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A class act: 'My year as a teacher in Paris'

Thousands of British students travel abroad each year to teach. It's a life-changing experience, says Kevin Rawlinson who was one of them. But now the scheme is under threat from cuts

Thursday 28 October 2010 00:00 BST

The whiteboard behind me bears my best attempt at explaining the Past Perfect Progressive, while, in front of me, the eyes of four French schoolchildren begin to glaze over. Suddenly, my bookish theories do not seem so impressive; I am dying on my feet.

I have just arrived in France – at the age of 20, only a couple of years older than the students I'm teaching. A few weeks before it was me sitting behind a desk, barely listening to the teacher. But, at that point, I realised the enormity of the task ahead – and I relished it.

At the time I was one of thousands of British students spending a year abroad teaching in a foreign classroom as a language assistant, a number which has increased over the last few years. The majority are undergraduate students, for whom the British Council (BC) language assistantship programme fulfils a course requirement; others are postgraduates. Now university lecturers are reporting that more and more recent graduates are applying for a place on the programme simply because it represents guaranteed a wage straight from university – an increasingly valuable commodity. "They are going because the labour market is not very good. This way graduates can improve their skills and make themselves more employable at the same time as earning money," says Florence Potot, Head of French at Northumbria University, one of the country's leading language schools.

Among the names on the list of former assistants are those of former spin doctor Alastair Campbell and authors J K Rowling and Stephen Clarke, who later wrote about his experiences as an Englishman living in France in the book A Year in the Merde. BBC journalists Fiona Bruce and Reeta Chakrabati also went to France, while a young Gérard Houllier, later to become manager of Liverpool and Aston Villa, arrived from the opposite direction.

But, as The Independent reported last week, selection to the programme – funded by the Department for Education – has been suspended following the Chancellor's budget cuts. The final decision on its future rests now with the department and a DfE spokesman said one will be taken "in due course". The programme, which has its origins in an accord signed between Prussia, France and England and Wales in 1905, has seen increasing demand from students hoping to be accepted and the BC's own figures suggest that, this year, it sent 2,546 – an increase on 2005's figure of 2,163.

Former assistants and tutors have pointed out the benefits to be reaped by young people given the opportunity to live and work in a foreign country. To succeed during my own time working in the town of Courbevoie on the outskirts of Paris, I – like many others – had to learn to cross the classroom divide. I was forced to make the transition from being a, frankly lazy, student to a something resembling a responsible teacher.

That alone presented a challenge. But one that paled in comparison to the task that seemed to loom over me as I arrived at the French capital's Gare du Nord, suitcase in hand, my girlfriend at my side and not the first clue where we were to live for the next year. Moreover, I was about to learn that, despite my years spent studying "classroom French" in the smug certainty of my own expertise, I had no real idea how to go about things like opening a bank account. I also boasted complete ignorance of the myriad rules that govern housing on the other side of the Channel. That is because, a week earlier, I had been yet another 21-year-old student in a Newcastle club, responsible for nothing but getting back to my front door with the keys in my pocket. My new responsibilies were daunting.

But another former assistant, 25-year-old Jess Jones, who has since moved to America, says it is all worth it in the end. "Once you've wrestled with trying to open a French bank account and the number of different forms of ID they require, arguing over your social security entitlement, and calling the emergency services in French, you do feel like you can conquer the world and nothing seems quite so daunting after that," she says.

Jones adds: "Taking oral exams, the results of which would determine whether the students were able to do an exchange visit to the UK, was a great responsibility." But it is one that teaches as many lessons to the teacher as to the student. By spotting the mistakes of other students, assistants can often improve their own linguistic and presentational skills.

Although I was paid to teach students English, I found that immersion in the culture of my host country helped my own French to greatly improve. My understanding of my own native language also grew as I was forced to it to look at it from the point of view of a foreigner and to explain it to complete beginners. But reaping those benefits required an adjustment in attitude. For those unaccustomed to being in a position of authority, handing out severe reprimands can prove a daunting task; especially if they are not taken well. One student who took particular exception to being sent out of my class after he refused to stop swearing later bumped shoulders with me in the corridor in an intimidating show of defiance. And one which, to my eternal shame, I was too shocked to deal with on the spot.

But the question of mutual respect is a pertinent one for a language assistant the authority of whom, in the eyes of the students, stands halfway between their own and that of their teachers. The student who thought he could get away with such foul-mouthed misogyny in front of the class needed a stern telling-off, which eventually came his way. The talented young man suffering from a painful genetic condition and problems at home, who I found quietly sobbing alone in the corner of a corridor one day, required a quite different approach. A hand on the shoulder and a promise not to tell anyone was the best I could do.

It is not all hard work, though, and most assistants at some point in the year have the inevitable "tea-making" experience. With a few cups, a couple of tea bags and a kettle-full of water, a British language assistant can keep foreign students entertained for a whole hour as they try to decipher the elusive technique involved in making a cup of "English tea".

Jones also recalls the time she decided to do a "Great British Quiz" with her students: "Question 15: What is the title of the British national anthem?" she asked them. Her question was met with a long silence before one of the girls ventured: "Est-ce, 'I Will Survive'?"

For me and for thousands of others each year, the experience is a test of resourcefulness, of the ability to think quickly and of decision-making, to name a few. It was both exhilarating and terrifying. But, most of all, it was one I, like my contemporaries, am privileged to have had. Long may it continue, in spite of Mr Osborne's cuts.

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