Filling the Gaps by Teaching English

A young white woman in a manual wheelchair sits before a large group of perhaps 30 teens in a classroom
Emma, front row far right, with her classroom in France
Emma Verrill considered herself lucky to be teaching high school in France. Though she thought about how the students would perceive their young, American teacher using a wheelchair.

Sitting outside on the mini terrace of my new apartment listening to the kids in my neighborhood and watching people leave church and head for lunch, I feel an ease that you can only feel in a place you call home.

Two and a half years ago I fulfilled my dream of studying abroad in France. Despite hesitation from my family and friends, and some administrators at my college, I successfully lived with a family in Rennes (in Brittany), went to school, and traveled around Europe in what became five of the best months of my life.

When I graduated from college, I knew I wasn’t done with traveling and exploring the world. My thirst for discovery had only just begun, and being in a wheelchair was not going to stop me.

I was accepted to a government run teaching program in France and without many other options decided to take advantage of a new opportunity to travel and live abroad. I spent the school year living in Rennes (again!) and teaching lycée, or high school students.

I had never taught before and my nerves and insecurities were trying to get the best of me. Would my chair be a distraction? How would I control the classroom? Would they listen? Would they be interested in the material I was interested in teaching? My head was constantly filled with millions of theoretical questions, impossible for anyone else to answer.

My students in France are attentive, respectful, and determined to learn new things from “the American,” and I rarely have issues with behavior. My biggest challenge is “the gap”: where my level of French stops and their level of English begins. This language gap accounts for miscommunication and inability to be firm with the students at times.

When I mispronounce or mix up words, how can I blame them for the snickers and giggles that are sure to keep them paying attention? This is not constant nor does it inhibit my teaching ability, but it creates a mutual vulnerability that results in a greater respect between me and my students.

This is a learning experience for everyone. I am not a certified teacher and the only instruction I have received is from trial and error. Talking at them doesn’t work and giving long-winded explanations doesn’t work either – making activities as interactive as possible is the key.

One of my favorite hands-on classes from the first semester of my teaching assistantship, focused on “The Intouchables,” a film which has become a sensation in France. It is based on the true story of a paralyzed widow who hires a driver/caretaker from the outskirts of Paris. The film follows their relationship and what they learn from one another.

My 15-year-old students saw the film as a part of their civics class. Their head teacher arranged for a follow-up English project where myself, and another disabled person who is a peer, met with small groups to provide the opportunity to ask us questions.

I loved being able to use my experiences to help the students understand the limitations a person with a disability encounters as well as encouraging them to think thoroughly about the opportunities that a disability creates, such as this hands-on lesson that may have not happened or been as rich otherwise.

The students were respectful, engaged, and intent on gathering as much information as they could. In a way, the mutual vulnerability from the language gaps helped us be more open to filling in the cultural gaps. The biggest challenge also creates the greatest rewards.

Taking one day at a time is essential. Every class is different and every student was different. Sometimes the students would respond well to playing name games for a couple weeks to ease their shyness into participation. Others were engaging right away and humored me by cooperating as I gave a passionate lesson about American high school culture or environmental sustainability.

I had the occasional class when my students weren’t listening or participating and I walked home feeling discouraged and incapable. Why wouldn’t they listen today? Was I doing something wrong? I learned that being a teacher requires an immense amount of energy and sends you on a daily emotional roller coaster. But I also learned how to live on my own, how to navigate French bureaucracy, and how to be independent.

My teaching experiences in Rennes have been frustrating, exciting, scary, and fun. It teaches me so much about myself and also introduces me to new things I never would have discovered.

As frustrating as it could have been, I enjoyed it so much that I reapplied and renewed my contract for a second year. So I sit, on the terrace of my new apartment, getting prepared for another year. Some of those impossible questions are back, but I have found a new confidence that I could only discover by challenging myself every day.


Emma Verrill