Thursday, September 07, 2006

Into the cockpit

September 7, 2006

Into the cockpit

A few impressions and observations having to do with the lycée here...

I think I’ll begin with the goodwill shown me by all of my English teacher colleagues – Anne Marie, Regine, Hélène, and Annick…Cécile too except that she belongs in another category – exchange partner and all around impressive human being.

Both Annick and Hélène met with me during the days leading up to the rentrée scolaire. They helped me sort out the textbook situation, and began the daunting task of familiarizing me with the alphabet soup of acronyms that I have very little hope of mastering in a mere school year.

When I reported to work last Friday, I met the staff and my department. The feeling that I get from the staff is very friendly. It’s a very button-down, laid-back atmosphere (administrators wearing suits and ties, teachers decidedly not) but there is a palpable and self conscious sense of professionalism at the same time. The half hour coffee before the general meeting allowed me to get around to quite a few people. We exchange pleasantries, there a few tentative feelers about tennis, some small talk about the weather (it’s heating up just in time for classes to start…sound familiar?) As you might expect, Oregon is not necessarily a place with which many people here are familiar. The same is true for this place…I never heard of the Bassin d’Arcachon before this exchange…the beaches here are definitely not a secret to the rest of Europe however.

The staff is young, a few graybeards like myself, and roughly the same size as LG. I am noticeably taller than the vast majority of people here. It’s a comical sight to see me with my English colleagues, all diminutive women. I’m fighting barely conscious impulses to slouch. The process of getting the actual meeting started is a familiar albeit painful one. I can’t think of more recalcitrant set of people than high school teachers fresh off summer break being asked to sit down for nearly three hours so that they can be reminded of things like new construction, policies regarding keys, cars, and cell phones. Certain phrases are intoned in a almost liturgical manner, “let me repeat”, “I remind you”, “we are required”, “it is the law”…an so it goes. The principal holds forth, from behind a table, flanked by his administrative team. The acoustics are terrible, the murmuring in the room swells at times to a point that very nearly drowns the words of the principal. His manner is cool, detached, and occasionally ever so wry. He regards the assembly without betraying any sense of frustration, if everything is not as quiet or as attentive as it might be, it is as it is. He taps the table with his pencil. The swelling murmurs subside a little, enough to render clearer both the principals comments and those of a couple of persistently self absorbed types behind me. He introduces every single staff member by name. Some of the younger ones give each other loud ovations, they are tan and sporty, not much older in appearance than their students.

When I’m introduced, I receive a very nice hand as well. Fortunately, I’m not invited to say anything and I sit down immediately. I should have taken another second or two to look around because I’m not sure we’ll meet again as a staff during the year. There’s no attempt made to either to invoke or to elicit anything like the pervasive “school spirit” meme of the American high school. I am visited by what I confess strikes me as a bizarre but maybe not entirely inappropriate analogy…I remember Hollywood films about WWII fighter pilots. There were always the obligatory pre-air raid briefings where the commander handed out assignments to squadrons. There was never any “let’s win one for the free world” kind of rhetoric. To the contrary the officers and pilots were always glib, laconic, and disinclined toward gratuitous expressions of formality and/or sentimentality. Off they went each to his separate cockpit and an uncertain fate, a cigarette dangling precariously from his lips…you get the picture. In a similar fashion for me (without the cigarettes though…smoking’s not allowed on campus) the teacher-as-fighter pilot appears to be sovereign here. They go their own way. Academic freedom is not just an idle notion; rather, it seems to be part and parcel of the French teacher’s professional ethos. I’ve had it explained to me that French culture is a repository for many contradictions, not the least of which is the following: it is a decidedly hierarchical culture where chain of command, demarcations of responsibility and authority are accepted a priori; it is a culture populated by people who are stubbornly individualistic. Thus, mandates are handed down from the higher up and then simultaneously acknowledged and ignored by everyone else. His primary groups seem to be those of his discipline and the teams with whom he shares students.

In the beginning of the meeting I’m a model staff member, upright, attentive, smiling. An hour later I’m fading badly. The murmuring is once again approaching high tide. Then I pick out a strangely familiar item from the principal’s discourse. He is presenting the staff with a brand new innovation which has been recently mandated for all high schools in France. It’s called the “conseil pedagogique” , a group comprised of teachers appointed by the principal, parents and administrators, charged with looking for ways to improve the instructional program. To my ears this sounds an awful lot like what we’ve been calling “site council” for the past decade or so. I wonder, is this an example of globalization in the educational marketplace? The principal doesn’t get too far into his explication of the conseil pedagogique when a teacher rises to his feet in order to be recognized. He is animated by this subject clearly but not in a positive direction. He is the syndicaliste, (labor union representative). The conseil pedagogique, he warns the staff represents a clear and present threat to academic freedom. I for one appreciate at least the sound of a human voice animated by passion. Once again I am awake. The syndicaliste, I can tell, is used to holding the floor for extended minutes. I watch the principal who seems not at all surprised, perhaps faintly bemused but not enough to register the slightest objection…at first. At some point however his internal clock signals him to bring the meeting back to order. The principal diplomatically suggests to the syndicaliste that his concerns are unfounded but that he welcomes the vigilance of all concerned, and furthermore if we want to make it lunch on time (we have reservations at a local restaurant for 12:30)…he pauses and gestures at the neat stacks of stapled packets in front of him – they are our teaching assignments and schedules - judging from the reactions of all present, that final point seems to carry the day, and in a heartbeat we have resumed the droning, incantations about calendars, emergency exits, the photocopy machine. There is genuine suspense in the room regarding teaching assignments. Most of us do not know yet exactly what courses we’ll be teaching nor do we know when those classes will meet.

The meeting grinds to the end but not before each member of the administrative team has also made some remarks. It is the vice principal, I discover, who has been charged with creating the master schedule. He will be the one people will want to talk to as soon as we are allowed to get up. When the meeting ends there is a general move, slow but intent toward those packets on the table. The vice principal attempts to serve them out, they are stacked alphabetically but of course the teachers come at him from all angles and all points on the alphabet. I watch as teachers take their packets off to a chair, sit down and take their first look at what this year will have in store for them. Even as he is attempting to hand out the rest of the schedules, the vice principal is already being approached with questions and/or requests and/or complaints. I finally reach the table and receive my packet. I open it and there on the first page is my teaching schedule. The first thing I notice is that I begin almost every morning at 8:00 am. The very next thing I see is that Wednesday is open…that’s the day Tess and Colm are also not in school…perfect! The closer I look at my schedule however the more I realize that I need help interpreting it…it’s a bit like the Rosetta Stone, bristling with symbols that I’m not yet in command of. My fist impulse is settle down over this document and work it out, but then another impulse drives that one away…I’m hungry. I search out my English colleagues. We’re going out. It’s already 12:30.

à +



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had to chuckle Kevin. I was reading your post aloud to Diane and came to your description of a new group to be comprised of teachers, administrators and parents. Before I could say it, Diane looked up and said, "Oh my god, they are starting Site Councils!" The globalization of a bad idea.

9:06 PM  

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