jeudi 3 mars 2011

High Schools and Teaching in France

French Culture and Society observations..

Every time I go and teach a class I have all these thoughts that run through my head and I think about doing a blog post later except I forget.. well... here it is!

First of all, I can only speak about my school. I don't know if all French high schools are the same. And since I'm from Australia, these comparisons will be to my public high school in Sydney, Australia (private schools are vastly different).

School Uniforms:

The first thing I noticed when I started working here were the uniforms of course, or lack thereof. I guess to Americans it's nothing unusual but to an Australian it's 'weird' to see high school students not wearing one. Over the months I've been thinking about this over and over in my head which I think is 'better'.

Pros of wearing a school uniform:

Of course my first reaction was that uniforms are infinitely better... even students I have talked to agreed with me! Why? You're there at school to learn. It's not a fashion parade. There is no competition between rich kids and poor kids. As we all know rich kids can afford the latest trends and expensive brands and buy lots of clothes and the poor kids can't. You don't have to think about what to wear each morning.

I remember when I first started high school we were given a sheet of paper with 'rules' about what sort of shoes and jewellery we could wear. Or even what sort of things we could wear in our hair (only school colours of course). There are strict regulations for that sort of thing in Australia mainly for safety reasons. Ie only very small stud or hoop earrings. Fully enclosed-toe shoes with no heel - ie black leather shoes with laces. I find myself thinking about this a lot when I see massive crazy earrings  and stilettos on girls here (I kid you not). Obviously, occupational health and safety regulations aren't quite as important here ;)

Cons of wearing a school uniform:

I can actually see some benefits of NOT wearing a uniform, and it goes along with my thinking that co-educational schools are 'better' than single-sex ones. The reason is because ours is a non-uniform wearing (except certain types of jobs) and co-educational society. We all start off in pre-school not wearing uniforms and in an co-ed environment but then we progress into this 'other period' and then once we're finished high school we're back to the same thing as before. By keeping it consistent it doesn't 'confuse' the kids and also I think in a way it makes them mature quicker. By choosing what you get to wear each day you are allowed to make adult-like decisions.

But then, teenagers in France are less likely to be competitive with their fashion compared to American or Australian teenagers. I remember when I was in high school, once in a blue moon we'd have a "non-uniform day" and I felt pressured to buy something new (and oh so trendy) especially for this rare event. I'm sure my friends felt the same thing. Also, due to colder weather or cultural reasons it's much more acceptable to wear the same thing several days in a row here. France also tends to be more economical and less materialistic than Anglo countries, I've found. At home I wouldn't dream of wearing the same outfit two days in a row. I don't remember wearing anything twice in a row during my time at university or work. It just felt 'weird' but it's completely normal here so now I often find myself wearing the same thing 2-3 days in a row.


I talked about this before in my post here. We don't really have them in Australia so they fascinate me. If you've seen Supersize me there's a section in the documentary that compares canteens in the US vs those in France. That scene alone gives you a good idea about why America has an obesity problem and France does not. I think anyone who is NOT French would be fascinated by how canteens 'work' in France and what sort of food they serve up. I don't think there is another country out there that does it the same way.

Like in other countries in Europe, you pay with a swipe card loaded up with credit. This of course creates efficiency and noone in the canteen has to worry about cash handling. All of that is done in the administration part of the school.

After that you take a tray, the cutlery and proceed to follow the queue to choose what you want to eat. You're only allowed to take a certain amount (it's not a buffet afterall) but if you take less, you still get charged the same. The other assistant and I, being budget conscious and all, take all the components and often don't eat them all and save them up for later for snacks in our room.

Everyone agrees that the meals are HUGE. They have to be because the French don't really snack. Contrary to the pre-packed over-processed stuff served in canteens in high schools in America, everything is freshly prepared and cooked. OK, there are some pre-packaged things like yoghurt and cheese but this is for ease, convenience and hygiene purposes. The entrée is a wide selection of salads, the main meal is always hot and always eaten with a knife and fork and the dessert is usually a cake or mousse, or pastry or something equally yummy and French. There is also fresh fruit and of course bread, because the French love their bread!

For a drink is there only water. I'm sure this is for health reasons as well as cost-saving reasons. It doesn't worry me at all because I love drinking water.

Something else I noticed was that men and women eat the same amount. No matter how thin the ladies are that I've seen, they finish everything on their tray. The French are big on not wasting anything (be it tangible things like food or intangible things like electricity).  Back home I'd notice whenever I ate out with friends, the guys would always eat much more than the girls. Not so in France. Yeah sure there are probably lots of French women who diet and have eating disorders as in any country but as far as my experiences are concerned, I have never seen a French woman picking at her food or talking about dieting etc. I have, however, seen plenty of women (of other cultures/backgrounds including Australian and American) do that though. As a female, I've seen and heard it all amongst friends and acquaintances. The "Oh I already ate earlier" or "I had a big lunch" (while leaving a plate of food entirely untouched) etc etc. It's so obvious. Or the old favourite, "I'm going to start my diet/exercise routine next week..." after feeling guilty for eating a nice big meal. It really saddens me to see women treat their bodies with such contempt not knowing how it truly works and not loving and appreciating food. Have you ever noticed that food-loving nations* have far less incidences of obesity? Why? I believe in the fast-paced Anglo Western world we obsess over the fact that food is the enemy and we punish (or reward) ourselves with food.

* By food-loving nations I mean nations which have the culture of food, growing and cultivating it, making things by hand, the history, the love... all of it. I also had a thought that in countries where obesity is generally not a problem, the food tends to be a lot cheaper and it is much easier to get fresh fruit and vegetables. Going back to Supersize me, it mentions that everyone wants to buy/eat what is the cheapest and in the US (and Australia) fast food is cheaper whereas in France fresh food is cheaper.

In the canteen at my school there are posters and little brochures/leaflets telling you food and nutrition facts. On tv there are lots of ads/community announcements about health and food and exercise pointing to this website: Manger Bouger (Eat, Move). Eating and being healthy is a huge deal to the French.

So a little thing like the canteen has really made me understand how important food and eating is to the French. And I like their way. I like that they eat slowly because I eat slowly. I like that they stop what they are doing to have lunch. I like that they eat at a table (unlike what I did in Australia: we had to sit on the ground, outside). I like that they appreciate food and treat it like a friend, rather than an enemy.


When I'm teaching I often feel like the main character in the movie Never Been Kissed. Of course I'm not posing as a student but being in close contact with them gives me insight into their lives, a life I'd long since forgotten. I didn't enjoy high school at all so I think I've blocked out most of it and honestly don't remember a great deal about my time there. But being around teenagers, in a different country no less, makes me realise (and remember) that it's all still the same!!!

Teenagers are teenagers everywhere. You have your popular 'clique' and your unpopular kids. You have your smart, ambitious kids and the ones who couldn't give two hoots. Peers are extremely important to them. It's the same in every school in every country.

They think they are adults but they still act like children. They hate authority. Many hate school and can't see the point of learning (subject). It's the same ol' same ol'.

I see certain students who remind me a lot of myself. The ones who really want to learn but are stuck in a class full of extroverted insecure clowns. Yes, I say insecure because it's those who are insecure that seek attention and always have to be loud and annoying (to cover up the fact that they don't understand anything about what they are learning.

I find myself remembering things my father said to me when I was a teenager. "You don't understand... I'm older than you and have more experience... You're too young... You'll see when you're older that..." all those types of thoughts keep flooding back to me and I can't help but think he was right all along. It's so funny like that. When you're 16 you think you know EVERYTHING but actually, you know NOTHING.

I have some female students who think their only role in life is to look pretty and 'hot'. They come to class late (or don't come at all), and then spend the whole time fixing their hair, their make-up and acting as if school is one big fashion parade. I've spoken to their head teacher about it and she told me there's nothing you can do. That's just their personality. One day they'll wake up to themselves. I wish I could tell them what I really think. "You're not going to be 16 forever. One day you'll have bills to pay. Maybe you should think about getting some ambition, or are you just going to wait for some guy to rescue you? You may think learning English is a joke now but when you are actually out there looking for a job you'll realise how useful that skill really is..." (I actually had a 20-something English-learning student/client of mine tell me exactly that).

I actually had a female student of mine (age 18) tell me her goal was to get married by age 22 (much to the shock of her classmates because French people, like most people in the Western world) get married quite late these days, around the age of 30. That's if they get married at all.

My BTS students are the worst. They are already in their early 20s and still don't know what they want to do in life and have zero motivation or care. It's just so so sad to see people like this. It actually gives me insight into what it's like to be a parent.

They don't call France the most romantic country for nothing. There is 'romance' everywhere you look. Or should I say, there are horny teenagers everywhere you look. I'm not sure what the rules and regulations are but it seems like they can do anything as long as they are not naked. You see couples hiding out making out everywhere and teachers don't stop them. Oh did I mention there are condom vending machines scattered throughout the corridors?! When I first arrived I was surprised and shocked when I saw this. There are also condom vending machines outside almost every pharmacy in France (for when you have - ahem - an emergency, since pharmacies and supermarkets close at around 7pm).

I asked one of my classes to discuss the subject of love and relationships and I was surprised when one girl actually told me in detail the status of her relationship (which, honestly, I couldn't follow anyway because it was confusing as all hell)... "I dumped him because I realised I was still in love with my ex, and then I got back with him because... and my friend started going out with his friend.. and then we... and then someone else dumped someone else and got together with someone else..." Woah. Made my head (and heart) hurt wondering how people could get their emotions so knotted up like that.

Then there are two couples in one of my other classes. They are all good friends with each other and both couples seem like they've been together for an eternity. They are popular and are good students. They seem so sweet I wouldn't be surprised if they ended up together for long long time... They seem so devoted to each other and just too perfect!

Then there's the issue of smoking. The teachers and staff don't care that students as young as 12 smoke! Mine is a big school and it's the lycée (senior high school) and collège (junior high school) combined. Although I don't teach the youngin's I see them around and I've seen them smoking too. The rule is that they cannot smoke on school property but they can smoke outside the school gates. Hmm...


Driving seems to be a big deal to teenagers here as it is everywhere. It's the first taste of freedom. Students sometimes come to class late because they just had a driving lesson. Driving schools are everywhere. Even in my small town there are a handful. They have an office or shopfront (which is something I never saw in Australia). Apparently the lessons are quite expensive so if your parents can't afford it.. well... bad luck. I felt so sad when one of my students (a really lovely girl) told me her parents couldn't afford it so she couldn't get her licence.

I did a post on the French driving test (the written part) before: Code de la route and from what I've read it does seem to be difficult to pass the test but then again there are so many drivers out there it can't be that difficult ;) Apparently French people make bad drivers and from what I've personally experienced, I'd have to say that that is true. Off topic, but up until the third month mark I'd actually get into the driver's seat when I got into a friend's car because I was so used to the car being the other way around (in Australia we drive on the left hand side of the road)!!


What do my students get up to in their spare time? Sport is high on the list. Many went skiing during their Christmas holidays, horse riding, ice skating, skateboarding, soccer, tennis, cycling, hiking... Sport or art/craft classes, music lessons, driving lessons,  nightclubbing (the legal age is not a big deal in France so 15 and 16 year olds go), big parties at someone's house, time with parents (or other extended family), cooking and eating,

What I love about teenagers

They are so open and honest. They'll tell you anything (almost) if you ask it. I love that. I'm so used to guarded and private and aloof people it's so refreshing.


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