When I read Alexandra Tracy’s piece about working while studying abroad in France, our similar yet vastly different experiences struck me. I also wanted to learn more about teaching in Marseille.
As Latinas, both of us have studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence (I went for five months in 2011). Other than that, we spent our time differently. I had a short stay, so I took university courses, I didn’t find a job and I spent most of my free time traveling or watching Anthony Bourdain episodes. I had an insanely generous program that gave me a monthly stipend, and while I loved every second of traveling, I didn’t meet as many locals as I could’ve. By teaching in Marseille for eight months, Alexandra integrated into French culture in profound ways. She also saw a less exposed side of France:
The best part about this experience was getting to know this unique part of France, different from what it’s famous for (i.e. fashion, luxury, Cannes Film Festival, the Eiffel Tower, Paris, etc). Marseille is a largely immigrant city since it is the biggest port of France in the Mediterranean. Most of my students were first generation African, Middle Eastern, or Gypsy. The majority of the students were Muslim.
When you think of France, government housing, immigrants, and niquing la police aren’t the first things that come to mind. In college, I’d seen movies like La Haine, which expose crime and police brutality in the outskirts of Paris. Again, why would you bother exploring these topics when it’s easier to fantasize about macaroons, Chanel handbags (do you know how many tacos you can buy with that?), and l’amour? Because it reveals how every country oppresses and uplifts its people.
I wanted to learn more about what it was like teaching youth of color in Marseille, which many French people and tourists dismiss as dirty and crime-ridden. Teaching abroad has its challenges, but it also gave Alexandra a unique chance to see Marseille as so much more. Learn more about how teaching there made her appreciate a less glamorized, yet still beautiful, city in France.
How did you end up teaching in Marseille?
I got an interview to teach English from a Colombian-French friend who was teaching Spanish at another similar school. He organized the interview for me with the Elementary school principal. He also explained how easy and fast it was to take the bus to the location. It was about a 30-40 minute bus ride from Aix-en-Provence to Marseille with only a few stops since it was an express/direct bus.
What were the challenges of teaching in France?
The biggest challenge for me was to deal with disciplining the kids in an effective way because I don’t think I was trained properly for that. Sometimes I was left alone with the kids, and they would do whatever they wanted. All of the foreign language teachers had their own separate room, so I was left alone there sometimes.
I don’t think it’s because they were inherently badly behaved, I think it had more to do with how I was supposed to deal with it. Toward the end of my time there, the teachers would help me more and they let me hold lessons in their classroom while they sat at their desk doing other things, and would chime in when I needed help with students who were “out of line.”
What were the successes of teaching abroad?
My successes had more to do with the discussions I had with students as a group or individually. They were so curious about my world and where I came from. They would constantly ask me questions about the U.S. and about Colombia. It was heart-warming to see them get to a point where they trusted me and genuinely liked me. I had very sweet relationships with some of the girls who made sure to give me hugs during their recess times.
Recess! They had four recesses a day at least! We need to do that more often.
What was the age range of your students? What was their racial and ethnic makeup like?
My kids were about 1st-3rd grade, so about six to eight years old. The majority of students were African, which was split in half between North Africans and West Africans. North Africans were mostly from Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco. The West African students were mostly from Senegal or Mali. There were maybe one or two students who had the lightest skin of the whole school, and they looked stereotypically European. I later found out that those students were “Gypsies,” as many of the teachers referred to them (though this term is considered a racial slur). Those students most likely had an Eastern European background.
Were school staff racist against students? Was there racism between the students?
Aside from teachers referring to certain students as “Gypsies”(a racial slur) or making side comments about Islam (or religion in general), I didn’t notice much else. The school did a great job of creating a culture of acceptance. I think the racism that happened was more outside of school. The area was rough, and you could tell students didn’t have a lot of clothing to wear, came to school tired, or lashed out with bad behavior.
I know the French are very discriminatory against Africans and Middle Easterners, so I am sure it was hard on their families. Though I would argue that the social services available to immigrants are better there than in the US, that doesn’t mean that there was better access to certain jobs or better areas to live in. Many times you would hear of people getting kicked out of stores, or not accepted into certain bars or restaurants because of the “dress code.”
My French host dad was a kind man, but he said that Marseille is dirty because of all the immigrants and that gypsies wander and steal everything. What did other French people think about you teaching your kids?
A lot of French people I knew talked about Marseille as if it “isn’t real France,” as dirty, crime-ridden, and poor. It was really sad to see this attitude since I loved Marseille’s charm. I went to visit at least once every month or two outside of going for work. I don’t remember what French people thought about me working there since I didn’t really know many outside of work, and the few I did know were my age and very progressive.
I actually hardly remember sharing with French people about what I did. My co-workers were all amazing and I know they actually cared about their students. The best part was to see that a school, in what is considered a bad neighborhood, had such beautiful murals all around, had access to foreign language classes, dance, art, maybe some music (though I don’t remember). They probably still weren’t as good as middle class schools in France, but they sure were almost as good as my U.S. elementary school I attended.
Teaching youth of color in Marseille is for someone who…
Is open and willing to teach and love students who are treated badly by French or European society. They sometimes need more attention than the mainstream French student. You will connect with them in a way that involves a constant exchange of cultural norms and practices, an interesting aspect to your job that you won’t find anywhere else. It will never be boring, and you will constantly feel like you are breaking barriers in the most positive way imaginable.