Erin Thesing is an elementary school teacher who worked for several years at schools in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. before she applied this summer for a dream job at an international school in Paris, where she had long wanted to live. She had no expectation of being chosen, but, in a big surprise, she learned not long after submitting her application that she had been accepted as a fourth grade teacher.
As she began to pack for her adventure, she began to wonder about what was ahead for her. Would her work in France essentially be the same as in the United States or fundamentally different? Did working in Philadelphia and the District prepare her for Paris? How well would she work with her new colleagues?
In this post, and in other occasional pieces that she will pen this school year, Thesing will answer these questions, writing about her move to France and what she is learning about her profession.
Thesing has a masters degree in urban education from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of New Hampshire. She enjoys running, reading, and cooking — and until moving to France, spent a good amount of time planning trips there.
By Erin Thesing
“So, Erin, how can we get you to Paris next week?” The unexpected Skype call with my new principal in Paris had cut short my summer break visit to my parents in New Hampshire.
Days earlier, it had been Bastille Day. And instead of packing for my trip home, I had become lost in a French Internet rabbit hole and found myself checking the Paris-based international school’s website, as I secretly had from time-to-time during the past four years. Only this time, for the first time, there was an opening. Fourth grade.
“Write the cover letter right now,” my boyfriend rooted after I breathlessly called to tell him about the vacancy. “You’re on summer break. Get going. You’ll regret it forever if you don’t try.” Hours after I sent in my application, certain nothing would come of it, I found myself with an invitation to a Skype interview, and, few days later, a job in Paris.
And so, with only two weeks’ notice, and with the blessing of my principal (“Gosh, I hope you said yes right away!” she had urged), I was suddenly packing boxes and milk crates with the contents of my portable fifth grade classroom in Washington, D.C.
I had Sarah, my good teacher friend, by my side to help me sort through shelves and bins of the books, student work, and art supplies I had carried with me from the different schools I’ve called home. Sarah and I had spent years helping each other load cars with boxes and set up our apartments and classrooms across the city.
“How about these pillows?” I asked her, holding them up by the corners. Natalie had them in her pre-K classroom before heading off to Hong Kong. She nodded, and I tossed them into the growing pile. “The lamps? They were our Katy’s when she moved back to Oregon.” We added those, too.
I walked to the back of my classroom, knelt beside the lower shelves of my bookcase, and started to scan for the must-haves. One by one, I pulled out titles I had lovingly collected at Saturday library sales and during evening walks to the Little Free Libraries in our neighborhood. I piled them into Giant Supermarket shopping bags to be loaded into Sarah’s car, topping the pile with the addition flash cards and Learn-to-Tell-Time BINGO that my colleagues and I had purchased by the armful at a Philadelphia dollar store during my first year of teaching. One more lamp, its lampshade adorned with French road maps, was added to the mound of treasures. Soon, Sarah’s classroom would be filled with pieces from the different teachers who had shaped our own teaching.
In my own car, we stacked boxes of chapter books, drawers of collected wrapping paper scraps ripe for tear-paper collages during the first weeks of school, and clear plastic gelato cups, formerly filled with pencils and markers.
Finally, we squeezed in the box of student work that I’ve carried from school to school, relics of the different schools that had shaped me. A folder of first graders’ how-to books from where I first became a teacher — a no-excuses turnaround charter school in Philadelphia — their handwriting and spelling still wowing me. The hand-rolled beeswax candles with a label decrying the plight of the honeybees, sold at the neighborhood farmers’ market to raise money for a beehive from my first graders at the project-based learning charter school I had taught at in the District. I tucked in the position papers written by this year’s fifth graders, who held panels on the merits and consequences of serving chocolate milk in schools. I made sure to leave room for the artifacts I was sure I would bring back from my new school in Paris.
As we shut the trunk, I wondered how I could ever start the new school year in a new country without this nurturing teacher community that we had built in Washington D.C.
I have taught in distinct types of schools with different philosophies and pedagogical values. And from all, I have carried something with me.
In the Philadelphia charter school with its crystal-clear “no excuses” mission, I added a tool belt of classroom management and engagement strategies that got me through my first two years of teaching.
In Washington D.C., at the charter school that strives to use progressive pedagogy in the age of high-stakes standardized testing, I learned to build a classroom around children making and doing. Last year, I taught in a public neighborhood school, where I learned just how powerful an effect a strong school leader can have on a school community. This year I am teaching at an international school in Paris, where I am sure that I will evolve as a teacher once more.
I arrived in Paris with my two suitcases to last me the whole year. I carried with me seven favorite picture books (including Patricia MacLachlan’s “What You Know First,” Eloise Greenfield’s “Honey, I Love,” and especially Cynthia Rylant’s “An Angel for Solomon Singer”), my well-worn copy of The First Six Weeks of School,” fabric for covering bookshelves before guided discoveries revealed their contents, and a Ziplock bag of chart markers and oversized post-it notes–a teaching toolkit I’ve built across schools.
“They’ll have everything you need,” a new colleague had written. “You really don’t need to bring anything.” And so I was surprised when, five days before school started, I walked into a completely empty classroom. The linoleum floors had not been installed. There was no white board, not a single desk. Four empty walls. A renovation, my last-minute arrival, and France’s annual August vacation meant that a supply order wouldn’t arrive for another month.
Peeking into neighboring classrooms, I saw teachers — teamed up with their daughters, friends, visiting parents, and partners — hanging charts, trimming bulletin boards, and labeling math notebooks. My stomach, already in knots from still not having found an apartment before the start of school, clenched tighter. I frantically texted my D.C. friends with pictures of the empty box. “No apartment. No classroom. No pencils. Kids come in four days.” I sat alone in the middle of the room, wondering how I could ever possibly build my new classroom home without everything—and everyone–I had left behind.
I looked through my picture books, seeking wisdom from the places and teachers I knew. I felt like Cynthia Rylant’s Solmon Singer. My classroom “had none of the things [I] loved.” I felt alone. I texted my boyfriend, “I didn’t think this through! How did I end up here?”
“Coucou! Ça va?” a French teacher peeked into the door.
“Ça va, but you can see there’s nothing here. I’m waiting,” I forced a smile.
“You’ll wait forever in France unless you go for it yourself. Let’s go.” And she walked me to this school’s version of the Hogwarts’s Room of Requirement, the school gym, where old desks stood stacked in piles, old office chairs were pushed into a corner, and stacks of bulletin boards leaned against each other, last year’s student work still hanging off.
Looking around, I thought about my turnaround school, where, hours before students arrived, paint dried in the hallways. My charter school in Washington D.C., where Katie, our instructional coach, ran to Ikea the night before students came to buy rugs to greet our new students the next morning. My trailer classroom, which thanks to D.C. summer humidity, left a classroom of books covered in mold. I smiled, as memories of hauling desks through a moldy Philadelphia school basement and scrubbing out pasta sauce jars to become paint brush holders with teachers in the District flashed before my eyes. This is what we do.
Joli, another new teacher at the Paris school, and I emailed out a cry for help. The next afternoon, her boyfriend was helping me haul chairs and benches up two flights of stairs, while another teacher dropped off boxes of pencils. A first-grade teacher carried up pocket folders — “I always order these from the States. Take them for now.”
The next day, a French teacher climbed atop a desk and hammered a nail into the wall to hang a clock he had found in a cabinet somewhere. “If you need anything, do not hesitate to ask,” he reminded each day.
Another teacher brought her old whiteboard to use in the meantime. My new fourth-grade colleague brought me a mix of nuts and dried fruits, to fuel hours of work ahead. A second-grade teacher offered to drive me an hour in the suburbs to Ikea to find sheets for my apartment. Another French teacher sat on hold with the notoriously difficult telecom company, fighting to get Internet for my future apartment.
Somehow, four days later, I had a classroom filled with children, carefully using the publishing pens I had brought from home to write final drafts of their hopes and dreams for the year. There were dreams of learning Dutch, perfecting cursive, and making friends across genders, and building our class family agreements in which, among others, we promised to “Be kind and take care of each other,” and to “Take care of our classroom home.” We thought about Rylant’s character Solomon Singer, and the two things he needed to feel at home: to feel known and to be in a place that is beautiful. Our class family — with its room of bare shelves and walls and students who feel really far from home — we acknowledged, will have to spend the year building a home together.
For me, moving to France fulfils a dream. And this year, I hope to add more to the box of artifacts and experiences that have made me the teacher I am. Part of that process will be through my writing. While I am in Paris, I will reflect on my different experiences and raise questions about being a teacher today.
After the first week of school, I mused to my boyfriend over Facetime, “There is something special about this school. Joli just hauled my suitcases from my hotel to my apartment with me. Is it because everyone else here has been though this — moving to a new country? Maybe it sparks profound empathy in people — the kids, the teachers.” Sure, there must be some truth in that.
But after some time here, I wonder if the truth might live in teaching itself.
While each school I have taught in has been unique, the common thread that runs through them all has to be teachers. I wonder if this is just what we teachers do. Wherever we are, we have to build community and lean on each other as we build our classroom homes.
We have to make time to see and know each other and the unique characteristics of our students and schools. And we have to recognize, that while we will always carry with us the experiences of the children and classrooms that have shaped us we can always work together to ensure that we create spaces that are beautiful and where we, and our students, feel known.