Originally when I was preparing for the CAPES (the competitive exam to teach in French schools), I went at it with the perspective that, despite having a leg up in actually writing and speaking English, being a foreigner was a disadvantage. I thought there would be cultural knowledge that I just wouldn’t have—knowledge of institutions, of class curricula, of whatever odd choices of English literature might be taught in French schools, etc.
Coming out of the exam and my first year teaching, I think I was wrong. There are things that I was definitely unfamiliar with, but I think that a foreign perspective is actually an advantage. Here are a few examples.
1) The Conseil de Classe. As a foreigner I find the conseil de classe to be a truly, truly odd institution. When I was a language assistant I didn’t even know what this business was. One vital bit of information to have before understanding the conseil de classe is the classe itself. French students, up until the end of their secondary school studies, are grouped into classes. Yes, like we were in the States until we turned twelve (-ish). A French kid is stuck with this one group of students for the whole school year, and if he doesn’t like them very much, tough beans. All of this leads to weird observations on the “ambiance” of the class—do they study like they should, are they motivated, do they participate, do they behave, are they nice to each other. And that’s the first thing you talk about at any conseil de classe, which happens at the end of every trimester.
As for the actual conseil, all the teachers for this class meet up after school and depending on the efficiency of the group, the head teacher, and the principal, the conseil goes till between 6 and 9 pm. We talk about the ambiance of the class, the parent and student representatives have their say, and then we talk about every single student on the list in order to come up with a general “comment” (in French, appréciation) for their work this trimester, that goes on their report card with all the individual teachers’ comments.
One major flaw of the conseil de class is the tour de table effect. You may have complained for weeks with the other teachers about how bratty this class can be, yet, if the first person to speak about the ambiance of the class says that it’s good, everyone will follow. I found this weird last year until we finally talked about this effect in training and I resolved to always write down my remarks ahead of time. This year, because of my operation, I’m missing all the conseils de classe for this trimester.
2) The Appréciation. On every French kid’s bulletin (report card), there is a grade and a comment for each subject. So a couple of days before the conseil de classe for a certain class, I go into our online system and enter a comment for each student. No one trained me on how to do this before the first trimester last year, though we did talk about it in training later in the year. So I had to quickly grasp all the acceptable turns of phrase for an appréciation:
- travail sérieux: The student studies like he should and turns in good to promising homework and tests.
- travail correct: The student studies like he should and turns in respectable work, though not necessarily at a great level.
- comportement/attitude gênant: The student instigates all sorts of ass-hattery in the classroom.
- niveau fragile: A nice way of saying the student is struggling, whether or not he realizes it
- bonne participation/peu de participation
The appréciation can also include some sort of advice: continue ainsi, or, il faut se remettre au travail (to give you a couple of really banal examples!). The problem is all the comments start to look like copying-and-pasting, as much as you try to think about the individual student and to write something meaningful. At the end of the day you probably have around 130 students to do this for, so you can’t write a jewel for everyone.
Totally useless appréciations look something like this:
- Note: 8.5. Appréciation: Insuffisant
- Note: 16 Appréciation: Très satisfaisant
- Note: 10 Appréciation: Moyen
- Refuse de travailler. (Or any other comment that judges the student or interprets their behavior.)
The appréciation is weird because you can’t really figure out who it’s FOR. Is it for the student? The parents? The school records? I like to imagine it’s for the student, but knowing that the parents can place a lot of importance on it can throw a hitch in that.
What’s odd about both of these things for me is that everyone else (all the other teachers, etc) is so used to it—they had appréciations and conseils de classe when they were in school, and it’s just the way things work. An upcoming conseil can stress out the class because they know that bad behavior will be punished. It’s a truly odd effect for something that, to me, seems totally constructed and quite frankly unnecessary. With appréciations, teachers and French people in general are so used to some turns of phrase and some attitudes that they aren’t shocked by comments that are inappropriate or useless (like the examples above).
There are plenty of things that I find odd about French schools, though I hope it’s clear that I don’t think these things are necessarily bad. They just make it very obvious that I’m an outsider.