Observations scolaires

Last week I was in limbo between orientation and work. I went to each of my schools, in turn, simply to observe them. This really confused all of the children and teachers.

“Oh, so we’re starting English today?”

“No…next week. Today I’m en observation.”

The purpose of the observation period was to get me familiar with the schools, the principals and teachers, the students, and the French school system. I sat in on classes. I wrote down names of problem students. I took note of all the various school supplies the children have at their disposal—cahiers (notebooks) for EVERYTHING, little ardoises (whiteboards) for spelling or arithmetic exercises, erasable pens, etc. And I made a long list of French disciplinary phrases yelled employed by teachers to keep their students in line.

French teachers on the whole are much stricter with and more openly critical of their students than American teachers are. I’d heard about this phenomenon before and got a taste of it taking classes from French professors when studying abroad. But that’s not to say that seeing it in play was any less startling.

Teachers single out their students’ errors or misconduct in front of their peers, they announce grades aloud when handing back assignments, and they bluntly tell students when they have the wrong answer (and don’t cushion the blow with a “nice try” or “A for effort”).

They do praise them for a job well done—one teacher handed out stickers to students who’d made no errors in a dictée—but the French seem less fixated on building up a child’s self-confidence at any cost.

Seeing this in practice made me nervous. In order to gain any semblance authority and maintain control over my students, I’ll have to be equally strict and severe—if not more so—especially at the beginning.

Apart from a shared cultural teaching philosophy, I observed (as I lamented in my last post) that each of my schools takes a different approach to foreign language learning. Beyond that, they even vary in general, structural organization:

1. Ecole Rouget de l’Isle

I have three classes of students at Rouget de l’Isle—one CE1, one CE2 and one CM1. (Confused about these acronyms? Click here). Though there are only three classes, I’ll be working with five teachers. CM1 is taught by the principal,* Jean, but he only teaches on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays and Fridays, the class is taught by Géraldine. CE2 is taught by a woman named Joëlle, whom I have yet to meet as she was absent both days that I’ve visited the school. She is chronically ill and thus has a frequent remplaçant, Isabelle. CE1 is taught by a woman named Claire (whom I’ve also yet to meet as she was also absent when I visited…). 

For some reason, I assumed that while sitting in on classes, I’d witness a typical English lesson. This is because I assumed that the teachers had started teaching English when school started in September. But I didn’t see any English lessons. Because I am the English teacher. And English lessons start when I do. At Rouget de l’Isle, planning lessons and carrying out the curriculum is pretty much entirely up to me. It’s a daunting amount of freedom.

Because Rouget de l’Isle is a small school (there is only one class of each grade level), the arrival of any newcomer is painfully obvious. For the first half of the day, the kids stared at me like I was an alien. They were interested and curious, but intimidated. When I came back toward the end of lunch, though, a few of them approached me and Lyanne (who teaches at Rouget as well). They asked us how old we were, and I told them to guess. Their response: 12 years old for Lyanne and 30 years old for me. Apparently I need to invest in some wrinkle cream.

2. Ecole Saint Exupery

Saint Exupery is the school I’ll be teaching at most often, if only slightly. There I have two groups of CE2, one of CM1 and two of CM2. Like at Rouget de l’Isle, the number of teachers doesn’t match up with the number of classes, but at Saint Exupery I deal with fewer teachers than I do grade levels.

I have 30 CE2 students—20 from a full class of exclusively CE2s, and the other 10 from a class whose other half is made up of CE1s. (Yep, teachers are splitting their time and attention between two successive grade levels. It’s like we’re going back to the days of the one-room school house.) The two groups of CE2s will be combined and then broken into two equal halves so they’ll be easier for me to manage.

Then there’s the CM1/CM2 situation: I work with one class of 15 CM1s and eight CM2s and one class of entirely CM2s. For the combined class, I’ll have the CM1s and CM2s separately, each group twice a week. Conversely, I’ll only have the full class of CM2s once a week, as their normal teacher, Françoise, leads their second weekly English lesson. She also completely plans the lesson I have with them; only with her am I to truly be an assistantUnfortunately, this means that she has her own agenda and organizational framework, which throws a monkey wrench into my desire to streamline my lesson plans thematically across schools and grade levels.

The kids at Saint Exupery were much less intimidated than those at Rouget de l’Isle. From the moment I stepped foot onto the premises I had swarms of kids asking if I know Emily (last year’s English assistant), if I speak French and when I’d be sitting in on their classes. In the morning, one little girl asked me my name and told me it was really pretty. When she saw me later in the day she said, “Coucou, Cara!

3. Ecole Condorcet

I only have one level of students at Condorcet—CE2. Condorcet is small like Rouget de l’Isle but is home to the same kind of weird combined grade level classes as Saint Exupery: My 15 CE2s share their teacher, Marie, with seven CE1s (who will be combined with another half-class of CE1s for Ashley).

Since I only have one class, Condorcet is relatively straight-forward. And since I have free reign with them, I can use my same Rouget de l’Isle CE2 lesson plan. Condorcet is also the only school that gives me free reign for printing and making photo copies.

Having fewer classes to observe also meant a shorter observation day than the other two and a weekend that started on Thursday afternoon! Before that, though, I got to test out my disciplinary skills. After recess, Marie divided the class into three groups that would rotate between several work stations to complete different activities. Since I was there taking up space, Marie took advantage of my status as an adult and had me oversee one of the groups. They had to trace lines connecting various points and have me approve the result, before coloring the final design. While I struggled to explain how to use a ruler in French (I lacked the vocabulary to eloquently describe needing to put the ruler just to the side of the dots you wanted to connect rather than directly over them), I got to yell at kids to stop hitting each other and reprimand them for throwing pens and erasers. In return they called me maîtresse (teacher). #winning

*At each of my schools, the principal teaches in addition to performing his/her administrative duties. This necessarily puts the principal into the classroom, keeping him/her grounded in the day-to-day reality of the school, and also helps to foster a strong sense of camaraderie between the principal and the other teachers. It also makes the principal more accessible to the students. I always remember my principals as far-removed, authoritative people who made announcements over the intercom and spoke at the beginnings of assemblies. Here, this distance doesn’t exist—and neither does the threat of being sent to the principal’s office.



  1. […] my pre-teaching observation period, I decided that I needed to learn my students’ names. […]

  2. […] Toulouse) with a much more classic experience than mine, and you can read about her specific roles here. Beccy was a primary assistant with me in neighboring Aix-les-Bains. Read her retrospective list of […]

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