factors that might help you decide:
$$$: TAPIF does pay. Not much (about 800 euro/month after taxes), but enough to live frugally in most areas of the country (though honestly you’d really need significant independent resources to live in/around Paris). Babysitting and tutoring jobs can help supplement your income; some of my bolder friends also had luck finding bar-tending work. An important question to ask your assigned program contact is whether the school you’ll be working at will provide you with or help you find some housing– some do, some don’t. If your school doesn’t, you should ask around – many schools in France have housing set aside for visiting teachers/administrators and students who have far to travel, and rooms can remain empty for most of the year. It’s not a glamorous option but it is a cheap one (often as little as 80-100 euro/month), and it will help you feel less like a misérable.
Time: You will have a lot of it. This is great for those who can keep busy doing freelance work, side jobs, getting involved in the local community, or catching up on hobbies and personal projects. It’s also great if you have a little money saved for travel (once you’re in Europe, it’s pretty easy to make your way around on a tight budget). If you’re one of those people who can never resist the call of a night out, however, or someone who’s easily bored/lacking in initiative, you might be in trouble. I’ve met a bunch of assistants up broke-as-shit creek because they drank their entire salary, and other assistants who were considering dropping out of the program early because they simply didn’t know what to do with themselves most of the time.
Geographical location: You’re encouraged to list your académie (administrative region in which you’ll be posted to teach) preferences on the TAPIF application form, but listing your preferences is no guarantee, and the académies tend to be huge areas. This means that sure, you could be posted to the académie of Toulouse and work in Toulouse itself, but you could also be posted to a tiny town two and a half hours from Toulouse that has a bus connection schedule consisting of “sometimes, if the weather’s OK and nobody else needs the bus.” Sheep and chickens might be your only prospective friends, your Friday nights spent crying into the yarn of the scarf you’re knitting for your boyfriend/girlfriend back home and trying to convince the internet company to install your wifi before the end of your contract. But if you have a sense of humor and an open mind, seven months with the chickens could still be amazing, and I’m not even kidding.
Language: TAPIF seeks applicants with a good level of French, but to be honest I’ve met assistants who could barely manage “bonjour.” Just keep in mind that 1) there are many people in France who do not speak even remotely passable English, contrary to some Americans’ expectations and 2) TAPIF matches you up to a school and provides documentation for your visa, but pretty much EVERYTHING else is up to you. That means opening a bank account in French, shopping in French, going to the doctor in French, filing a police report (yes, I’ve been there) in French, etc. This can be an exciting challenge, but it can also be an embarrassing and frustrating ordeal, especially because French bureaucracy is, putting it lightly, a hellish shitshow.
One of the reasons I did the program was to improve my language skills. I expected to cornily “broaden my horizons” and benefit from the intellectual challenge of figuring out how things work in another country, but I was surprised at how much the experience changed my perspective. It made me more confident and less afraid of making a fool of myself (nothing seems embarrassing after you’ve accidentally asked a store clerk if “these prices are fucked”), it made me look differently at my own country, and it gave me a very small and very low-risk first-hand glimpse of the immigrant experience.
TAPIF is a wonderful, unpredictable opportunity. Spain hosts a similar program, which I don’t know too much about (but Young Adventuress does…) If you simply think of these programs as a chance to improve your second (or third) language and get paid to live abroad, you’ll have no regrets. But if you’re lucky, you’ll also gain professional skills, have time and money to travel, meet life-long friends, and become a more well-rounded person. It’s like a gap year… that you can put on your résumé and that you don’t necessarily need a rich Mommy and Daddy to fund (though of course some people are in a better position than others to pick up and move abroad for a salary as low as this).