Talk of the Quad: The fastest year of our lives
Every year, five postgraduate foreigners come to Bowdoin to teach their respective mother tongues as teaching fellows (TFs): two for French and one for Spanish, German and Italian.
The college has partnerships with universities that conduct interviews with students holding the equivalent of a B.A. in English. In each university, the student deemed to be the most adequate is offered a position as a TF. Bowdoin also sends its own students to be TFs in some of those universities.
I am one of this year’s TFs, coming from Blaise Pascal University in Clermont-Ferrand, France after a year teaching in an English secondary school. I have to say, the Bowdoin experience has exceeded my expectations—and the expectations of most of the other TFs.
The conditions we are offered are quite exceptional—Bowdoin provides us with accommodation, food, a return flight ticket and a $5,000 stipend. Although it is not easy to save money when you travel during vacations, this enabled us to come here in a comfortable financial situation, and we can enjoy Bowdoin’s amazing food (though not all TFs agree that it’s amazing).
Obviously, living on the campus of an American college is a valuable experience for us—we can embrace a very different culture from our own. A year at Bowdoin is basically a year of free activities. I’ve had a great time singing with the Bowdoin Chamber Choir, and I’ve enjoyed free culture with all the concerts, shows and conferences on various topics. Public conferences are quite rare in France, so I appreciate even more the fact that every day or so, there is an opportunity to improve my knowledge of society, history, politics and many other subjects.
Teaching is an important part of our schedule and is something we enjoy—that’s why we are here! However, we do not have the same workload—the Spanish TF normally is the busiest because of the size of the Spanish department.
On the other hand, the French TFs teach only three hours a week this semester but we are involved in many other activities—WBOR’s French-speaking radio program, “Pardon my French,” drama with a French literature class, helping with vocabulary in the Contemporary France through the Media course and preparing a website about recurrent mistakes in French.We also do not teach the same way. While most TFs lead conversation hours, with the Spanish TF also giving literature-related classes, the German TF’s task is different.
“I assist a professor in the German class,” said Sarah Kissel, who studies at Mainz University. “Then I work with each student one-on-one. So basically, a lot of conversation and helping them with their writings.”
“I really like it when I help them, it’s a difficult language. I think it’s really cool to see their improvement, especially last semester,” she added. “I had these weekly conservation classes with them, and we could really realize the improvement they made over the few months. That was really cool”.
Teaching represents three challenges for us. The first one is that we need to be ready to explain any grammar rule the students might ask about. It does not sound amazingly difficult, but we are not trained as teachers and in most cases, we have been taking those grammar rules for granted since our childhood and never really thought about them.
I have often found myself in the position of being asked about grammar and having to analyze my own language in my mind so that I can figure it out and give an answer. This has definitely proved enriching as that way, we really learn a lot about our respective mother tongues.
The second challenge is that we have to prepare lessons. The main aim is getting the students to speak freely, but it is never easy to give them that confidence. The lesson needs to be a conversation more than a lecture, and whenever possible, fun. I try to draw inspiration from the TFs who taught me English at university, but my composed nature means I am not necessarily the most fun TF. My colleagues do not lack imagination, though.“I do my best to find activities that work. It’s kind of a challenge,” said Tatiana Le Mestric, a French TF from the University of Western Britanny. “I adapted the game of beer pong to make students practice conjugations. I think that was fun. The students were really surprised, but it worked!”
The third challenge basically is our position as a TF. We are in this no man’s land between students and faculty. According to our OneCards, we’re faculty, but we’re allowed to take classes as students, and we have student insurance. We are not much older than actual students, so finding the right balance can be hard, especially with those we teach.
“Sometimes, trying to be friendly and serious at the same time is challenging,” said Angela Lavecchia, who studied in Naples, Italy. “You have to force them, at some point, to do what they’re supposed to do. For me, it’s kind of challenging, but I still like it”.
While some of us have found it hard to get acquainted with students outside the classes we teach, we certainly enjoyed each other’s company.
“I have met wonderful people and I’m really glad that I can call the other TFs my friends,” Lavecchia added. “I really think that if it wasn’t for them, my experience at Bowdoin wouldn’t be as happy and cheerful as it is.”
Most of us have decided what we are going to do after Bowdoin. While I am tackling a career in journalism, most TFs are obviously going to try to teach again. Le Mestric is considering another teaching experience abroad, while Kissel needs another one or two years at university to eventually teach English and German. And Lavecchia has applied to be an English teacher in a high school back in Italy. We are soon going our separate ways, but we will certainly keep very fond memories of our time at Bowdoin.
Benjamin Vinel is a teaching fellow in French at Bowdoin.