Teaching in France: French vs. American School Systems

Hello (or Bonjour)!

As you know, I am currently teaching in France as an English teacher. I have been at it since October, and so after having taught for a few months now, I can say that there are differences between the school system in France and that in the United States.

While I am not saying that these differences are incredibly huge, nevertheless I have discovered things that would never exist in schools in the United States from France, and vice versa. From class schedules to school conduct, even to how lunch is served, there are many, sometimes subtle, distinctions that overall have surprised me while teaching in France.

I have compiled a list of these differences, which I will share with you below. P.S. For any of my French bloggers, please let me know what you think about my thoughts on the school system in your country! I would be glad to hear them!

Without further ado, let’s go! 😀

1. School lasts longer in France. At least when it comes to the daily routine: back when I was in middle school and high school, I would end by 15h00. Not for kids in France: they go to school until 17h00! My collège (middle school), though, ends at 16h30, but still, that’s an extra 90 minutes of schooling. I can’t imagine being at school for an extra two hours, unless it was for sports or something. Gotta feel bad for the kids, even though they are probably used to it.

2. Grade levels are different. I forgot how elementary school (école primaire) assigns grade levels, but I know at least that, beginning in the sixth grade at collège (“middle school”), it goes backwards! Sixth graders are known as les sixièmes (“6èmes”), but then seventh graders are les cinquièmes (“5èmes”). And eighth graders are les quatrièmes (“4èmes”) and so forth, until les terminales, which are the equivalent of high school seniors. Don’t quite understand why it went backwards when the students themselves are “gaining” in rank. No clue whatsoever…

3. Middle school lasts four years, while high school lasts only three. Again, I don’t really understand the point for an extra year of middle school, especially when middle school itself is already a not-so-good place to be in (at least, from personal opinion). Thankfully, I don’t work with les troisièmes (the last year at collège level), as I hear that they’re total nightmares. They’re teenage angst at its finest, and you get the sense that they’re sick of middle school, just as much as the professors who teach them. But interesting enough, once they become les secondes (equivalent of freshmen in high school), they aren’t as terrible monsters! Yes, they still can be hard to handle, but at least it appears more manageable…

4. Respect to the professors. One of the first things that I noticed that surprised me about teaching was the fact that students, upon entering the classroom, do not immediately sit down. They remain standing until the professor tells them to take their seats. Very military-fashion, in my opinion. And when a school staff enters the classroom, the students have to stand up as sign of respect. None of that exists in the United States- we just sit down!

5. Lunch break is LONGFor my collège, that is. It lasts one-and-a-half hours; really, I was lucky to even get forty minutes back in middle school and high school! The French take their lunch breaks (or any break) seriously. And I don’t think the students are allowed to bring their own lunches, as I have never seen a single kid with a lunch bag; as a result, all of them are required to eat whatever the cafeteria serves. I tried canteen food a couple of times, and I think it’s decent: always an entrée (“appetizer,” in English), a main dish (usually some kind of meat and starch), either dessert or fruit, and cheese and bread to finish it off. Water is served in pitchers, which are distributed all over the canteen: one has to fill it up at a water fountain.

6. There are sometimes Saturday classes. Now, my collège do not have classes on Wednesdays at all. And my lycée (high school) only has classes for a half day (until 13h00) that day. But, in place of that, my collège has a half day on Saturdays, which I find very strange (and must suck!). I don’t quite understand the point of no classes on Wednesdays, in the middle of the week, when one could have a half day on Wednesday (like with my lycée) and no half days on Saturdays. Somethings you’ll never understand… *shrug

7. Vacations every six weeks. Similar to lunch and between-classes breaks, the French school system get two-week holidays every six weeks! So total comes out to four, two-week breaks, or eight weeks total in an academic year. That’s a lot! For me, growing up in the U.S., I was lucky to have even two of the two-week vacations! But I have taken advantage of them to the fullest so far, and so I ain’t complainin’! 😛

8. Smoking is allowed on campus. Perhaps it’s the fact that the French (let alone Europeans, in general) smoke a lot more than Americans. Smoking on campus grounds in the United States is a big no-no; you would get in trouble if you do it. But in France? No problem! As long as it’s outside of the building, that is. I have seen students and teachers alike smoke next to each other, which I find very strange, but alas c’est la vie…

9. Classes never start on time. Then again, almost nothing starts on time in France. 😛 I heard somewhere that the French are more “laissez faire” with things, and so they aren’t too strict with time. Which kind of frustrates me, since I like to be punctual. But my colleagues don’t seemed bothered by the fact that they are five minutes late to class, still chatting with their other colleagues about something random. I wonder if students get annoyed waiting for their professors to arrive…By the time the professor begins class, fifteen minutes of the class period is already gone!

10. Headmaster (or principal) is highly respected. To the entire school, the headmaster is the one person you should not mess with. Not sure why, as the principals that I had at my middle school and high schools were a joke; they didn’t do shit, and were otherwise just regarded as figureheads. But for the headmasters in France, they are both figureheads and people to be taken seriously. You don’t faire la bise with them- you shake their hand. And you must address them using “vous,” not “tu.” Always.

That’s about it for me; I’m sure I will pick up more differences between the French and American school systems later on, as I still have a few more months to go. Perhaps I will make a Part Two- who knows? Take care!

— The Finicky Cynic

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8 thoughts on “Teaching in France: French vs. American School Systems

  1. The 9) made me laugh so much haha, it is so true… And I am punctual, so I do realize how slow some people can be! But it is funny because most of the time, French people from the North are much more punctual than French from the South. Here, if you have to meet a friend at 2pm, you can arrive at 2.15pm and still wait.
    School lasts a lot longer, yes. I finished at 6pm sometimes and spent 35h a week at school.

      1. Hahah it is true but well, vacation time… We’re never on vacation in fact, because teachers give us a lot of homework to do (even more during Christmas break, ugh). It is crazy! We have a lot to learn in a very short time. There are so many reorganizations made by the government at the moment but I am not sure it is helpful. We’ll see. 🙂

  2. Those comments about respect are rather startling IMO, especially the part about standing up until the teacher enters the room. Here, that time is better spent gathering one’s mind in preparation for the class that’s about to begin; in France, it sounds as if one should already be prepared for the class.

    1. Yes, good thoughts, Allison. However, I don’t think that standing up is a sign of being prepared, but rather about authority– military style, if you ask me. Definitely a big difference compared to classroom respect in the U.S. (where students just sit down without being told to).

  3. Pingback: Teaching in France: Collège vs. Lycée – The Finicky Cynic

  4. Pingback: Teaching in France: Preparing Lessons – The Finicky Cynic

  5. Pingback: Teaching in France: The French School System (Revisited) – The Finicky Cynic

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