Teaching in France: The French School System (Revisited)


Welcome to another post in the “Teaching in France” series, as I recount my personal experiences teaching and dealing with the school system in France (so far).

Now, I have written a post not too long ago that compared the differences between the French school system with that of the U.S.’s (which you can find here). With this post, however, I will not only revisit the school system in France, but also, erm, complain a bit about how I have found it to be at times frustrating to deal with, especially since I, as an American, have not grown up in this particular education system.

Before coming to France, I had a very general idea of how its school system was classified. All that I knew was that there were école primaire (elementary school), collège (middle school), and lycée (high school). That was it. As a result, I ended up learning along the way about the details, the subtleties that came with the French education system- from the specific grade levels to the specialized schools (e.g. lycée général versus lycée professionnel), as well as to what goes on in the staff room and school administration- both on the local and national levels.

…and really, what have I got to say about all of this? The French education system is a complicated mess.

Not to say that the American school system is perfect; it still has problems. But for me, I have been raised in such a system my entire life, and so to move abroad and experience something different, well, it was quite the change, as well as a challenge. I have talked to other teaching assistants, even my French colleagues who know the system, and we can all agree that France has made school more convoluted and inefficient than it should be.

But enough of the generalities. I have compiled a list of things that I have noticed, come across, and otherwise have been irked by while being under the French school system. This is my little rant to you- enjoy (or not)! 😛

1. Teacher strikes. Now, I am all about express your unhappiness for the French school system, but really, taking time off work to go out and voice your grievances sort of also adds to the problem, as the students aren’t learning. Classes are cancelled, and time is wasted for what could have been a day of instruction. There have been times when I have shown up to school, expected to teach one of my colleague’s classes, only to find out that the teacher’s not in that day, because of the strikes. I’m all for having the day off, but again, I am paid to work a certain number of hours. Also, not letting me know beforehand, as I’m busing myself to work halfway across town, is a bit annoying. Well, that’s a bummer. 😛

2. Student absences are taken lightly?? I’m not sure about this one, at least at my collège, but at my lycée pro, there have been classes in which only half of the students show up- and there are few students to begin with! Even at my collège, it is rare to see every student present in a given class; at least one is bound to be absent. And I always think to myself: do the teachers do anything about it? Yes, they mark the student(s) down as absent, but does that factor into their participation/grades? Or do they just let it slide? Things to wonder about…

3. Conseils and formations. I admit, conseils (teacher meetings) and formations (teacher’s training) are not uncommonly heard of in the United States- they exist, too! But they tend to happen outside of school, perhaps after school, on weekends, or during breaks. In France, I have come across teachers who are in conseils and formations while school is in session, and for the whole day.

Again, classes are cancelled, and really, I wonder: what becomes of the students? Do they just hang around for the hour that they don’t have class, or is there a study hall that they go to? I believe that I have seen the equivalent of a study hall at my collège but, from what one of my colleagues told me at the lycée pro, the students just hang around in the courtyard, doing nothing. That just blows my mind- if anything, the students have the potential to play truant and just skip class all together; I wouldn’t be surprised if some did.

4. No substitute teachers?? This point goes off of the previous ones, but really, when the teacher is not present, would it not be practical to get a substitute teacher to fill in and continue with the lesson? Otherwise, the students are losing days of instruction, days of actually being productive in school. I guess that such teachers don’t exist in France. *shrugs*

5. Grades are submitted in May, but students still have school until July?? Again, I am not one-hundred percent sure about this information, as I have only heard it from one of my colleagues. Perhaps it also depends on the school, the region in France, but damn…it has got to be the strangest grading system that I have ever heard of. Not to forget illogical: all right, so the last trimester of school ends in May, and final grades are submitted to the rectorat (French school government on the national level). But there’s still school for another two months?! Once more, someone please tell me how does this make sense? Basically, the students are still stuck at school in June until early July, learning nothing and not caring to learn anything, since there are no grades to give out, anyway. Pretty sure that the teachers don’t give a damn about staying, either.

I had asked my colleague whether one could just let the students off for summer break once grades were submitted in May, and she told me that it has to do with the socio-economic environment of the area (especially mine, which is predominantly middle/working class): the parents are still working, and don’t have the time to take care of their children, so they would prefer to send them away to school, to have the teachers deal with them. Quite depressing, but hey, that’s how it works.

6. Teaching the students’ English…in French?? Especially when it comes to learning a foreign language, it is quite strange to teach it using one’s native language. I have seen some of colleagues, especially at my lycée, instruct in French whilst being in an English class! I understand if they use French to clarify some instructions for an activity, but otherwise, total immersion in the practicing language should be used. Even if it’s difficult for the students, that’s the best way to get them exposed to the language.

For me, when I started learning French, I was basically pushed into it: first day of class in high school French class and my teacher just started jabbering to us in French. Of course, none of us knew what she was talking about but, through similar-sounding words in French and English, exaggerated hand gestures, and time, we got used to hearing French, and eventually, we improved. Same thing went for French at the university-level; definitely improved a lot as well.

7. Testing the student’s English…in French?? This is similar to #6: what I have found out, especially for the terminales as they are preparing for their bac exams, is that the exams themselves, while used to evaluate the student’s English level, is conducted in French! The questions are asked in French, and the students respond in French! At least, for the reading comprehension part, I believe… And the “judges” who grade them in the oral section, I have heard, are French, which is problematic it itself: while the judges can be fluent in English, they might also slip-up, and make a mistake when correcting the student’s oral expression. Generally speaking, there’s a lot of muddied ground when it comes to testing students on languages.

All right, I’m done for now. Again, my complaints about the French school system are purely my own, as I am a non-native to the country; in addition, I am aware that many of the school policies, while frustrating to deal with, are also deeply embedded in the culture itself; it is very difficult to separate out school and French culture, and so I have come to accept it as is.

For my French bloggers out there: I would like to read your thoughts on the French school system: yay or nay? Take care, otherwise!

— The Finicky Cynic

Check me out on Facebook! https://www.facebook.com/thefinickycynic


2 thoughts on “Teaching in France: The French School System (Revisited)

  1. ShethP

    I’m not French, but I may add that the concept of substitute teachers doesn’t exist here in India, either. Initially, I found that weird, too. When we didn’t have a teacher in class, the entire class would burst into smiles and laughter and just enjoy their so-called “free time.” As a student, I guess you could say I am guilty of actually enjoying that. 😅 And yes, the trend continues even in college. If the teacher’s absent, you gotta go find your own thing to do. Sometimes, it’s a waste. And it just gives more opportunities to students to fool around. Can’t say they can learn time management this way. It’s a pity. Though, I’ve never asked why we don’t have substitutes here.
    Interesting post, by the way! I certainly learned something today. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences, too! I didn’t know that the lack of substitute teachers existed in other countries as well. Perhaps substitutes are an American (even Canadian??) thing? Who knows!

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