Nothing can prepare you for how overwhelming it is to arrive in a completely new place, start a job you’ve never before attempted and navigate a culture you may have a passing relationship with. It is scary and nerve-racking, but it just might be one of the realest experiences you’ll have. However, there is a little dilemma once you land in your new, temporary home. All of a sudden, there is a new place to explore, but you only have a limited amount of time. Finding a balance between work and life is key to enjoying a successful International Co-op.
Through the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF), I was hired as an elementary school English Language Assistant for the Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 semesters. TAPIF hires people from various countries to come to France as ambassadors for their country and the language(s) they speak. I was placed in two elementary schools in a small town in southern France during which time I worked with children aged six to eleven over a period of seven months. The foundation for the duties of an assistant is the authentic representation of their language and culture, through accent and linguistic choices. This can be realized in several ways. For example, I found that children respond best to learning language if they are also playing a game. Songs are also useful for presenting new information to children in a fun way that doesn’t seem like learning in the traditional sense. Of all the duties of an assistant, the most important aspect is conversation practice. At the primary level, the goal is to get the students talking and using the English they are learning, which can involve many different activities. In my classes, this meant asking and answering a variety of questions such as “What’s your name?” and “How are you?” At this level, the students weren’t yet writing in English, but the eldest students were beginning to copy vocabulary words into their notebooks. In fact, reading English words caused the students a number of difficulties since English and French phonetics differ a fair bit. We also played games in class with flashcards, to enhance their vocabulary so that they could speak about themselves and the world around them.
Before landing in France, I had never been to Europe. I hadn’t seen the mix of ancient architecture and modern buildings or the wonders of the old cities. One short flight and you can land in any number of countries; the possibilities are endless. There are short weekend trips to neighbouring cities or longer vacations to other countries. Thus, my time as a language assistant also provided opportunities to explore and experience French culture in ways I never imagined.
An international co-op position is a blend of professional and personal growth. The trick is to not be overwhelmed by all the possibilities and to narrow your focus on what you’d like to accomplish during your time overseas. For me, that meant exploring Europe and the multitudes of cultures to be found as well as developing professional skills through my position as an English Language Assistant, such as improving my French language skills and developing stronger presentation abilities. Balance is therefore key.
Below are my top tips for finding a balance between work and life during an International Co-op:
1. Settle Into Your Job Before You Begin Exploring
It doesn’t need to be a large adjustment period, even a couple of weeks will do. You were hired into a co-op position and it is very tempting to launch yourself immediately into the new environment before you have a chance to breathe and adjust to your new job, especially if you are placed internationally. This, however, can lead to the creation of a bad routine, where you are constantly putting off work. Taking the time to settle into your new job, to learn and make note of what is expected of you and how much time is needed to perform the job to your best ability is crucial to finding a balance between working and living. Ease into your position and from there, ease into your life.
2. Don’t Try to do Everything in the First Few Weeks
It may be tempting to hurry and see absolutely everything you can at the beginning of your work term. However, this can prove to be too much play and create a routine focused on life without enough work. At the beginning of your work term, make a list of all the things you’d like to see and prioritize them. Then compare your list to your work schedule what you have noted about your work-related tasks and expectations during your settling period. This will allow you to better plan any extracurricular activities and sightseeing that you would like to do around your work schedule without overloading yourself.
During my own international experience, weekdays were about the students and how I could best teach them. Lesson plans, research and collaboration with the teachers allowed me to become a better assistant during my seven months in France. I learned valuable skills by working with the teachers and observing the way they go about their work. On the other hand, the weekend was about exploring. I used this time to do little day trips to neighbouring cities, which allowed me to explore the French countryside. I saved big holidays and the two-week breaks that occurred every six weeks in the French education yearly schedule for travel to other countries. By creating a routine like this, I was able to balance my duties to the students and the school with my desire to explore.
3. Get Involved With the People at your New Job
Your co-workers most likely already have a work-life balance established and can therefore be an invaluable resource. They can provide you with an insider perspective: in the workplace, they are examples of how to perform your job while outside of the workplace, they know the good places to go and the good things to see and do. As you build relationships with your co-workers, you strengthen your balance by following their examples.
Your time in a co-op position is only what you make of it. The location itself could be anywhere, local or international, but regardless of where your co-op is, it is important to find a balance between the new position and the new place and culture to discover. All play and no work is just as bad as all work and no play.
Beyond the Blog
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