Friday, December 08, 2006

Professional ethos...teacher-as-specialist

I had my last conseil de classe yesterday. By this point the routine had become familiar. It was interesting though to observe the different approaches of the various administrative types, the way the personality of the prof principal affected the tenor and the efficacy of our deliberations, and also the distinctly different characteristics of the various student groups that we discussed.
I noticed, for example, that the proviseur chose to be present for all of the conseils for the secondes, evidently viewing their first trimester transition from college as being his chief priority. He repeatedly exhorted student delegates to urge their camarades to leave behind their childish ways of college and to take of the serious work of being a lyceen.
In wrapping up my observations about the conseils, I want to say a few things about the structure of teaching teams when it is integrated with the practice of grouping students and making common student evaluations has perhaps even more to recommend it than I have observed so far. But to recap I would offer the following as assets of the conseil de classe:
* nurtures a network of concerned adults who are well informed globally about each individual student's situation in school and it facilitates communications between those adults.
* reinforces in students' minds the need to view their own schoolwork in a global fashion...this is distincty different from our does not opt here to drop or take an F in Math for example and then retake it later. Here you must retake the entire year's program.
*brings students and parents into the discussion and process of student evaluations in a way that at least provides an opportunity for them to gain a wider more global perspective on how the students are doing.
*promotes among students an ethic of partnership, not only with one another in their own student meetings but also as co-stakeholders alongside teachers and parents. Grades and recommendations are discussed candidly in the conseils de classe and student delegates are expected to take that information back to their class meetings.

The conseil de classe makes for a very long teacher week, and it can at times seem perfunctory. But the key in my mind is that it creates a set of circumstances in which people can if they choose go well beyond the perfunctory and actually do something meaningful together.

One last observaiton: there is yet another asset that occurs to me and it has to do with the ethos of the professional teacher here in France. The conseil de classe and the responsibilities of being prof principal help form a cadre of professionals within the faculty who are skilled in several practices: mediating issues involving students, teachers and parents, proactively engaging teacher teams in responses to emerging issues with classes, reaching across disciplines to forge consensus with colleagues on student evaluations, synthesizing evaluations from disparate disciplines for the purpose of proposing global evaluations of individual students...these are skills that go well beyond the normal purview of classroom teachers in the US. What's more, the responsiblities of the prof principal are shifted among the faculty. As a result the entire staff is very conversant with these skills and habits of mind.
What I think I see here is a professional culture that prizes and promotes the teacher-as-colleague ethos. This is not to say that in the US we do not value one another as colleagues; my point would be, rather, that at the high school level at least, we are not obliged to be responsible to and responsive to one another nearly to the extent that French teachers are so obliged.
What makes this even more intersting to me is that my colleagues here in France are self described specialists. The phenomenon of bivalence (multiple certificiations) is quite rare here. You get trained to teach a particular discipline, the training is rigorous and it extends over a long period of time. The notion that you might wear several hats and teach, say, Science and Math, or, say, English and French is simply not entertained here as a viable option. All of my colleagues see themselves, therefore, as specialists and as expert in their respective disciplines. One might think that such "narrow" orientations might militate against cooperation and perhaps on the level of program and curriculum it does, but the level of mutual respect here for the professionalism of each staff member is palpable. When they sit together in a conseil de classe and speak about their courses, their requirements, their sense of what students need to can see that everyone in the room brings to the table the same kind of professional seriousness...they share an orientation that is academic, rigorous, and self assured.
Having said all of that, it has become increasingly clear to me that my professional life, the trajectory of my own career, is a distinctly American one and very likely could not have taken place within the matrix of French values and practices. I began teaching with the main intention of coaching basketball...I morphed into an English teacher later...along the way I continued coaching a little football here, a little baseball there, some girl's gymnastics, some tennis, and finally theater (the real catalyst for my later development into a bonafide English teacher).
Then one year (20 years ago) I took an unpaid leave of absence and spent the better part of a year in France, not having a word of French in my linguistic arsenal. I came back a year later and in response to the urgings of my principal, Dale Wyatt, who was at that time confronted by staffing issues involving electives, I acquired a language teaching certificate via an exam available then to teachers already certified in a discipline. It was never my intention to become a French teacher. Thus began my French teacher career...a very inauspicious debut too. Had not the continuously gnawing fear of my being exposed as a fraud not driven me in sundry ways to continue my linguistic development on my own...I might well be a fraud today.
The point of that summary bio is simply to assert that only in America could such a haphazard formation been countenanced as being has been my great fortune to combine personal and professional growth in ways that ultimately benefitted all concerned. Had I been obliged to follow the straight and narrow path of specialization in my teaching career...well, that's a hypothetical I can't really get my mind around...I would probably still be coaching basketball (and maybe loving it).


Anonymous cjones said...

Nice. Better than reading ed journals.

No mention of trivalence?

5:29 PM  
Blogger kc said...

No, but I suspect their even less ambivalent about that...

7:38 PM  
Blogger kc said...

oops...make that "they're even less..."

8:45 PM  

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