HAVING just returned from a five-month stint working in a French school, Sheryl Everitt says the experience has not only boosted her fluency in the language, but also given her insight into a fascinating culture.
Sheryl, a French language teacher at Whakatane High School, has been working at Lycee Nelson Mandela, a senior high school, in the city of Nantes, just south of Brittany, in France.
The trip came about when Sheryl received American Field Scholarship’s Language Immersion Award, which enables language teachers to work overseas to increase the depth of their knowledge of another language and culture.
“I worked in the school four days a week as an assistant in English and observed classes in French in all different curriculum areas. The purpose was to improve my French, but it is a win-win because the school benefits because they have me in the English classes.”
Sheryl says the experience was marvellous and challenging, and her French had improved considerably by the time she returned home although she would have liked to work on it a bit longer.
Her host family spoke only in French, as did most of the people she encountered. “Except when I was assistant in English, they would speak English in the classroom. Otherwise, it was a full immersion in French.”
There were many highlights including the French cuisine. At the school students would enjoy a five-course lunch in the school canteen.
“The cliche of a French person with a baguette is definitely true,” she says. “The local boulangerie is the hub of the town. In each little suburb there are one, two or three little boulangerie, with delicious baguettes, patisserie and cakes.”
Working with the students was another highlight. “You realise that teenagers are the same across the world.”
Sheryl was also impressed with the French chic sense of style.
“I very much enjoyed the French style of fashion; the students don’t wear uniforms, and they have very accepting attitudes to all the different styles. Teachers would even turn up with shorts and stockings.”
She says it was fascinating comparing the Kiwi school system to the French one.
“Theirs is much more traditional to ours – in the way they teach. Students have very little option, so they opt for a course and then they all have to do the same eight subjects.”
The school day begins at 8am and ends at 6pm, with an hour for lunch and two 10-minute breaks.
Sheryl says there is an amazing transport system in Nantes, with buses and trains, necessary when many people worked until late at night. “The French are very hard working.”
She says they have stamina for work and for socialising. “They just keep going. Our day finishes and they still go long into the night and they still get up early. We are quite laid back compared to the French.”
She also experienced first-hand the French penchant for protest.
“With the yellow vest movement, every Saturday they were protesting, and I got caught with tear gas one day when I came out of the supermarket. This is the French. They protest, and this is ongoing, so when you go back to work on Monday you see smashed windows.
“We had protests at our school because the Government decided to change one of the exams, so the students protested. They blocked the school entrance with shopping trolleys and lit fires in rubbish bins and broke one of the main front windows.
“There were running battles with police and students and they closed our school for a couple of days. Teachers say they have got a right to protest.”
Sheryl says she travelled on the weekends, visiting Paris and even Switzerland. “I was lucky on the weekends to be able to travel around and visit the regions of Nantes, which are spectacular, and I got to go to places like Mont St Michel. As I went to school, I passed an ancient cathedral, a chateau that has been there for centuries – there is just so much ancient history and I really enjoyed that the people, and the students, are very much into their history.
“It was an amazing experience and of course it is good to look at your own culture when you are in another one.”
Sheryl, who takes a group of students on a language and cultural trip to New Caledonia every two years, says she hopes a student trip to France may be possible one day.