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.
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