Teen Coach: Open Letter to Families in French Schools

Teen Coach: Open Letter to Families in French Schools

Open Letter to parents with children in French schools.
Photo © Alexis Duclos

Dearest Reader,

OK, true confession: Do you bash the French school system?

Most of us are very good at seeing what we don’t like about a system that is not our own. Those of us who attended high school in an Anglophone country will find major differences between our experience and that of our teens today in France. And if our teens attended an Anglophone school before entering the French school system, we (and they) may find the differences to be even shocking.

I would like to ask you to look at these differences from the perspective of a coach. And that would mean looking without any preconceived notions; leaving judgment and assumption aside.

Consider the following: A 17-year-old American boy visited his 17-year-old Franco-American cousin in France this summer. He told him that his school day in the United States lasts less than seven hours, that he practices sport, piano, and guitar ten hours a week, and that he holds a 3.4 average (85 percent), which puts him in the second quarter of his class. His cousin told him that he tries to practice five hours of sport a week, but often can’t because the length of his school day in France (up to ten hours) and homework don’t leave him enough time. He has a moyenne of 14 out of 20 (70 percent) and is in the top quarter of his class. His grade of 10 (50 percent) in math is above the class average.

Many of us bash the French school system because our teens are subject to rigorous requirements, tough grading, and receive sparse encouragement from their teachers; while “at home” teachers encourage their students and reward them with easy grading.

Some teachers in France read each student’s grade aloud to the class, beginning with the lowest. The assumption many of us make is that encouragement and good grades build self-esteem. The judgment many of us make is that the French system is unnecessarily tough.

Tough grading system in French schools

Yet assumptions and judgments are limiting; both close the door to more profound reflection.

A word mentioned more and more among Anglophone educators is resilience: “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” If anything, the student in France is given the space to fail. It is what it is. For better or worse, it is not something that is hidden. The benefit in this is the student in France must grapple with failure and figure out how to succeed; and how to toughen up. With practice, many of them do. The cost is that some just can’t, some give up, and some never get over it.

Perhaps the assumption that the French school system makes is that a teen is not too fragile for honest grading; that a teen has the intellect to understand that top grades are not a right, and the logic to accept that academic ability is not distributed evenly.

With proper support from parents, our teens educated in the French system can benefit from it. Parents who focus on the learning process rather than grades will empower their teen to keep trying.

Parents who offer encouragement, structure, and academic support where appropriate can ensure that their teen will become resilient and even confident. Without parental support, however, the French system can be downright dangerous to a teen’s self-esteem.

Next time you find yourself wanting to bash the French school system, and especially if you are within earshot of your teen: tourner sept fois votre langue dans votre bouche avant de parler! (Translation: Turn your tongue seven times in your mouth before speaking!) Consider this: unlike you, your teen has no other school system. The French school system is a key part of his or her identity, and if we bash the system, we are bashing our teens. We are confusing them too, because after all, we are the ones who chose to raise our teens in France.

Bash the French system for students that do get their backs broken by it, but remember to praise the system for believing that teens are strong enough to handle rigor, detached honesty, and failure. After all, this is the real world they will encounter as adults.


Jane Mobille, PCC, CPCC

Jane Mobille, PCC, is a professional executive and life coach based in Paris who is also a writer. She is the editor of AAWE’s quarterly News magazine. For INSPIRELLE, Jane has penned a number of articles inspired by her work coaching young people.


  1. Interesting perspective.
    I’ve had 3 boys go through the French system. The first one made it out ok, the second one lost all his self-confidence and then his will to work, the third thrived. So, I guess it depends on the child. You have to have a good memory to start with, and if you haven’t, you’d better nurture one quick.

  2. This is an thoughtful article, but it makes a great many assumptions about both the French and American educational systems that would take a book to unravel. Suffice it to say that the school systems in both countries are integral parts of two very different socioeconomic structures. Compared to the USA, France is a very small country, yet its school system is not at all monolithic. There is immense variation between Parisian schools like the Lycee Henri IV or the Lycee International de St. Germaine en Laye and one of the lycees in the working class suburbs or smaller cities. The same can be said about the primary schools in different arrondissements within Paris, which also reflect the social class composition of their district — just as schools in the big American cities do.
    In France, however, the connection between the school system and the working world of business and politics is much closer than in the USA. A lot has been written about the inbred character of the French system that links the needs of the civil service and the business elite to the opportunities open to university graduates and the competition for places that filters down into the lycees and even into some lower level schools. The training and recruitment of teachers is very different in France from the extremely decentralized and much more politicized system of local controls fostered by state and local school boards in America. The level of academic competence found in France is generally much greater than is the case in the USA, but the amount of personal freedom and initiative is generally much less — although there are lots of variations in each country. In short, while an American teenager who is dropped into a French lycee when a parent is transferred to France will be in for a shock both because of the amount of work expected and the selection process they will encounter. The experience can be very rewarding if the student responds well to much greater discipline and is prepared to adapt to the French model, which leaves less room for personal expression in everything from handwriting to lesson planning to the “explication” of literary texts.
    Not every child will take easily to the French system and not every child will succeed — just as the French expect that not all will perform equally. My own three children spent a year in the primary system at the Ecole Laugier-Fourcroy in central Paris and survived the transition from English to French (which they did not know at all when they began) remarkably well, though it took them at least half the year to begin earning a few “bon points” from their teachers. When they returned 7 years later to the Lycee International they found a unique school that provided them with one of the most exciting educational experiences of their lives. That does not mean that every other American family had the same good experience — I knew some that definitely did not. But my children returned to America and finished secondary school and university in the US and are making their lives and careers here, not in France. For those who stay in France, the challenges are much greater, but they stem less from the educational system than from the general social and economic structure of that country. So please don’t generalize about either French or American schools as a whole.

  3. Hi all, a French student here,

    The angry (and likely irreverent) diatribe that follow is born only from how strongly I feel about this issue, and the fact that I spend 40+ hours of my week witnessing it. If I were to start by tugging à l’americiane at your heart-strings, I could tell you that I have friends who have several panic attacks a day and force themselves to come to class the next hour, or for whom their long list of 17’s and 18s will forever feel undeserved after that one 12, whom the stress drives to depression and anorexia and that in the face of this the french system offers little to no mental support to its students. Here’s an anecdote: last year, we were finally given an hour of group discussion with a therapist to talk about stress and school life. By the end of the hour, half of the students were sobbing. This wasn’t a phenonmenon limited to my own class, but that had occured in almost every other classroom.
    My fear when reading this article is that in wanting to promote the potential of harsher grading (as opposed to the sugar-coated grades given in the US) and encouraging parents to act more consistent when it comes to their kids’ educations, you’re using the french system as a poster child more than you are selectively analyzing the benefits of a single aspect of this system. As a result it feels like the article minimzes the flaws of the french system, from the ubiquity of conflictual relationships between students and teachers to the way that good grades, while being a student’s main academic goal, are rarely celebrated as much as the bad ones.
    A couple of statements particularly struck me… One of your suggestions is for both students and parents to focus on the learning process rather than the grades: while this is of course an essential part of surviving the french system, it is, I think, much easier said than done, when grades are central to the discoure and vocabulary of a large majority of teachers, whom students are faced with for hours on end, week after week. The fact is that grades are dreaded in every class and require the development of coping mechanisms, often in the form of apathy. The question is, is it the responsibility of students to learn to detach themselves from grades, while being surrounded by a context that consistently links these numbers to their self worth?
    Simlarly, you state that the french system allows for failure. The word ‘allows’ here is interesting: does it mean that failure is viewed as acceptable and healthy or does it mean that failure simply happens? I don’t claim to speak for all of my peers or to say this is a mentality shared by all teachers, but yes, failure does happen a while brushing off a failure with a comforting “it’s ok” does not help to progress, neither does loading it with a generalized sense of ineptitude and guilt.
    In the end, this is simply the question asked in Damien Chazelle’s movie Whiplash: perhaps there are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”, but does this have to come with a system that forces you to “marche ou crève”? Walk or die? And what support is this system offerering to those who stop walking?


    • Dear Alice,
      I hear your anger. You are right to demand answers. And by challenging my Open Letter to Parents in such an eloquent way you are pushing the discussion deeper. Thank you for that.
      I invite current teachers, administrators, and students in the French school system to respond to you, and in particular: How can the system better support adolescents so that “walking” through it is more fulfilling? What responsibility does a tough and rigorous system, which engages students in failure, have in supporting them emotionally?
      You have brought something new into the discussion – expectations of student excellence. The requirement to enter public universities in France is a 10 on the bacalaureat general. From where, then, is the pressure coming?
      Here are some possible answers among many others (and in no particular order):
      • Elite lycées that have high expectations of their students
      • Teachers judged by how well their students perform
      • Parents who want their children to “succeed”
      • Limited spaces in top post-secondary programs
      • Students who want top grades
      • Society which reveres “smart” people
      • An economy which is not creating enough jobs
      (In my opinion, if pursuit of excellence serves a desire to know more, honor individual potential, and contribute to making the world a better place, then there is little place for pressure.)
      The cost to students of achieving excellence – grades of 17 and 18s rather than 12s – in any country’s school system can be high. The focus and effort required can mean less time for friends, a hobby, leisure, or self-care: these are the very things that can reduce stress. Alice, you mentioned students who suffer panic attacks, depression, and anorexia. I urge them to seek not only professional help, but to remember that they are at choice. If their overwhelming stress is related to a choice to seek excellence, well, there are other choices; for example, redefining excellence to include both grades and well-being, which would mean aiming for excellence but with limits around how to get there, and an acceptance of how this may impact grades.
      Often we can’t control conditions, but we can choose how to respond. Admittedly, the choice to be serene about school performance in France requires a kind of courage that many teens do not yet possess. As you pointed out, it is hard to choose to focus on the learning process, when your teachers are relentlessly focusing on the result. This is why in my Open Letter I asked parents to focus on the learning process: Parents can be a context that doesn’t “link these numbers to their kids’ self-worth”.
      Finally: What is failure? When is failure acceptable? What is the gift in failure? What does failure have to do with growth? When is failure too much to handle? Reflecting on these questions may open a path to serenity.
      Do know that so many of us wish we could wave a magic wand and make French schools a place where it feels less threatening to experience success and failure.
      Jane Mobille

  4. ditto Sarah’s comment and if I may add, parental support may also include advocating for your child. As a parent of a a child ( now adult) with autism and epilepsy, it was necessary to intervene on our son’s behalf to ensure that he was receiving the support he needed. It took me years to learn to do this with ” diplomacie” in French and with emotional detachment. Wish I had you for a coach 20 years ago!

  5. Jane –
    You write a thought-provoking article that is both timely and nuanced. While the cultivation of resilience is key in the classroom, every child requires a personalized dose of encouragement and feedback, and smashing everyone with the same hammer never works. I just spoke about the problems with the American self-esteem parenting movement to thousands of middle schoolers in Texas and they are hungry for tougher standards.

  6. Bravo, Jane, for a thought provoking article. And thanks for reminding me not to bash ANYTHING in front of anyone who, for better or worse, is emotionally linked to whatever it is I’m bashing. Schools, family members, countries, businesses, governments, you name it.


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