What I Learned From Teaching in Marseille, France

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.


Adorable Fassouil at a talent show.

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.


Yes, I have a fish on my face. With my other little CE1 kid.

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.



My co-workers (like Monsieur Michel) were all amazing and I know they actually cared about their students. Unfortunately, the only teachers of color were the foreign language teachers, who were majority Latinx (Brazilian, Colombian, and I). Hopefully more people of color can be inspired to teach abroad in communities where the students can have teachers who are reflections of them.

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.



La Banlieue, the government projects in Marseille

Do you have questions about teaching abroad? Share in the comments.

Work While Studying Abroad

How working while studying abroad in France allowed me to travel Europe and learn the language better than 9 years of classes. Recommendations at end of post.

Coat check at a bar and elementary English teacher. Those were my two jobs I was able to nab while studying abroad for an academic year in Aix-en-Provence, France. Whatever student loans and small scholarships didn’t cover, I had the privilege that my parents could help me with much of the cost during the year there (the rest of tuition, dorm, round-trip flight). But any of the extras like food, entertainment, and travel was to be covered by me. Though I did have a middle class upbringing, the burden of college on my family was immense. My family lived through the chaos that was the Michigan auto industry, and I had studied in France in 2008 to 2009, when the economic recession hit. The dollar was very weak compared to the Euro, and my family and I felt it. My two summer jobs before I moved in the Fall didn’t allow me to save enough to cover a whole year of “extras”. I was determined to find a job that would feed my addiction to wanderlust while lessening the study abroad cost burden on my family.

The first month or so we were in Aix, my new study abroad friends and I would go out to the international student nocturnal spot called IPN (it’s possible it stood for “International Party Nightclub”, in English, not in French) where a few French people worked, but the rest of the workers were foreigners. I was pleasantly surprised to meet a fellow Colombian guy, Kike, attending the coat check on a slow weeknight. We hit it off, conversing mostly in Spanish. I expressed to him that I needed a job, which led him to help me get a job doing the same as him, and – BAM – I got my first job abroad! I was being paid 50-60 euros a night (depending on tips) under the table, and I was only working Saturday nights for about 2-3 months (September – November 2008). That was about $70-80 at that time, which was a lot considering I was not bartending. This covered food to experiment outside of my main choice of cheese or bread (food is expensive in France!). It also covered short weekend trips like to the French island of Corsica, for example.

European clubs stay open past 4 or 5 am , so I knew I had to look for something different or else risk my health and weekend social life (i.e. time to go on trips). There was also an incident where I once got choked by a non-French male coworker who thought he was being playful and funny. I never did or said anything about the situation because I didn’t know how to handle it. Thankfully, a fellow female coworker saw what happened and called him out. Regardless, I knew that it was time to look for a better work gig.

Through Kike, I was introduced to ALL the Colombians who lived in Aix that were around my age. This group  included a guy I would later (and briefly) date, who introduced me to his sister, Linda. Another girl, Daniela, I met randomly while working coat check because we haphazardly bonded over Shakira playing at the moment she handed me her coat, and then we became inseparable the moment we both said we were Colombian. I remain in contact with Linda and Daniela to this day. They are two of my best friends. We spent some fun nights at IPN while I worked and they came to party to accompany me, but we preferred going Latin dancing at Cuba Libre or for some cheap Rosé at Splendid.

My parents weren’t too happy that I was speaking too much English with U.S. American friends and too much Spanish with Colombian friends, which they felt defeated the purpose of being in France.  However, another Colombian, William, who was also working at IPN, worked as a Spanish teacher at one of the French public schools in the area. He told me it would be possible for me to teach Spanish or English. I was more than excited to stop staying up so late on Saturdays for work.  That way I could start having a unique and fun experience with some French youngins during normal business hours. In addition, who would have thought I would meet so many Colombians in France, and that they would make such a positive impact on my life then and now?

William organized my first and only interview with Madame Vela Tur, the principal at Bellevue Elementary School (École Primaire Bellevue), a 30-40 minute bus ride away in the bigger nearby city of Marseille, France. To prepare me before the interview, he let me know that the school was located in a neighborhood that was the government projects with low-income housing. We had one meeting, and I hit it off right away with the kids. I couldn’t believe I got the job!

I was working once a week on Fridays, from 8am to 3pm for a couple of months. I later started to work at 2 other nearby Elementary schools for about 3 hours each. I worked a loaded schedule for my remaining 3 months while still taking university classes. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the names of those elementary schools.  I was teaching 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade, about 2 different classes per grade. 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. I wouldn’t take back this experience for the world, and I was happy to have such a genuine exchange of cultures: between my U.S. American/ Latin American/ Colombian culture, and their French or African or Middle Eastern or Gypsy or Muslim culture.

I ended up working there from about November 2008 to June 2009, and it was a challenging but beneficial 8 months out of my study abroad experience. In fact, I was able to help a fellow U.S. American classmate, Brandon, land a job teaching too. Because of this job, I was able to travel to 7 other countries in Europe. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the extra income.

Do not pay attention to criticisms from your family or friends. If most of your social network speaks your native language(s), yet you are working while studying abroad, the best language experience you will get is if you work with colleagues who are local. It’s usually hard to befriend locals, therefore this is the best way to connect with them, befriend them, and be immersed in their language in the most useful way that is not learned in a college course.

It can be tricky to find a job while studying or living abroad depending on visa restrictions. Here are 3 easy jobs to research online before you travel to the new country, and/or on the ground when you arrive there:

Teach. The easiest job to find as a foreigner with a student visa is teaching English or another language like Spanish or Portuguese. Many require a TEFL certification, but some don’t. Do your research to see what exists in the area you will be in because chances are there are plenty of elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, universities, and adult evening classes for you to teach. Connect with other foreign students who teach since they know direct contacts to people who hire for these positions.

Au Pair. Basically, you get room and board paid for while you take care of a family’s kids. Most times you get an extra stipend to spend for yourself and access to a motorized vehicle. This might be tricky if you have a set school schedule, but it is possible to balance the two. Daniela, my Colombian-French friend I mentioned earlier, worked as an Au Pair in the UK while she completed her studies AND worked at a nearby school.

Work at a bar or restaurant. You may be able to find a job that pays you under the table by bartending, bussing, or other jobs like coat check. Try the bars or restaurants that are frequented by a lot of international students or run by foreigners, especially if there are other Latinxs there. Be wary that “under the table” isn’t always the best option since things can go wrong or the workplace might be unsafe.

Odds and ends. Translate documents to English. Babysit. Task Rabbit offers remote jobs, or find a similar local app. Intern for a company that wants English/Spanish/Portuguese speakers. Find work you can do remotely for your university, with a connection, or for a company.

Even if you aren’t able to secure something before you arrive to your destination, remember that it’s always easiest to find a job on the ground. Network with people who are foreigners but who have lived there for at least a year, they will have the best knowledge in terms of connections for foreigners, and will empathize with you the most. You will most likely find something quicker on the ground rather than sitting at home researching online. You have to be active about talking to people or else you won’t find anything.

For more photos of my teaching experience, click here!

Stay tuned for a future post about my summer internship experience in Paris that followed my academic year in the South of France.

Were you able to find a job while studying or living abroad? What did you do? How did you find the job?


French Politics Interfere with Students’ Experience Abroad

Again, I am glad to say I go to the IEP! Note: this does not apply to me. Read this article from the Michigan Daily:

French politics interfere with students’ experience abroad

Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 26, 2009

University students studying abroad in France this semester may have gotten more than they originally bargained for. In addition to traveling across Europe and learning more about foreign cultures, students have been caught in the crossfire of a months-long battle between the country’s university professors and the French government.

Since February, protest has swelled in France surrounding President Nicolas Sarkozy’s education reforms. Professors across France have been cancelling classes, causing panic and frustration for students concerned about completing their classes and obtaining credits they counted on in order to stay on track for graduation.

According to The Guardian, a British newspaper, these reforms greatly effect the research done by French academics. University professors in France are required to have a certain balance of research and academic teaching. And up until now, professors’ peers determined whether or not that balance was met.

But Sarkozy’s education reforms place that power into the hands of the university presidents, enraging French professors worried they are losing control over their research.

University of Michigan students studying in Aix-En-Provence, a region in the South of France, report they have felt the effects of the strikes as much as any French university student.

“The strikes have unfortunately forced my academic program to hire private tutors to replace the classes at the French university,” Ethan David, an LSA junior and student in the Aix-En-Provence program, wrote in an e-mail interview.

Because of the situation and uncertainty about regular class meetings, many students are concerned about fulfilling necessary credits at the University of Michigan.

“My concern was that I wasn’t going to receive credit for my courses,” LSA junior Sonita Moss, who is also in the Aix-En-Provence program, wrote in an e-mail interview. “What’s good is that they’re ensuring everyone their credits and tailoring the courses to what we were taking at the (Universite de Provence Fac de Lettres).”

The University’s Office of International Programs is trying to keep students aware of current developments. The OIP has set up a page on its website for students studying abroad to get information and has been in contact with on-location program directors.

In an e-mail interview, Nicole LeBlanc, assistant director at the University of Michigan’s OIP, wrote that fulfilling credits in the wake of the strikes is no longer a concern.

“(Fulfilling credits) should not be an issue, based on the current academic plan in place which will give students a full semester of credits,” LeBlanc wrote. “Some students did not have courses affected by the strike, depending on their faculty/institute.”

“If an OIP student should find themselves in an academic situation which needs special attention, however, we will work directly with that student on an individual basis,” LeBlanc said.

While the situation caused panic, Moss wrote she has chosen to remain optimistic.

“Maybe I’m not getting the ideal education here in France, but I am meeting extraordinary people and giving myself to the entire experience,” she said. “I go to Michigan for the education; I came to France for something else.”

Strikes – La Grève

My Dad likes to call it “organized chaos.” I like to call it a pain in the butt. The French call it a way of life (and maybe, just maybe, a reason to relax and vacation a little). This love to protest to insure a social government system dates back to the French Revolution of 1789 where they dethroned the monarchy and fought for equality for all people. In these past few decades, there have been protests so intense that they turn violent, for example the infamous 1968 student protests that ultimately brought down the de Gaulle regime.

I attend the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (IEP) Aix Science-Po, a “Grand Ecole” (essentialy French Ivy League) smaller branch off of the Université du Provence Aix-Marseille. Let’s just say I am VERY happy I made this choice instead of going to the much larger, socialized, and liberal school La Faculté de Lettres, aka “La Fac.”

When the strikes started, the IEP staff voted to go on strike for the first time in 50 years to protest against Sarkozy’s reform on higher education. I had 6 out of 8 classes canceled the first week, but then had all but 2 courses two weeks after. Although it was a bit chaotic, it only ended up bumping our exams later by a week, which did not bother most IEP students.

As for La Fac, it has now been 2 months since the strike started, and of course there are some classes that still have no taken place. Most of the people in my program, here have been left with no courses in at least one month.

Question is: these professors want to fight for a higher education, but at the same time aren’t they hurting their students by not teaching at all?

Courtesy of Rebecca Sunde: Verlan, the French Pig Latin

The French have their own version of pig latin, and they know how to use it.

It’s called verlan — a sort of inversion of syllables that has become the basis for popular slang amongst the French youth. Even though it is designated as the langue des rappeurs (a.k.a. rappers, therefore not always a very educated language, especially to French standards), Mme Martins says it has existed in some form or another since the third century!

Take the word verlan itself and cut it in half; you get ver and lan. Now switch the two around; you get lan ver, which produces the same sound as the French word l’envers, meaning “the reverse.”

For example:
Bizarre becomes zarbi.
Femme, meaning ‘woman,’ becomes meuf.
Arabe, referring to the many arabic immigrants in France, becomes Beur.

These last two have become so widely recognized that they have been re-verlanized as femeur and rebeu. And I thought English was supposed to be hard…

To see more of Rebecca’s beautiful blog: http://rebeccainaix.blogspot.com/

French Men’s Fashion

Need I really say it? It is better. The men here know how to dress, and it is not feminine. In fact, I would describe it as a James Dean look (SEXY), or a Thunderbirds look from Grease. A lot of the men wear the look straight out of a Levis commercial, a jean that is very popular here (note the American classic brand!).

Cigarette and all.

Cigarette and all.



Bisous Bisous

It is something normal here to see two grown men greet eachother with a kiss on each cheek. To Faire les bises is somewhat more complicated then what I am used to. Most Latin@s/Latin-Americans greet each other with one kiss on the right cheek. Men DO NOT kiss each other to greet, unless it really is a deep moment between family members or close friends. Going into my 5th month in France now, I am now use to the sight. It is so much less awkward to simply say hello with the Bisous. Do not hesitate to introduce yourself to a friend’s friend that is a stranger to you, that cancels out the “should I hug them or shouldn’t I hug them” pondering.

Don’t freak out though. There are many French men that do not partake in faire-ing les bises with other men, so they share a harty hand shake.

The amount of Bisous that are shared vary by region. Provence is very different, but in Aix it is mostly just 2. In Marseille you may see up to 4. That was crazy head movement that one time I saw it!

Faire les bises

Faire les bises