What’s it like to be a young, public educator in France?

I write this post as an observer of and participant in both the French and American public education systems. Educated in U.S. public schools from first grade through twelfth grade (with a brief two-year stint as a homeschooler), I have also attended a public university in the U.S. as well as a public university in France. No longer a student, I teach in public schools in both countries.

To clarify, I am not a certified teacher. In the U.S., I have worked as a substitute teacher for grades K-12. I have also taught an after-school introductory French class for 3rd-5th grade students within the public school system. I am currently an English teaching assistant working part-time for Education Nationale at a lycée (high school) in France.

This post will address my understanding of: 1) The system of points for teachers in France; 2) Why teaching in public schools can be simultaneously an attractive and unattractive occupation in France; and 3) Substitute teachers in France versus “subs” in the U.S.

Several things inspired me to write this post. Namely, I was puzzled by the transience of the young teachers with whom I work in France, and whether they were satisfied with this aspect of their jobs. Like me, several of them just began teaching at the lycée in the fall of 2013 to fill temporary positions. Unlike me, they are fully certified, full-time teachers with one- or two-year master’s degrees and each has several years’ experience teaching in other regions of France. Their contracts at the lycée terminate at the end of this school year, at which point they will be sent by the French government to another school, and quite possibly to another region of France.

When I first heard of this, I was surprised. I asked my colleagues, “How can the government uproot teachers from one year to the next, sending them far away from their family and friends?” They shrugged and responded, “It all has to do with the system of points. The number of points a teacher has is based on his individual and personal circumstances, and his seniority among other things.” Basically, this means that the more years a teacher has taught, the more points he or she has. Additionally, one’s family situation determines the number of points one accumulates. If a teacher is married, has children, or is pacsé(e) (meaning he or she is not married but is in legal cohabitation with another person, with whom he or she enjoys insurance and tax benefits), that teacher gains more points. If the teacher gets divorced or breaks the PACS agreement, the points are lost.

When newly minted teachers graduate from their bachelor’s or master’s degree programs, they have a set number of points and are viewed by Education Nationale as being equal in ability, according to my colleague. Again, I was surprised. “What about merit?” I asked him. “It doesn’t seem to me that all graduates are created equal—some are more passionate or informed about the subject they teach, some are better with kids, and all have had different upbringings.” My colleague shook his head, indicating that merit and factors outside the degree itself seem not to be major considerations for the government in placing new teachers with no experience.

To obtain the best placement in an attractive city or at a high-ranking school, a teacher must accumulate a greater number of points. I asked a colleague, under 30 years old, how many points he had. He told me, “Moi, j’ai 50 points. C’est rien.” (I have 50 points. That’s nothing.) Having one child, for example, credits a teacher 100 points. Completing a one-year internship is another 100 points. Being placed by the government in a region away from one’s spouse and children also allows one to gain points (190 points for the first year of separation, and so on). This benefit could eventually allow a married teacher to accumulate enough points to request a change of post so as to be nearer to his or her family.

I asked my colleagues about why they chose teaching as a profession, given the uncertainty of job placement as young teachers with few points, and whether they were satisfied with their education system. The teachers’ response was simply that they are passionate about their job. They want to positively shape the lives of future generations, to the point that they are willing to move around the country for work and pay high taxes to support education, which is free for students in France (including most university education). My colleagues also combat the disparaging view many French people have about the teaching profession. As in the U.S., in France teachers are often undervalued, according to my colleagues. In their opinion, however, the positives outweigh the challenges of this occupation.

One such positive aspect is that teaching, like most civil servant jobs in France, provides a high level of job security. When I mentioned to one colleague that I am interested in eventually creating my own international education business, she was surprised. “People in France don’t often immediately think of things like that,” she commented. “There’s a lot of bureaucratic red tape and it’s just not viewed as a valid, safe option.” I noted that starting one’s own business is hardly a “safe” option in the U.S. either, but that it is often encouraged and that if run well, it can be a fulfilling and lucrative alternative to the traditional route of asking employers for jobs.

Lastly, in talking with colleagues, I mentioned that I had been a substitute teacher in the U.S. They were unsure about exactly what that was, until I described it further in both French and English. “We don’t have that here,” they informed me. It turns out, at least at the lycée where we work, if a teacher is absent for a few days, class is canceled, just like in an American university. If a teacher is absent for several weeks, a fellow teacher is asked to cover their class. The idea of someone substitute teaching as a means to gain a full-time teaching position is not a familiar concept in France as it is in the U.S.; rather, one must go through a traditional certification process.

This post just touches the tip of the iceberg regarding the subject of young teachers in France and the system of public education in general. In future posts, I hope to address differences in the organization of public school administration in France and the U.S., discipline of students in these two countries, parent involvement, the structure of a typical school day, and extracurricular activities for students.

Please leave your questions and comments below!