The First Weeks of Teaching English in French Primary School
I just ended Friday my third week as an English teacher in the southwest of France, having now taught nearly 40 English lessons to 14 different classes ranging from first through fifth grade in three elementary schools. While it sounds like a lot, it amounts to only 12 hours each week, although lesson planning and preparing materials takes up additional time.
France recruits assistants like me from 60 different countries to teach 15 different languages—including English, Spanish, German, Russian, and Chinese—to primary, middle, and high schools across the country. It’s a pretty good system all around. French students get exposure to the culture and pronunciation of the native language speaker. The French education ministry spends relatively little to provide so many language options in its public schools. And us teaching assistants get an avenue to live in France on a temporary work visa (not easy to do), train in teaching in a kind of Baptism by fire, improve our French, and travel.
So far I’m finding that the hardest part is the lack of organization and difference between what I expected based on what the program told me—that I’d have the first two weeks to observe classes—and the reality—that most of the teachers I’m working with have little experience teaching English and deferred to me for lessons and presentations. I’ve heard this is common in primary schools, where teachers have to be generalists in every subject, whereas in junior high and high school they specialize.
For my sanity, I’m trying to prepare the same lesson to kids at the same grade level at the same time (for example, doing the American numbers the same week for all second grade classes) as much as I can. (One of my teachers has a book with an English curriculum that she wants to use in the English class, but at least she’ll ostensibly lead the lesson). Fortunately, the school environment does not feel nearly as high pressure as I’m used to back in the United States. My impression of the U.S. public school system is that schools are expected to meet benchmarks measured by standardized tests, and parents seem to have carte blanche to intervene if they have an issue with something. A lot is expected of teachers even though they’re not paid especially well or given enough resources in many systems.
Here it does not feel like it’s not the end of the world if a lesson doesn’t go as well as I’d hoped or just wasn’t at the right level for the kids. Plus, the kids are enthusiastic and adorable and keep things fun, if exhausting, and the teachers are very nice. I always remind myself that even if things do not go exactly as planned in a session, they’re still improving at English, which is why I’m here.
France’s (Surprising?) Lack of English
Perhaps surprisingly to those who figure Europeans have a strong command of foreign languages, France is not known for its English proficiency. In 2014, it was ranked the worst in English among all of the European Union. The country’s cinemas even dub English and other foreign language films rather than using sub-titles, which I’ve heard several French people lament. I’ve been surprised how little English most people I meet in the southwest region of France where I live are able to speak. When I studied abroad in Paris, it seemed like almost every French person I met would start speaking English with me the moment they caught wind of my pronunciation. Not here. It’s rare that someone switches to English, and many people have told me they don’t know English or only know a few words. I guess I shouldn’t talk being from the United States, where we have less foreign language instruction than peer nations. And I am excited to be able to contribute, in however small a way, to the next generation’s language abilities.
There are probably many reasons France’s English proficiency is not as strong as Germany’s or Scandinavia’s, an oft-mentioned one being that France is historically proud of the French language and has been resistant to “Franglais,” when English words creep into French. The country even has an official authority called the Académie française that advises on which words should be allowed into the nation’s lexicon, which is amusing described in Lauren Collins’s When in French: Love in a Second Language. (I learned recently from my mom that what I’ve always known as le week-end was once more commonly called la fin de la semaine, as one example of a phrase that has since franglacized).
Kids often start learning English in first or second grade. I’m teaching students in the earliest years of their English exposure, as I have classes in the first through fifth grade.
In France, elementary school starts in first grade rather than kindergarten, but the elementary students (at least at the three schools where I teach) are in the same complex as the école maternelles, which are for children ages two to five. Together, this entity is called an école primaire. The grade levels are not as intuitive as ours. I know it now, but it took me a long time to commit to memory:
CP cours préparatoire - first grade
CE1 cours élémentaire première année - second grade
CE2 cours élémentaire deuxième année - third grade
CM1 cours moyen première année - fourth grade
CM2 cours moyen deuxième année- fifth grade
It gets even wilder in junior high and high school. What we call 6th grade is 6eme here, but after that, they start counting down where we count up, so 7th grade is 5eme, and so on. French students start junior high or collège at the same age we do, in their sixth grade, but they do not graduate until 16. Then they go to their high school, called lycée, from 16-18.
The School Day
The primary school day is longer and also more broken up than ours in the U.S. The kids arrive around 8:30 am, and class seems to get started at 9. The day ends at 4 or 5 pm. There are multiple recesses a day and a two-hour lunch break, which means students have a lot more time to get out all of their energy than in America, where recess is a source of greater debate, with many school districts having chipped away at or cut recess altogether to fit in more academic subjects. (What could better illustrate the difference between modern United States and France than their approaches to recess — with the U.S. packing as much in as possible and France seeking balance? I’m sure that’s over-simplified this, but it also seems reflective of the two countries’ different approaches to work).
At the schools where I teach, kids eat in the school “canteen,” where they have a balanced meal that invariably includes a vegetable, meat, starch, a baguette, cheese, and dessert. They do not bring lunch, and what they buy comes in at a bit less than 3 Euros. I’ve had two school lunches, one at one of my primary schools and another at a high school where we had a training. The lunches were impressively balanced, if not culinary masterpieces, but they were more edible than what I remember of grade school back home. Plus the high school lunch included, for the adults, a choice of red or white wine if we wanted.
I expected the dress code here would be formal, but in fact teachers at primary schools dress extremely casual, typically in jeans. Public schools never have uniforms, so kids are generally wearing what they want. (Several kids asked me if we have to wear uniforms at our schools back in the U.S., I think in part because they know that it is common in Britain).
It seems expected that kids will be more obedient here than in the U.S. For instance, when I was teaching a class the other day, several kids offered to wipe the white board after I used it and ran to get the school director to help me turn the volume on for the laptop I was using. In another class, after I handed out M&Ms to kids for Halloween, a bunch of them came up to me after class and offered me an M&M, or several. They also seem to respond pretty readily to commands (“repeat,” “sit down,” etc.). But it’s not like this is the military. Kids are still kids, and it’s difficult for even a seasoned teacher to keep their attention. Some teachers raise their voices or even yell at the kids when they’re being noisy—I’ve heard many a commanding “Arrète!” from teachers, which I’m not sure is as common in the U.S. But the kids do quiet down.
Ironically given all of the discipline, there is a paper sign posted in the teacher’s room in one of my schools that says Il faut beaucoup d’indisciplinés pour faire un peuple libre, a line from French writer George Bernanos that means “It takes a lot of unruly individuals to make a free people.”
I’m only just getting started, so there will be a lot more to come, but so far I’m finding it a fascinating and at times exhausting experience. If you have any experience teaching in the French school system or knowledge of the similarities and differences between America’s and France’s system, I’d love to hear from you.