“Confronting deeper issues” in French education

Before I studied abroad, I attended a mandatory “pre-departure orientation” hosted by Whitman’s Off-Campus Studies Office. Tucked in among all the brightly colored dos and don’ts tip sheets, student testimonials, and budget breakdowns was this graph:

Culture Shock Graph

My experience in Nantes ended up mirroring this trajectory pretty well. But this time around, I suffered minimal “arrival confusion” and I didn’t fall victim to “the plunge.” Instead I enjoyed a prolonged and heightened “honeymoon” period.

In some ways I’m still on top of that peak. When the cheese man at the market recognizes and greets me as one of his regular customers as soon as I get in line. When I pass my afternoon break sitting in a salon de thé with a petit crème, a pain au chocolat aux amandes and my copy of Les Misérables. When I decide to go on a last-minute day-trip and spend the afternoon getting up close and personal with vestiges of medieval France.

But when it comes to teaching, the honeymoon period is over. I’ve been “confronting deeper issues.” And I’ve been struggling to process them. Case in point: My last post about teaching was before Christmas break.

Teaching without any prior classroom experience or adequate training is hard.

It’s 10 times harder when you’re teaching in your second language. And 100 times harder when you don’t fully agree with—but nevertheless find yourself conforming to—the educational philosophy of the system that signs your pay check.

The French school system is rigid and inflexible in its structure. When I say, “Copy the words I write on the board into your notebook,” at least two or three hands shoot up asking if they should be written in pencil or pen and if in pen, what color. When I say, “Color this worksheet,” the students ask if they’re to use colored pencils or markers. When I respond, “Ça m’est égal,” I get reactions ranging from puzzled stares to gleeful fist pumps. But each reaction attests to one thing: the students’ lack of freedom of expression.

And don’t even get me started on the cahier.*

The teachers are strict and unyielding, sometimes verging on mentally and even physically abusive.

It’s normal for a teacher to angrily lecture a student about her disruptive behavior in front of all her peers, as tears well up in her eyes.

It’s normal for a teacher to send a child to the corner, into the hallway, or even to the classroom of another teacher where he will sit copying lines as punishment.

It’s normal for a teacher to shriek, “Mais arrête! Je m’en fiche!”** at the class clown, straining her voice in the process.

I easily fell into a trap, thinking that my students would only respond to what they were used to. I began to emulate what I’d witnessed, even though it horrified me.

I lost my temper. I screamed until I made myself hoarse. I sent away the problem child. Each time it’s happened, I’ve felt rotten and embarrassed. And I don’t even get the desired result—I don’t gain any real control over my classes.

Two weeks ago, I watched a teacher grab a student by the neck of his shirt, drag him to the back of the classroom, slam him down into a desk, and spit at him about what a nuisance he was being until she was shaking and red in the face. He talked back to her. And she almost hit him.

That’s when I knew things had to change.

I can’t change the French culture of education, but I can change the way I teach.

I want my students to respect me, and there has to be a way to get them to do it without making them dread English class. How could I live with mysel if, after seven months with me, some of my students decided they hated the very thing that has opened so many doors for me—studying a foreign language?

Instead of raising my voice to give instructions, I’ve tried lowering it. It doesn’t grab attention in the same way, but after a few minutes, my students are straining to catch my barely audible whisper—especially during a heated game of bingo with dinosaur stickers on the line as prizes.

Instead of screaming at an out of control class, I’ve adopted silence and guilt-inducing stares. The teacher’s pets quickly catch on and start policing the others for me.

And instead of making myself red in the face while lecturing my boisterous CM1s about wasting my time, I speak firmly and quietly, the calm before the storm—impressing on them that we can’t do the fun activities I have planned if they can’t even make it through our start-up rituals before the end of the 45-minute period.

Thursday morning I was making photocopies in the salle des maîtres when a teacher walked in and croaked “Bonjour” at me. Croaked because she had lost her voice from screaming at her class of eight-year-olds. And she said to me with a shrug, “Perdre sa voix, c’est la malédiction des maîtres.”***

But I don’t think it has to be.

*Cahier is the French word for notebook. The cahier can be viewed as a microcosm of the French school system: a rigid and unbending bastion of structure with no space for errors or doodles.

**“Stop it already! I’m getting fed up with you!”

***“Losing one’s voice is the curse of being a teacher.”



  1. Linda Fredricks · · Reply

    Je pense que tu as deja appris la lecon la plus importante pour etre un bon prof…c’est de traitre les etudiants avec du respect. Je sais que tes eleves te manqueront a la fin de l’annee….et aussi important…..que tu leur manqueras aussi!!

    1. Merci pour ton soutien, Mme. Ils vont surtout me manquer à la fin de l’année.

  2. Very interesting read. I haven’t posted in over a month, but you really got me thinking about some stuff. Thanks for the inspiration!

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