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!





Small-Town France Vs. Small-Town America

I enjoy trips to the city and have lived briefly in medium-sized cities in the past. However, I have to say I connect with rural towns on a certain level. After all, I grew up in a town in central Virginia where it was completely normal to see an escaped calf loping across high school property, men and women in hunting gear trekking through Walmart, and a farm-use tractor going ten miles per hour on a local road with twelve cars lined up behind it. Now that I’m living in a rural French town, I thought I would write a post comparing small French towns to small U.S. towns in general.



Small-town France

So how is small-town France similar to and different from small-town America? Based on what I have observed so far, I would argue that there are more similarities than differences. While I can answer this question solely based on the few small U.S. towns in which I’ve lived and the one small French town in which I’m currently living, I feel that I can make a few generalizations which hold true regardless of the town’s exact location.

Since this is an education-related blog, I feel that I should begin my comparison with student opinions on small-town life, which are usually freely offered:

A 16-year-old small-town American student: “Living here sucks! There’s nothing to do.”

A 16-year-old small-town French student: “C’est le pire! “Il n’y a rien à faire ici.” (Translation: “It’s the worst! There’s nothing to do here.”

In both countries, students ask me, with a certain amount of disbelief in their voices, “Why did you come to teach here?”

I sympathize with the students briefly, then ask them for positive reactions to living in [insert name] small town. Responses are generally along the lines of, “Well . . . you can go hiking/biking/skiing here.” I then ask whether students have to worry as much about problems like excessive pollution or high crime rates. The answer: “I guess not . . .” For those students who grew up in the town and are not recent transplants, another (generally) positive factor is that much of their extended family lives in the area.

I understand students’ (and adults’) frustrations with living in a small town. I freely admit that at times, it’s simply necessary to leave town to meet friends or just get a change of scenery. In Virginia, I had a car and left town many weekends. Here in France, I don’t have a car, but I am getting better at figuring out the infrequent train and bus system, as well as determining opportunities for covoiturage (carpooling).

As with living anywhere, there are trade-offs to living in a small town versus a city. The higher cost of living and increased crime, pollution, and stress that often correlate with city living are offset by perceived benefits such as more varied and higher-paying job opportunities, an increased number of venues for intellectual engagement, and a wider range of social events from which to choose. Furthermore, “outsiders” wanting to blend in usually have an easier time doing so in the city.

Here are some further similarities I’ve observed in small-town France and America:

  • In a time of need, there is almost always someone “just down the street” who can help you out. You’ll likely be expected to repay the favor sometime, but it’s nice to have someone you trust help you out without expecting monetary compensation.
  • Businesses often operate in unexpected ways. Here in France, my WiFi box was not delivered to the post office as one might anticipate, but to the épicerie (a grocery/ABC-type store).
  • There is a close-knit culture among co-workers, especially teachers. They understand the need for support in a small town, especially for those who are not natives and have few contacts in the area outside of work.
  • Small-town natives often have an intense amount of pride in their town, which sometimes is only evident when an outsider makes a disparaging remark about the town. The native vehemently defends the small town, despite just having complained about the lack of things to do in said town.


Small-town America

Now for some differences I’ve observed:

The small French ville is different from the small American town in certain ways. Notably, the French ville has a tightly clustered nucleus. The post office, schools, mairie, grocery store, médiathèque, banks, etc. are all typically within a five- to ten-minute walk from one another. In contrast, a “small town” in the U.S. may in fact sprawl for miles so that it’s unreasonable or impossible to walk from, say, the library to the post office.

Another difference is that French towns typically shut down for one to two hours in the middle of the day. They also shut down on Sunday and partially on Monday–banks are closed. Yes, boutiques and novelty shops typically keep similar hours in American small towns, but the U.S. still has many stores that remain open 24/7. In the small French town in which I’m living, the main grocery store and a few other stores are open until 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, but that’s about it. The kebab joint a few blocks from the center of town is one of the few available options for dining out on Sunday.

Keeping businesses open on Sunday in this region is a controversial topic. It made front page news in the regional paper, Le Progrès, last Sunday. The headline was, “Travail le dimanche: le Jura n’est pas Paris.” This translates to, “Work on Sunday: the Jura isn’t Paris.” Michel Dronier, president of the Jura Commerce Federation, opines that the weekend should be devoted to family activities. “Sinon, cela posera un problème sociétal…” (“Otherwise, there will be societal issues.”) He goes on to say, however, that it might be a good idea to reflect on having businesses stay open in tourist areas on Sunday.

So there you have it. Small towns in the Jura are caught in a conflict. From the paper’s stance and its opinion poll, it seems that many people (perhaps a majority) believe that businesses in the region shouldn’t have to adhere to big-city commercial standards. Family togetherness on weekends is of great importance. Notably, religion is not mentioned as a reason for closing businesses on Sunday. The flip side of the issue is that businesses need to combat economic stagnation and/or failure. Staying open on Sunday is often a good way to do that. I don’t recall the American towns in which I’ve lived having this discussion, but perhaps other towns in America have done so.

To sum up, I look at living in a small town as enjoyable, although sometimes a challenge. I do feel like an outsider here in France, for obvious reasons, despite the welcoming efforts of teachers and students. Yet I also felt like an outsider when I moved back to my hometown in Virginia to work for nine months after graduating from college this year. The town had changed a lot, but I had changed even more. I knew a couple friends from high school who were living in the area, but I mostly recreated my life in the town. I was now an employee of the public school system, not a student. As a substitute teacher, my elementary, middle, and high school teachers were now co-workers. I also made friends with people of all ages and various professions, whereas my younger self would have made friends only with people around my age.

Despite my limited experience in small-town France, I’d say that the majority of differences between French and American towns are actually larger cultural and linguistic differences characteristic of each country as a whole. There are many more similarities between small-town France and small-town America than I initially would have thought.