So I have decided to start a new section in my blog, entitled Back in the pond. I have been back in Paris for more than two months now, and the family is happily settling in. A cardboard-free life is on the horizon – soon, we may even be able to find space to hide the clutter and receive people in a respectable setting.
I will leave the topic of adaptation into a French school, freshly experienced by my kids, for another time. I’ll just say that I can’t really remember why I thought, some years ago, that no other education system could pretend to rival ours. Not that I don’t like French schools anymore, I can just see limitations I wasn’t aware of at the time, or didn’t understand when I heard about them. I was probably, as a child, the most school-adapted pupil you could find, and it took me some years of teaching before I could start to grasp the complexity of the difficulties many kids find themselves in. I needed to feel them experiencing the angst and the confusion in front of me, as a result of my own and other teachers’ mistakes, clumsiness, blindness, whatever you call it, by which we failed to see the path we should have chosen to convey meaning to those children. There is obviously no simple answers to those protean problems, but at least I finally knew they existed in reality, I could imagine from my own feeling of helplessness and unsatisfaction what some of my pupils were going through. Yet, I also encountered many cases of extraordinary and almost frightening resilience : pupils who were very far behind, unable to understand what was expected of them, to whom we asked candidly to choose a profession in their mid-teens, as an emergency exit from an education which was now inaccessible to them (I can’t even start to say how wrong all of this was), but behaved as if they were totally oblivious to the seriousness and the sadness of their situation. I never managed to know what they really thought of all that – on my side, I tried to sound calm and positive. They were probably right to consider the school’s advice as the natural path to follow, as nothing else was on offer. They had a matter-of-fact way of considering things. (Now that some years have passed and I have had the chance to work with more teenagers and to get to know them quite well, I can say I have often met young people, from all backgrounds, wise beyond their years, and wiser than me.)
As I was sorting out old papers following my move to Paris, I found old reports I wrote about “problematic” pupils who, having drained most of my colleagues’ reserve of patience, ended up expelled from school (which was often how they had arrived in our school – that old vicious circle). I was surprised and a bit ashamed by the tone I sometimes employed, the anger. But teaching teenagers is something you do with your whole person, your body, your emotions. At least, that is how it was for me at the time – it is likely experience, age and a clearer idea of what can be achieved, would have put some distance in there, which might have allowed me to be more than a teacher the kids liked, an observant and efficient one. (Would the reports be less emotional if I had to write them now ? I dearly hope so, but wouldn’t swear to it, considering how often I lose my temper with my own kids. Though it is easier to deal with other people’s offspring, be professional and all that). I guess what I am trying to come to, is the fact that our system, the French system, produces teachers who know very little of how their job should be handled – we were quite learned in our subjects, yes, I knew enough about texts, but what of the pupils, what of the reason I was there ? At the time, after having passed the competitive exam which would make of us academically able civil servants, we had to go through one year of practical training which, unlike most of my colleagues, I enjoyed, but during which the way to help “underachieving pupils” was not once touched. Yes it is an old topic, about which everything has been written (the irrelevance of the training, the absence of basic psychology lessons, the gap between the acdemically or subject centred exams the trainee teachers have to take and the reality of the job, etc), and yet still so relevant.
However, many things we need in our work cannot be taught and have to be learned in the job. And of course, knowing about texts isn’t antagonistic to an openness to people and a skilful handling of difficult emotional situations, quite the contrary. It probably helped me a lot, in the absence of pedagogical and psychological training. (At the time, the kids also seemed to like the fact I was trying to do difficult things with them. I believe they felt I was showing them respect in that way. But I have no idea if it would work again, in other circumstances). One can also achieve good things in an unorthodox way, through emotional closeness to the pupils, as I can see in my son’s judo teacher’s methods – I don’t approve of them, I resent their lack of “cold professionalism”, but I can see how much the young ones like him, how much they enjoy being in his lessons. I also recognise myself a bit in him, much to my dismay I have to say. I didn’t want to be that sort of teacher – but let’s not go down that route.
And here I am blaberring again, having said I would leave the topic of school for another time, and promising something about Paris. But I suppose it is the nature of this blog, a bit of anything, following what crosses my mind. I am told blogposts shouldn’t be too long, so I guess I should leave it for today. I hope to be back soon (si Dieu le veut) with more about school, and our arrondissement of Paris, and what I will try to do this year. Night night.