When my husband and I moved to France 20 years ago with our Franco-American three-year-old daughter in tow, how happy I’d been to get a place in a bilingual French school. Yet, the first time I looked through its fence at the scores of children running around the cramped city schoolyard, I cried. I was certainly comparing the school’s facilities to what she might have had in the US, but the tears were more about realizing that I was a foreigner in France raising a child in a system that wasn’t my own. Somehow I was terrified that my daughter would end up French and that all I’d known and loved in my past life would not be transmitted to her.
Fortunately, my panic subsided. Grandma came to visit, Sponge Bob was on TV, and I remembered that I admired French culture and its people. And soon enough, I realized that nursery school in France was not much different from nursery school in the US… until it was.
When parents hold a different view of education
At a meeting with our daughter’s moyenne section teacher, I did a double take when I heard my French husband tell her that it was fine with him if she pulled our daughter’s ear. I had brought up the subject because other Anglophone parents had warned me that the only problem with this wonderful nursery school teacher was that she was an “old school” ear puller – despite La Directrice admonishing her to stop the practice. My husband had sabotaged my spiel! I remember letting it go, maybe to avoid an on-the-spot scene between us, maybe because my daughter was a “wild” one and tough enough to handle a little ear pulling.
Instead, I jumped in with, “Well, you can pull hers, but don’t pull anybody else’s!”
It is pretty safe to say that two people raised in two different education systems will not hold the same view of how to educate a child.
Should the non-French parent bow to the French one, because they “know better”? (In fact, your spouse is your exhibit A of their country’s education system – so fine a product that you chose to make babies with them!) Or should the non-French parent push the French parent to understand the things they see are wrong with the system and call for an alternative?
When emotions over school choices rise within a bicultural couple, is a compromise possible?
Might a bilingual education be the best preparation for a bicultural child, whose playing field covers more than one country? If you’re lucky enough to live near an international bilingual school – or a French school with an international section or bilingual program – then your child could experience two different systems at once.
A bilingual education might be the ideal compromise if you’re in the position to take advantage of it. The reality is that some of us don’t have the money to pay for it. Or, the number of programs and spots are limited; or, they’re available for just the brightest children who are already bilingual. Or, there are no options near where we live.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do
As much as we may want to, we can’t pick up and move back to our home country. We’re stuck! What to do?
For me, the key is trust. And I’m not talking about trusting your spouse; rather, I’m talking about trusting an educational system. Sometimes it’s hard to do this, I know. My kids have suffered from long school days, inconsistent quality of teaching, and teacher absenteeism, despite carefully choosing our schools. I remind myself, however, that France, as a nation and a civilization, as a people and an economy, scores high. Micro-managing takes power away from those responsible for delivering a result. Trust the French educational system and let its qualified people deliver. In fact, according to the OECD’s PISA 2015 Results, the system falls well within OECD country averages.
And find common ground
When parents hold a different view of education, perhaps the best they can hope for is to find some common ground. I remember being horrified by the inhumanity of my son’s 0/20 on a dictée (my husband didn’t bat an eye), yet delighted that each vacation his French teacher assigned an enjoyable short novel to read. We both agreed that valorizing reading was a good thing.
Accept that the French education system may be very different from what you experienced, yet try to see the pluses. Then, figure out how you can support your child to compensate for the system’s minuses – for example, by providing tutoring, ensuring an environment at home conducive to studying, being available to listen to your child when they need to talk, finding other ways to build your child’s self-esteem, meeting teachers to advocate for your child, or offering your child plenty of patience and encouragement.
Do note that the worst thing that we can do for our children is to undermine them by forcing our worldview on them. A non-French worldview is of limited use when studying in a Francophone system! It’s confusing and can even give our children an excuse not to engage when things get challenging, prohibiting them from reaping one of the benefits of the French educational system: learning how to survive when the going gets tough. We must support our kids as needed without bashing their school system, because it is theirs, and their identity is tied to it.
Even you can learn to work with the French school system
Our then-12-year-old boy’s French math teacher got into the habit of calling him “et demi” or “1/2” when he did his daily headcount. The fact that my son told me this meant he wasn’t comfortable with it. Despite knowing that his teacher liked to tease, my son saw the “two percent” of truth behind “et demi”: that he was a hopeless math student.
This time, when I met with the math teacher, I didn’t bring along my husband. I started by telling this teacher that I appreciated his dedication – he was rigorous, even collecting his students’ notebooks monthly to give them feedback on the quality of their note taking, including a mark out of 10! Then I asked him to stop calling my son “et demi” because it was destroying his confidence and making him lose face in front of his classmates. The teacher was surprised and said he liked my son and was just teasing. I told him I understood, but that the impact on my son was it made him feel stupid. I said I knew that he was the kind of teacher that could build a student’s confidence, and that I hoped that he would do that for my son. And guess what? He did!
When advocating for your child, avoid generalizing. Better to offer the teacher feedback on a specific event, and if appropriate, propose a solution.
When the French school system is failing your child
Sometimes, trust, support, and advocacy may not be enough. If your child is still struggling in a French school, should you put your child in a non-French system? After all, in France, in addition to international schools, there are German, Spanish, British, American, Montessori, and Euro schools, to name a few. The decision is, of course, full of nuances. Yet looking at it from a pros-and-cons point of view, you must weigh the potential benefits to your child’s well-being against the impact of taking them out of the French system – in particular, if they have a French parent, or may live in France later on.
Full mastery of French, your child’s future network, and the lack of a French Bac diploma are all issues to consider. Just as there are expat-parented kids who suffer from the inflexibility of the traditional French system, there are French-parented kids who suffer and seek alternatives. Know that within the French education system, there is choice. There are public and private schools, Catholic and other religious schools. There are international schools and bilingual schools. There are bilingual and European programs within public, semi-private, and private schools. There are after-school language schools, schools for dyslexics, boarding schools, and international exchange programs. There are general, technological, trade, sports, art, and performing arts high schools.
Might most kids, in fact, be OK in any school system?
“There are nearly as many ways to skin a cat as there are lazy students who don’t really care, and want to leave lab early,” Professor David B. Fankhauser of the University of Cincinnati in Vice Magazine
If you raise your children in France, and you learned that your child was offered a spot to attend Lycée Louis-le-Grand or Henri IV, you would probably jump for joy at the news, regardless of your nationality. Indeed, students at these prestigious French schools are on track to secure their spot among France’s elite. What if your child benefited from a bilingual education up until that point, could they make the transition into an elite French school?
Well, many transition just fine. I know a Franco-Brit who thrived in his public high school’s bilingual program and decided to forego his place in a British university in order to enter a Henri IV prépa – and he’s thriving. I also know a dyslexic Franco-American student who attended French Catholic primary school and benefited from years of reimbursed French language therapy. He entered a bilingual public middle school program and eventually ended up in a US college with a scholarship. There’s also the Franco-British student who attended a bilingual Montessori nursery school and then spent the next 12 years in the French Catholic and public school system. Once graduated, she headed to England for a Foundation year and more and is flourishing.
While this evidence may be anecdotal, it begs the question: from our children’s point of view, if they receive the appropriate support, does it really matter to which system they belong? Does it really matter how you skin the cat?
How parents can make the educational system work
Children in any educational system fare according to both their natural advantages and the emotional, academic, and logistical support they receive, which can mitigate the weaknesses of the particular system.
Dear parent, please be honest. How are you engaging with your child’s education? If you have a child who finds school difficult, how are you accompanying them?
Are you in denial…about any number of things? Are you focused on your career and struggling to find time to deal with your child’s challenges; or, are you unwilling or unable to deal with them? Are you resistant to reorganizing weekends and vacations in order to provide your child with the structure, rest and extra time they may need? Are you projecting your own a priori upon your child? Are you unwilling to go to conflict?
A “yes” answer to any of these questions may be what is failing your child, even more than the educational system. Dear parents, our job might be the hardest one out there. And we have just 18 years to get it right. Bon courage!