International school

Getting comfortable with French public schools

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Learn about France and the French school system by reading one American mom's account of how she became accepting of the idea that her child would, inevitably, be raised in the French education system.

At the age of three (or younger in those places where there are more available spots than three-year-olds), children can begin attending public school in France.
This is wonderful not only because we can be sure that he or she will be receiving safe and reliable care at school (not ten yards from our house, to boot), but also because there will no longer be a daycare or nanny bill to contend with, nor the even bigger task of finding a spot in a daycare (or a nanny with an opening) in the first place.
So, toddler in school in September means one down and only his five-month-old sister to go, yippee!
But being informed of the impending RdV with the directrice has me thinking: How comfortable am I, really, with my children growing up in French public schools?
Like many of the Anglophone expatriates in France with small children, the school question is one of my biggest. What is best for children from a bi-national, bi-cultural household? The local public school? A private French one? A private bilingual one? Boarding school?
This should be easy, right? I mean, French public education has the reputation of being among the world's best.
At no cost to us, my children have the opportunity to attend schools known for their uniformity and the structure of the curriculum. In fact, I often hear it said that on any given day, in any part of the country, all six-year-olds will be learning pretty much the same thing in France.
For someone like me, who comes from a country where inequalities between and among schools are profound, this is no small thing.
Having taught for several years at a French university in Paris, I can't say that I'm exactly displeased with the way French teenagers and young adults turn out.
Polite, articulate, well-rounded, knowledgeable, inquisitive…sweeping generalizations, but very descriptive of my experience overall. French public schools must be doing something right. Right?
Then why the worry? you ask.
Is it because of the emphasis on punishment and humiliation (versus praise and reward) that seems to characterize the French style of teaching?
I remember being stunned the first time one of my female students entered my classroom sobbing because her previous instructor had humiliated her in front of the class. But, over time, I began to see that what happened with her was not at all an uncommon occurrence.
For example, once, while walking past the open door of a classroom at the same university, I heard the instructor shout "imbecile!", and turned my head just in time to see a chalkboard eraser go flying past, presumably at the head of the imbecile in question.
And far from taking place only at the university level, the humiliation of students as a "method" of instruction -- while not always condoned, but also not necessarily frowned upon -- is prevalent in schools at all levels in France to a much greater degree than in American ones.
In fact, many of the things I've been told concerning French teachers would likely not only see their American counterparts fired, but their school districts sued.
How many of my French students, for example, told me of being reduced to tears after hearing their language instructors say that they might as well stop trying because they speak English "like a Spanish cow'? More than a few, I'm afraid. (And what does a Spanish cow have to do with anything, anyway?)
Or how would an American math teacher fare if, like my husband's back in junior high, he decided to head butt a student who offered an incorrect answer? Or throw a pencil at her?
In an American elementary school, would it even be acceptable if the teachers liked to hand back graded tests and assignments beginning with the highest grade first, ensuring that the entire class knows who scored dead last?
Or maybe my apprehension concerning French schools concerns their emphasis on rote memorization over creative thinking?
Or, maybe -- as an American who trained in Cultural Anthropology and Sociology -- maybe it's the lack of recognition of diversity in French public schools (and, sometimes, in French society overall) that is giving me second thoughts?
Or is it the fear that my son who, due to a medical problem, will be classified as a "special needs" student, may not get the attention he needs in an environment that stresses rigid conformity over subtle differences?
It was while watching my husband slice his saucisson sec last night -- one of those smelly, powder-covered sausages he likes so much with his glass of pastis before dinner -- that I was finally able to put my finger on the root of my slight apprehension about meeting my toddler's new directrice.
Attending the local French public school -- for my family, at least -- will mean this: my children, like my husband, will grow up to be unmistakably, undeniably French.
In the end, there won't be anything American about them, as much as I like to pretend otherwise. And there I'll be, completely surrounded, not only in society as a whole, but in my own home as well. The American parent of two French children in a small village in the south of France.
How did I become such a thing?
Française de Coeur / Expatica
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2 Comments To This Article

  • Alexandra posted:

    on 26th September 2012, 18:02:39 - Reply

    Dear Française de Coeur,
    I found your article very interesting, particularly in shedding light on the different discipline technique "punishment and humiliation vs praise and reward". How has it worked out for your children? I'm a Canadian teacher currently on sabbatical leave and have considered taking my children (ages 5 and 7) to France, the idea of a 'small village in the South for France' truly sounds like a dream. How difficult is it for expats to be able to attend public school?
    I would love to hear back from you.
  • Jill Danger posted:

    on 3rd October 2011, 12:02:52 - Reply

    My daughter was not allowed to go into Seconde because her English was better than the English teacher's, who happened to be also Principle of the Class! So I put her into a private school and she got her BAC . She is now BAC 6 and media consultant at EuroRSCG.My son was told often that he was "stupid" even after he started going to Inernational Honoré de Balzac in 4éme.He got his BAC,then his Masters and Masters2,spent a year at the University of Albany and three months as a journalist with Talk Radio News in Washington.and is now studying to get his Aggregation in American Civilisation.I am from NYC and was first in my class because my teachers supported my every step of the way. You must tell your children every day that they can do it, to not be intimidated, and most of all, to be there to show that learning can be fun!