I went to the school beforehand to meet the teachers and some of the students. Blagnac was a leafy suburb with houses slightly bigger than other areas of the Toulouse and many had pools -an immense contrast in working in one the wealthiest areas of Toulouse with living in one of the poorest, although I did love where I was living – just a few metro stops to town, right by the river, right by the stadium, near the markets, and my landlady was fantastic. She came with me to help me set up a bank account, which can be intimidating if you’re not up to scratch on financial terminology in French. She also introduced me to her side of Toulouse – a city of art. Not just pretty paintings, but the broader sense of the word: engaging local people in cultural events and projects and allowing people to express themselves vocally, visually and so on. She showed me the range of initiatives she had been involved in to engage the residents of the high-rise, low-income, inner city district of Empalot. The one that impressed me the most involved installing massive black and white canvas pictures of local people at the top of the high-rise blocks of flats (see below).
Of course, I spent the weekends exploring the city. €10 a month for unlimited bus and metro access was a bargain, but also well worth purchasing was a year’s access to VélôToulouse, the extensive bike hire network in the city, for €25. No-one does these cycle-hire schemes like the French. Modern and comfortable 3-speed bikes in good condition could be hired from dozens of stations around the city, each spaced about 100 m apart, and thanks to Toulouse traffic, I often got off the bus early to cycle the rest of the way home. And with a smart card, it was so quick and easy to just pick up a bike, ride away and drop it off at any other station. After paying the subscription fee, the first 30 minutes of the ride were free every day and €1 per hour thereafter. The same kind of scheme has been installed in London and I hope it will catch on in the rest of our major cities.
One bizarre thing about Toulouse is the severe lack of taxis. I saw about three taxis in my entire year. With the metro and buses stopping at 1am, these bikes were my most frequent way of getting home after a night out. Luckily, I can handle my drink!
I had a week or so to settle in before I started work at Saint Exupéry. The school itself was very modern, only opening in 2004, and had 1500 students aged from 15 to 20. For the 15-18 years olds, it was their local high school, but for the 18-20 year olds, it was a specialist school, apparently only one of five schools in France to offer the chance to specialise in aviation mechanics, due to its proximity to the Airbus headquarters at Toulouse Airport. This was great for me as I wanted to be a pilot when I was younger, and I could adapt my lessons around aviation, which I did for the older students. But for the younger pupils, their lessons were based on whatever was in the news. Fortunately, 2009/10 was an eventful year so my students were introduced to the likes of Susan Boyle, Jedward and most excitingly, the new PM, David Cameron.
I did find it hard to plan lessons. I had next to zero teaching experience so I had to improvise a lot. Most of the time, I didn’t even have to actively teach. The best way to help the students improve their English was to just talk with them. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. The teachers were quite happy with this and so were the pupils, because they could talk about whatever they wanted, and they were secretly learning at the same time.
In all honestly, I don’t think I could have asked for a better school. It seems like everyone there wanted to learn English. They even put up with some of the more boring lessons. But I wasn’t a teacher after all. I was only 20 at the time, very close in age to most of the pupils, so I didn’t want to be seen as a teacher, just someone to casually practise English with, in a less formal and more relaxing setting. Something I saw more of on the school trip to Poland…