The time is coming around when second-year linguists are having to make the big scary decision: what should I do on my year abroad?
Anyhow, after nearly 13 weeks as a Comenius Assistant in Toulon, I feel I should help out those who are struggling with the big decision: to Comenius, or to not Comenius? I know that many people have never heard of it, and universities don’t tend to promote the scheme, so here is:
My grand list of the pros and cons of being a Comenius Assistant in France.
1. PRO: The money. For an average working week of 12 hours, the pay is great! Comenius assistants aren’t entitled to Erasmus, however we are paid slightly more than the other British Council ELAs (English Language Assistants) to make up for this. You also get paid straight into your British bank account (so you don’t have to pay French taxes) and as a lump sum (well 80%) before you even leave for France, so no worrying about the first rent payment. You then receive the remaining money after you finish. You are also entitled to two other grants: one for travelling to the induction meeting in Paris; another for French lessons – yes, even if you are studying French!
CONS: With the money in your account pre-departure, it can be difficult to budget over a long period of time. Also, as it does not come under the Erasmus umbrella, you have to pay half tuition fees at uni (or full, if you’re doing a full year on Comenius)..annoying!
2. PRO: The hours. We are contracted to work between 12-16 hours per week (not including preparation time), which is an absolute dream and leaves you with lots of free time to explore your new home and even give private lessons. Plus, if you decide that teaching isn’t really for you, you’re safe in the knowledge that you only have to do it for 12 hours a week!
CON: French schools start from as early as 8am, and can finish as late as 6pm…you could have some very long days!
3. PRO: very little paperwork – you don’t need medical certificates, birth certificate translations, social security numbers… Just fill in the one big application form, and then a few pre-departure forms such as grant agreements, plus an evaluation form at the end, and you’re ready to go! It is also all ran from the UK, so we never have to deal with all the French governmental paperwork. The deadline is also later than for the British Council ELAs : end of January, so you still have time!
4. CON: When applying to be a CA, unlike the ELAs, you cannot specify a particular region that you want to be placed in, so you are literally putting your faith in someone else’s hands as to where you will spend the next 4 months (or year) of your life. My biggest fear was being placed in Calais, or Brittany. I could not deal with the weather!
PRO: You could, however, be very lucky like me (and several other CAs) and end up on the south coast of France. Schools apply from all over the country, so it all just depends on your application form and the other choices you can make: country; size of town; age group of students; type of school (primary, adult education, special needs). You can also specify which is the most important – for me, it was the country, as I needed to improve my French! Even then, I ended up with all the specifications that I had requested.
5. PRO: You can be an assistant for any length of time, from 13 – 45 weeks. This was perfect for me as I’m a dual-linguist and needed to spend the second half of my year in Spain! It is also less time-limited than ELA’s – you can start and finish almost whenever you want. For example, I started at the beginning of September (other ELA’s started at the beginning of October) and am finishing at Christmas.
6. PRO: Any EU citizen can apply, and you don’t have to speak the language of the country (see point 1). I know non-linguist graduates that applied to be Comenius Assistants, just wanting to teach English and not really minding where. Which is great if you’re not a linguist and are just looking for some teaching experience
7. PRO: You don’t have to teach just English. We’re ‘cultural assistants’ rather than ‘English language assistants’, which is great as you can get teaching experience in any subject. For example, you might be asked to help in science lessons in English, help with sports, or with a inter-country project that school has going.
8. PRO: gain great teaching experience. I’ve had the chance to work with primary and collège (11-15 year-olds), even though I was only assigned to the older students. It has definitely taught me that if I become a teacher, it will be at primary age, rather than secondary!
– CON: I hear regular stories of how the teaching hours of assistants have been abused, with assistants teaching whole classes, while the teachers have a coffee and a chat in the staffroom. However, we are not supposed to be ‘teachers’. My school has been okay, although have ended up actually lesson-planning and teaching a lot more than I thought…so as a true Scout would say: BE PREPARED!
9. PRO: So helpful. There are less people that apply for Comenius than for the British Council ELA scheme, and it’s all based in the UK (rather than the countries we work in), so the group of people that run it are always on hand to reply promptly to emails and queries via Facebook. We also had a pre-departure meeting over the summer, so we had a chance to meet other assistants, and find out what we would be doing.
10. PRO: It looks great on your CV. Moving countries, learning/speaking another language, working with children…need I say anymore?
Sorry (or not) for the lack of cons and the abundance of cat pictures! Hope it’s been a bit helpful.
ps. The website to apply and find out more about funding is here.