That’s it. It’s done. This was my last day working for the school.
I can’t complain, my contract was extended to cover the whole school year when I should have stopped at Easter. I was already on borrowed time.
Back in France, in my previous life, I jumped through the hoops of an unapologetically elitist system and passed the most competitive entrance exam to the teaching profession (in French and Classics). I was highly ranked. Teachers in France are civil servants, depending directly from the Ministry of National Education. In compensation for low remuneration and – crucially – the inability to choose where they work, they have the security of the job. Half-consciously, I saw myself as one of Charles Péguy’s “Hussards noirs de la République”, an expression referring to the young people, clad in black robes, appointed by the Third Republic to carry out the solemn mission to conceive and deliver to all of the nation’s children an education which was now free, secular and mandatory. The fact I was one century late didn’t bother me – I have always been somewhat anachronistic. Had I not all the required qualities, being obedient and well suited to a very hierarchical structure, disciplined, hard-working, and with a true passion for my subject (pardon? pupils ? oh yes, it turned out I got on with them) ? However, the Education Nationale is (dis)organised in such a way that, in spite of my ranking, I ended up being a TZR (titulaire en zone de remplacement), in the cohort of supply teachers. People I told were shocked, but, to be fair, many young people are thus appointed, waiting to accumulate the precious administrative points which would allow them to hold a permanent job in a given school (
unless they know somebody). Those points are slowly acquired through seniority, for good practice or health reasons, or by voluntarily asking to be sent to work in very difficult “zones”. Of course, such a system means most of the jobs in which experience is of the utmost importance fall upon “fresh meat”, with all the consequences imaginable. Many young teachers, even when they are given a permanent job in a school, spend long years away from their family (some regions, like the South-East or Brittany, cost an amount of points one can only dream of). In some ways, French teachers are soldiers – des hussards. As for me, I spent a few years teaching in various schools around Paris. I overprepared, slept little but thoroughly loved it. I will never forget the summer of 2008, when I left my pupils to move to England. Twelve years later, those kids still inhabit my heart, I can feel their weight. There is love, still, and longing.
Since coming to England, I haven’t held a permanent teaching job. A mixture of circumstances and ignorance. I came here assuming, in my naivity, that schools would more or less be the same as in France (typical French arrogance, expecting everybody to follow our obviously better way of doing things). It would take too long to expose how wrong that assumption was. Not only are both systems set up in radically different manners, education itself is conceived in sometimes opposite ways. There are aspects of English education that I wish France would learn from, notably the quality of pastoral care, a benevolent attention to the singularities of every pupil. However, I am so tired of many English schools’ declaration of principles, in which they cannot stress quickly enough that academic success is only a (small) part of what they strive to achieve (whilst also claiming to expect and attain academic excellence, aiming high, reaching for the stars, etc, why choose). I can’t stand this lack of intellectual ambition, disguised as pastoral care. “Holistic” misinterpreted as “maths and English are not that important” (from a headteacher’s mouth !). They think they are being democratic and inclusive. The truth is they don’t believe in their pupils. They don’t even dare to imagine their kids could be truly good at English and maths, that those subjects could bring them joy, let alone meaning and strength. This is a country where you can opt out of History aged 12 or 13. The damaging consequences of this way of thinking are obvious in our society. Without hope, you should not teach. Granted, it is a sort of hope which will cost a lot of time, effort, sweat, tears. But that is what hope is. As Charles Péguy describes it in his wonderful Portal of the Mystery of Hope, the most precious and the toughest of theological virtues.
This last school, for which I am already the past, allowed me to do what I love doing : teaching French literature to French-speaking pupils (half of them were Spanish). Not many of my pupils will be writers. For some, I completely failed to make them progress and the best I could do was to be kind to them. For others, I could open doors. They weren’t easy to teach by any means, and I made many mistakes, but I don’t give up easily. We followed the French national curriculum which is made in a way that rejoices my heart : it assumes every child is intelligent and worthy, every child can learn, every child deserves to be presented with the most beautiful works of literary art. As well as contemporary texts, we read the Genesis. We read tales of the creation of the world. We read 12th century fables and chivalric romances. We read Molière, and all sorts of poems. It is hard, but we fight our way into those stories, into the roots of our culture, into the foundations of our identity. We don’t assume these things are dusty and irrelevant. Kids don’t assume. If the story is good, touching, powerful, they will feel it, their imagination will feed from it. Sometimes we fail. Often we have an adventure. I don’t know what their minds will remember and be able to “reinvest”, but I am sure some of it will stay in their hearts.
Kids, how I miss you already. I wish I could write your names, and tell people about you. I know you well, much better than you think. You are very, very dear to me.
And now, the familiar feeling of being marginal, being at the door. How, leaving, one always feels left and abandoned. That’s me, coming and going. Permanent members of staff, at home in the school, are a bit sad, maybe, to see me go, and wave. I, have no idea what to do next, in this strange world.