Hello from Nantes! Sorry about the delay, since I last wrote I've done some work experience and moved house. I haven't had internet for a while and it's all been a bit manic. I'm spending my last few weeks in France going around the country a bit. I'm staying with a lady who wants to sell her house in the countryside near Nantes, and in exchange for some excellent hospitality I and a New Zealander are helping around the house. I wanted to share a few thoughts about how my year as an assistant has been. Guardian-style, here are five things I learned while teaching:
1. French students do too many subjects
With the bac you choose your broad path (literature, science, economic/social for the general bac, and others for the bac pro) and you do a variety of subjects. For example a bac litteraire student will do two foreign languages, French, philosophy, Maths, History and Geography, P.E., maths over the course of their studies. The main difference between the L/S/ES options are the weightings given to each subject. I understand the idea of the bac: to give a well-rounded education to French students. The problem is that very few students in any school are genuine all-rounders who are capable of excelling in every subject. Most pupils will have strengths and weaknesses. One might be strong at sciences and maths, another might be brilliant at languages. The French system insists on producing these well-rounded students - in my school it seemed to produce students who got mediocre marks in almost their subjects.
2. French students don't have enough choice over what they study
Every time I told my students about A-Levels and how they worked, they were surprised by the amount of choice we had. When I was in school after my GCSEs I could choose to do whatever subject the school offered for my A-Levels. The only condition was that you had to have the required grade set by the department at GCSE.
On the other hand in France you pick the stream you want to be in, but all of them require you to study the basics such as French, Philosophy (they are hot on philo in France) Maths and a language.
One of the things that made my job difficult at times was that I had dozens of students studying English who had no enthusiasm for the subject. They were only there because they had to be, not because they wanted to be. These seventeen and eighteen-year-olds had decided long ago that English was not their strong point and were marking time until the exam. If French students could choose more of what they studied, hopefully you would have more motivated students in class. Ask any teacher and they will tell you a class of motivated students is all you want or need.
3. French kids have too much work to do
I remember when I first joined I asked the students what they would do at the weekend. Always I got the same answers: "I sleep," "I am sleeping, whole weekend." At first I thought I got these answers because they were boring kids. However later on I realised that it wasn't so much because they were boring, it was just that they didn't have time to do much else. My school started at 8:30am and finished at 5:00pm. It ran Monday to Friday except Wednesday afternoons, and there was school on Saturday mornings (not for me though, thankfully!) The only day they had entirely free per week was Sunday. In theory, the Wednesday afternoon off compensates for the Saturday morning, but I would much rather a full weekend than two half days. When you factor in the homework and travelling to and from school, it was no wonder I heard "I sleep" so much. To be fair to some of them, they did dancing, played football and did other activities. I used to wonder how they fitted it all in.
4. My school's teachers were fantastic
I couldn't have asked for a more welcoming group of staff. They were always interested in me and how I was doing. They invited me to do things with them outside school hours - off the top of my head I was invited to dinner, to drinks and to a play. They often gave me lifts that cut short my longish commute. They let me know when things were cancelled or changed, which happened quite a lot at the beginning of the year with all the strikes. They care deeply about the students they have and I was lucky to work with them.
5. Teaching can be a very rewarding job!
Not all the time, but it was satisfying when something I saw on the BBC or the Guardian developed into a discussion (of sorts) in my class. It was scary how easily my lessons could have fallen apart, and I got some lessons which veered off away from what I'd originally thought of (a girl asked me in my last week whether Prince William could have married a black girl, which threw me a bit...) but on the whole it was a very rewarding way to spend my year abroad.
I'll write something about my last few weeks in due course. A plus.