The “swag” life of a teaching assistant

I taught my first class after two flutes of champagne.

I hadn’t intended for it to happen that way. I was at a little party organized for English professors at the school, which – for me – was simply supposed to be a chance to meet my colleagues and receive my schedule. Amid the warm chatter in French and English, I availed myself of the dessert tray, a flute of champagne, and succumbed to a refill of aforementioned flute.

But you can’t spell surprise without P-R-I-S, which, for the sake of argument, we’ll say also spells “Paris.” In any case, what happened next came as a total surprise (though at this point, I should have learned to always expect the unexpected).

Smiling over a drink

Pro tip for expats: whenever possible, enjoy a drink and smile. Your state of ignorant bliss will soon be decimated.

A professor looked at my schedule and noticed that I was assigned to one of her classes, which would be taking place that very day in twenty minutes. She asked if I would join her.

Feeling a bit bubbly on the bubbly, I chirped my assent, “Sure! I’d be delighted to observe!” (It was “observation week” for the assistants after all.)

The professor stared back blankly. ” ‘Observe?’ Oh, no, you’ll be teaching the class.”

Teaching?” I echoed in confusion, as if the word didn’t belong in my vocabulary, never mind my job title. “But… I haven’t prepared anything… I don’t have a lesson plan… I really don’t know what I can do with the students for — an hour?!”

“It’s fine,” she shrugged. “Just introduce yourself and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

“Um, okay.”

Over the ensuing twenty minutes, I sipped the last of my liquid courage and furiously racked my brain for what to do. When we got to class (an almost all male group of students pursuing their associate’s degree in information technology), I wrote the following on the front board:

  1. I moved to Paris from New York.
  2. I am Japanese-American.
  3. I studied French literature and economics in university.

Hi. I’m your English teaching assistant. I want to tell you three things about myself. First of all, I moved to Paris from New York. Secondly, I am Japanese-American. Finally, I studied French literature and economics in university. I’m also a liar because only two of these three statements are true.*

Yup. We ended up playing two truths and a lie, the icebreaker game that elicits collective groans at summer camps all across America. Nonetheless, the students had a blast trying to guess my lie**, then creating their own three statements in English. By the end of the hour, every student had had a chance to speak English, I’d gotten to know the students’ names and a bit of their backgrounds, and the professor (who’d sat and watched the entire class) conveyed that she was impressed by the level of engagement the activity inspired.

So. Big sigh of relief. Things hadn’t gone badly at all.

Thus began my experience as an English teaching assistant in France.

*For the record, I’m Chinese-American, not Japanese-American. What a give-away!

**Interesting tidbit: Since double majors are practically unheard of in France, many students thought I couldn’t have studied both subjects. However, I also had one girl insist there was no way I could have come from New York. Her reasoning? She could actually understand my English, as opposed to the babble of New Yorkers.


I’ve been a teaching assistant for just under a month now, and I love what I do. I work with students who are generally 19 to 22 years old and pursuing a BTS (the equivalent of an associate’s degree) in fields as diverse as international trade, tourism, communications, accounting, retail management, real estate, and IT. Sometimes I work alongside a professor in front of a class of 30+ students. Other times, I independently take a smaller group to work with which can range from 6 to 20+ students.

The students constantly surprise and impress me. Most of them live outside of Paris proper and commute over an hour to class. While there are always some who talk during class, for the most part, the students are extremely respectful. They greet me as they stream into the classroom and say “thank you” on the way out. They will not visibly ready themselves to leave as the end of the period approaches; rather, they wait to be formally dismissed (sometimes past the bell, because I can be pretty oblivious).

In return, I strive to make my lessons informative and engaging. When they turn out that way, the work is incredibly rewarding.

How rewarding? Well, my salary only covers a few coffee dates per week but I’m really paid in experiences like this:

  • While teaching about the U.S. presidential elections, getting to listen to young French people argue over which candidate is more likely to raise taxes on the wealthy. Then hearing a student tell the professor it was the best class they’d had all year.
  • During a discussion of stereotypes of New York City, having multiple male students vie to explain a scene from Sex and the City.
  • Having a group of girls shout “Hiiii Steff!” as I walk past them in the hall, then burst into giggles when I smile back at them (’cause, you know, I’m usually addressed as “Madame”).

And – thanks to my students – my “French” is improving too. Did you know that the word “swag” is used (albeit a bit ironically, with an accompanying snicker) to indicate a cool or hip appearance/style?


As if I didn’t just define “swag” for you.

So that’s a peek inside the life of one humble civil servant. Until next time, gentle reader.


6 thoughts on “The “swag” life of a teaching assistant

    • Hi Kara! My first post delves into the details, but I’m working through a program sponsored by the French Ministry of Education. I heard about it back in college through the French department. 🙂

  1. I’m curious what the rough breakdown of the 2 truths 1 lie game was. Did anyone guess the Japanese one? Also interested in the French professors behavior thing….potential post plox on your opinion of differences?

    KE AI.

    • It totally depended on the class. Sometimes people were split evenly among the three answers. Other times they really leaned toward one statement (usually if there was a vocal student who managed to convince the others). But it seemed pretty random.

  2. I didn’t realize I could comment directly on here. I second Suey on both of those. Also, this post really made me wonder what the professor’s doing this whole time… first she sits back for an hour and watches you play 2 truths and a lie, then you overhear someone tell her that the election exercise was really fun… is she literally just sitting there doing nothing the whole time? What is she good for?

    • To be fair, these were among the first classes I taught so most of the teachers just observed if it was their first lesson with me. I’ve since had teachers take part of the class while I take another part. Otherwise, they may stay in the room and help the discussion by posing questions, etc.

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