What Switzerland taught me

Switzerland gave me my first real job. Not a summer job, not an internship; the job that would pay rents and bills. When I arrived 3 years ago, I suffered from a kind of French disdain for work. Working was something annoying I had to do while preserving my energy for my private life.

I started teaching French in a spectacularly wrong manner. I arrived to the lessons late, breathless and unprepared. I didn’t know anything about French grammar and had never studied to be a French teacher- I studied law. I treated the job as something I would do before I’d start my real career as a lawyer or whatever.

Léa, my 13 year old sister made this cool illustration.

But teaching took me by surprise: I actually loved it and even though I had no training, I was good at it. I liked meeting different people everyday: unemployed kids, housewives, top bankers. I could bring something to them: some needed reassurance, others entertainment and a few, astonishingly, just wanted to learn French grammar. The ever changing schedule was far from the traditional 8 to 6 routine I dreaded and I had the total freedom to plan my lessons as I pleased.

I enjoyed finding ways to make grammar understandable and less boring. Seeing the progress my students made. Looking for new ideas to make the lessons interesting. And of course, having some time for writing. The money would never be as good as what I could make with law, but loving my job was, and still is, my highest priority.

So I started taking things seriously. I learned the grammar and the teaching techniques. I enrolled in a teaching French as a foreign language class. Teaching wasn’t a side job anymore, it was the life I wanted to pursue, giving up the grim prospect of a career in law with little regret.

I had to work on myself to become professional though; the Swiss expect their teacher to be on time, prepared and professional-looking. Here is what I learned in Switzerland:

1. Act and look professional

The first step to achieve my professional-self was to be punctual… most of the time anyway. Growing up in France, being on time was a vague concept meaning arriving between 5 minutes before and after the time of the rendez-vous. No-one would even notice a 5 minute difference. The French would only start getting angry after waiting for at least 10 minutes.

The Swiss, on the other hand, don’t mess around with punctuality. Once, I was ONE minute late to a class and my boss told me off at the end of the lesson. So I had to change. I am still a few minutes late sometimes but I always make-up for it at the end of the lesson.

Then I noticed that my students were sensitive to details like always carrying a pen and paper to take notes. I learned to look prepared in every situation, even if I only had 5 minutes in the tram to prepare my lesson.

Acting professional also included giving up getting too personal with the students or allowing myself to discreetly snack during the lesson. Tough.

2. Take my time

I am as impatient as a hungry baby waiting to be breast fed. So I tend to rush and to rush others. But the Swiss like taking their time. Some students need half an hour just to tell me about their weekend! I wanted to teach efficiently and I was so efficient that after 40 minutes, I had finished my lesson while there was still 40 minutes to fill. I was going too fast and my students were getting stressed out. So I learned to take my time, to let my students talk, to write more on the whiteboard and to accept unexpected turns in lessons.

3. Incorporate my personality

The Swiss tend to be extremely cautious and diplomatic when they want to complain about something. But It’s not because I live and work in Switzerland that I have to become the perfect Swiss worker. If I don’t like something, I go to my boss and tell him openly. He’s often surprised by my manners but he listens.

I am still a bit messy in my presentation and can be a few minutes late. When my students complain about it, I turn it into a joke: “It’s not my fault, I’m French! If you want to learn with a real French teacher, you have to put up with the mess.” And it works. Most of the time, my students laugh and make fun of me.

4. Don’t bully people into giving me their opinions or details about their private life

When I started teaching, I had this strange fantasy about becoming my student’s confidant. I also wanted to have real debates of opinion and lively conversations with them. But not everyone feels like displaying their opinions or private life. It makes some feel uncomfortable. So I learned to stop asking. If they want to share something, they will anyway.

5. Demand the right salary for my work

Switzerland is famous for its high quality products and services… and also for its high prices. I learned that it was worth paying for quality, but also normal to ask a decent salary for my work. I have a few private students outside of the school where I work and at first, I barely dared ask them for money. Gradually, I understood that I was bringing them a valuable service and that they were happy to pay the right price for it.

I also learned how to say chocolate in Swiss-German: Schoggi (pronounce shoki.) An essential survival skill.

Switzerland is the perfect place to learn how to become professional. I don’t think I would have been able to keep any job with the attitude I had at the start. I am grateful that my students and employers were patient enough to give me a chance.

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11 thoughts on “What Switzerland taught me

  1. Another great one! As someone who has taught English as a Foreign Language both abroad and at home, I can say I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve posted. Although as a Canadian in a Colombian school, the part about punctuality was reversed: it was I who had to get used to starting the class maybe 1/2 an hour later than scheduled (I always remembered to bring a good book with me). I find that the school helps when it comes to learning how to plan lessons and be professional. At the best school I worked at, they would schedule bimonthly student teacher evaluations, to let us know how the students perceived us, and they would host training sessions that were optional, but which paid us. I learned a lot and became a much better teacher from it!

    • Starting a class half an hour later! Did it mean finishing half an hour later as well, or right on time?
      The school I used to work for in Switzerland provided a pretty good training, but I found the evaluation quite intrusive after a while. Maybe I would have appreciated them more if they’d been paid.

  2. Pingback: I Already Miss Switzerland « Trying to be Conscious

  3. Pingback: How I Became A better Person « Trying to be Conscious

  4. I don’t dare reply to you in the above black box, so here. And yes, I washed ashore on one of the French islands in the Indian Ocean with a skill I’d only partially developed, teaching, to find it was in high demand. I’ve always marveled over how the ‘baggage’ of education finds a place for use when you travel abroad.

    Anyway, I wanted to thank you for not being upset over my “iffy” reply to your kind response. It sort of blurted out as I typed, and I did give the word in question some thought, but considering the circumstances, decided to let it ride. For example, if Léa at 13 had read it, she would only see the obvious interpretation. Am I wrong? Is it too off-color? As a teacher, you could advise me.

    You are good at sending your emotions through the wires. You made me sad thinking about how you must miss the sounds and smells of the sea, and that you couldn’t hear the whale’s love songs, so I’ve come back to read more of your amusing writing.

    I enjoyed the one about wrinkles. When I get mangoes or papaya at the market, I try to pick up valuable insights by getting the elderly ladies to talk about “Tahiti d’antan.” But what amazes me is the lack of wrinkles, stress lines and other marks on their faces, after spending sixty or more years in the brilliant tropical sun, with no products whatsoever, except Monoi. Sometimes I misjudge their ages by 15 years. Talk about being on time …

    Sincerely, it’s always a pleasure to see your little face pop-up. A+

    • I really don’t see where I could have been upset at one of your comments! Maybe I misunderstood something you said as a compliment ;-)

      Maybe eating mango and papaya is the secret for a beautiful skin? I certainly wouldn’t mind eating them every day!

    • Thanks Whitt! Did you teach yourself?
      I have 2 lovely sisters. Léa lives in Nice and Flora in Tahiti… but not for long! She’ll be back in France in July :-)

  5. Again as a Fench expat, I can identify myself with you! I got my first job out of Uni in London, and I quickly learnt similar lessons! :) I have also taught French in Japan for 6 months, it was also my first experience teaching a language, I loved it! And yes I also learnt there that you need to arrive on time (do you believe that I even got fired – after only 1 hour of work – from one of the private school I was teaching at in Tokyo, because I arrived to work late – I had called to let them know I was running late!). Anyway, I enjoy reading your blog, great work!

    • Merci Mademoiselle S. :-). I’ve heard that the Japanese are even stricter on punctuality than the Swiss! I probably wouldn’t be able to make it there. Are you still teaching today in Australia?

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