Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Tuesday evening marked for me a kind of personal high water mark in my professional career as a teacher. I spent about an hour talking about my perspectives on American and French school systems and then another hour fielding questions and comments from the twenty colleagues in attendance.
I was very pleasantly surprised by the number of teachers who showed up for a 5 pm meeting on Tuesday evening only a week before grades were due at the end of the school year. Hamed, my colleague in Social Sciences had suggested to me early in the school year that a meeting of this kind would be of interest and he had offered to take care of the arrangements and getting the word out...all I had to do was signal my readiness to deliver the goods. It took me awhile to get to a place where I felt as though my observations and perceptions were something more substantial than first impressions, but finally in late April I went to Hamed and told him I would like to give it a shot.
Hamed asked me about format. Did I want simply a question and answer discussion type of format or would I prefer to begin with a presentation focused on a couple of large themes and then take questions and comments afterwards? I choose the latter, preferring the opportunity to structure my comments in the beginning and thus create a context for the questions to follow. Hamed was pleased by my decision...it was the more rigorous option, after all.
Shortly after this conversation I noticed that Hamed had posted a notice in the teacher's room in which he advertised a presentation about the French and American systems and an invitation to come listen and debattre the topic with me. I know the word debattre has a larger meaning which includes discussion, nevertheless it served to remind me to expect a typically French engagement, which is to say, analytical and critical.
I arrived in the teacher's room a bit early so I sat down at the table along side three colleagues, two philosophy profs and one social science prof. I can't remember exactly how the subject came up but I mentioned home ownership and the phenomenon of debt and before I knew it my colleagues were launched in a spirited debate about whether social sciences are too hamstrung by quantitative as opposed to qualitative analysis, whether statistics tend to obscure and distract us from other important considerations etc... The social scientist was on the defensive, being outnumbered, but he wasn't out gunned. I listened to the three of them go around and around, each of them in turn citing this or that writer, this or that school of thought. They were aggressively partisan while also being good natured about the whole thing. They also each seemed to take some pride in being able to articulate points that were held in common by all present.
I don't mean to suggest that this sort of conversation is standard fare in the teachers room because it's not, but neither is it out of character or somehow confined only to a few special types. The intellectual expertise that my colleagues possess within their respective disciplines is a hard won and highly prized aspect of their professional formation.
We gathered at 5:00 pm in a classroom where the desks were arranged so that we could face one another. Hamed introduced me and then I began. For many days I had been fretting over how to organize my reflections on this year and on more precisely on the theme of the two educational systems. Finally, Monday evening during play rehearsal I had sketched an outline for my remarks. Finally, it seemed, I was ready.
We filed in the room and I took a seat, not at the teacher's desk hoping to deflate my appearance as a supposed "expert" or "authority". I was very happy to see one of my colleagues take that chair as if it were just another chair in the circle. Some of my English colleagues sat next to me, I recognized teachers that I had not really spoken to all year and whose names I did not you. One of the teachers brought her five year old son...which was another pleasant surprise. He was on his best and cutest behavior though once while attempting to make and fly a paper airplane he provide me with an opportunity to compare his behavior with that of some American teenagers...it was good for a laugh.
I began with a short a bio and chronicled my personal path toward becoming a French teacher and being what the French call bivalent or certified in two different disciplines. This particular theme is of enormous interest to French teachers who as a group have long resisted proposals to move in this direction. I spoke frankly with them about my own formation and development as a French teacher, the provisional and sometimes expedient licensing processes by which teachers in America add certifications in order either to become more employable or to help a school district fill a specific need - my own case being an example of the latter - had Dale Wyatt, my principal, not asked me to do it, I never would have thought to try for a French certification.
In addition to the phenomenon of multiple certifications (I didn't mention the practice of assigning teachers outside their areas of certification...I can only imagine how that would have sounded to them) I spoke about the tendency for American teachers to have extracurricular responsibilities and involvements and thus to have relationships with students that were in many instances more nuanced than those restricted to the classroom.
I went on to contrast the concept of the American high school, which is typically the final common stage in the American educational system where kids from every economic and social strata all come together and to a certain degree at least, study, work, play and live together, with the French paradigm of multiple types of high schools offering different types of diplomas leading to different career paths.
These particular differences underscore a very complex and vexing question, what age is the most appropriate time to begin to sort students according to their "professional" interests? The high school where I work now is general high school. It's graduates are typically aiming at university. There are different types of professional high schools each aimed at a particular sector of the economy whether it be manual arts like plumbing or electricity or computers or hotel management etc... In this respect, French students are faced with a number of options but at a tender age and, once their choice is made, the program of study is more or less standardized. Culturally and socially a certain "tubularization" of social classes and metiers is therefore structurally reinforced.
In American high schools there is a single diploma for everyone. There are essential two discernible orientations: college bound and non college bound. American students must choose and design their own orientation within these two large frames of reference and according to the elective offerings available in their school. American students quite routinely follow a college bound orientation without knowing if in fact that that is where they are going. Conversely, many students opt for a non college bound orientation and then, later, sometimes much later, opt back into the college system often via the community college route.
On the surface one is tempted therefore to register on the rigorous focus and the very palpable anxiety felt by French students (starting even before middle school) vis a vis their career options and to contrast that with an American adolescent who is perhaps typically undecided and uncertain and generally exploratory in his or her outlook. Rightly or wrongly the Amercan student often believes that he can decide later on.
One of the teachers asked me if the sons and daughters of doctors mixed with the sons and daughters of plumbers in American high schools. I conceded that within our high school there are social cliques but that to a great extent students from diverse backgrounds are challenged by the school environment to figure out ways to live and work together.
This same teacher pointed out that French professional high schools allowed students who demonstrated precious interests in manual arts to get an early start as an artisan and that the education they received in those professional lycees was far from a second rate education. I conceded yet another point to him insofar as a certain percentage of our non college bound students seem to experience high school, especially the last year or two as a kind of holding pattern, until they can join the real world and start making money or doing whatever it is they equate with being on their own.
The sixty-four dollar bonus question seems to be, at what age do we put high stakes career decisions before kids? What are social as well as the educational repercussions of those choices?
I went on to describe a typical day at La Grande High School first from the point of view of the teacher. I realized as I spoke to them that the reality I was conjuring for them was the one in which I would soon once again be working...
I began with the contract day - the early morning arrival, the daily ritual of clearing out the email (a phenomenon which left my French colleagues clearly shaking their heads...they seem to me to be Thoreauesque in their skepticism this particular form of technology), the daily schedule of classes, the prep period. They were much more impressed with the fact that I have my own room, my own computer and that grades are networked so efficiently. I told them that quite literally my room is my office, and that I had a key to the building and could come to my office any time of day or night. This both amazed and alarmed my colleagues. I could see them considering the pros and cons of access to the workplace versus work overtaking their lives. I told them if I didn't have my office at school I would probably need to remodel my house to have a home office. This, by the way, is exactly what the French do, they have their offices at home.
American teachers tend, therefore, to work in isolation in their own caves er...classrooms in front of their own computer monitors and, of course, their own students.
French teachers tend to congregate routinely in the teacher's room, as they await the signal to head off to wherever their next class is located. But also, French teachers tend to collaborate systematically in two ways. First each discipline designs and administers and scores a common test. Test are scored blindly, that is to say, student names are replaced by code numbers and teachers do not score their own students' work. Let me just be clear about my personal opinion: I think this is sound professional practice.
The second form of collaboration occurs at the end of each trimester when the conseils de classes are held. To see a team of teachers and administrators and student delegates come together for an hour and a half for the single expressed purpose of getting a global perspective on each individual student's progress in order to counsel that student on his or her future orientation. It is in my opinion a practice that is well worth examining.
As I went on to detail other facets of teacher responsibilities I felt an appreciation welling up inside me of how much American teachers try to do, of how busy we are, of how little time there is to do justice to what it is we want to accomplish.
A hand went up and I was asked if all these responsibilities and duties and emails and mulitple teaching assignments etc...didn't they pose the risk of diluting course content and diminishing student achievement?
Emmm....yeah, I said. That is indeed a real problem.
We are incredibly busy, incredibly busy, and in my opinion quite often incredibly distracted from authentic and meaningful learning. Teaching should be equal parts action and reflection if it is to rise to the levels people mean when use the phrase "good teaching." The problem of "busyness" isn't just burnout though that certainly does occur. In my opinion the problem is one of accommodation. The busier we get the more we are forced to make accommodations to survive...those accommodations take myriad forms and represent compromises both small and great but the net effect is, I think, corrosive to the general state of education.
The French have succeeded in institutionalizing the value of reflection insofar as they have limited classroom instruction to 18 hours per week. Rightly or wrongly, in the zero sum game of public discourse, when the subject of school reform comes up, this value seems likely to be juxtaposed with a school day that is truly onerous for the student. In other words, more help and more opportunities for kids will probably be translated to mean longer hours for teachers.
But this logic is the kind of logic that drives quality people out of the profession or discourages them from considering it in the first place. I want to be paid a decent salary, but I want even more to be allowed to practice my craft in a way that is both effective and fulfilling. It seems to me that we should try to preserve the working conditions enjoyed by French teachers (the very conditions that attract the kind of talented people we want to see teaching youngsters) at the same we try to expand and improve the opportunities for our students. (Does anyone listen to Theodore Sizer anymore?)
Another teacher asked me if I would send my own child to the school where I work. I said yes without hesitation but I wondered about the subtext of the question. A moment later, I got my answer as another teacher cited a statistic about the percentage of French teachers whose children are sent to private schools...it was significant, about 30% if I remember correctly.
Someone else asked me to explain what a school board is and does. I should have said, "Whatever it wants." but by then I was getting tired and a little slower on the uptake.
The questions that were posed to me during that second hour were all marked by a keen and curious bent. It was enormously gratifying to be grilled in such a thoughtful and earnest fashion, ...their interest was palpable and I felt a certain pride in my own profession as I saw it represented by the people in that room.
The last two questions I remember stick with me because they are examples of what I'm talking about. The first came from Hamed who asked me to offer two criticisms of the French system. I tried to demur by saying that I had perhaps already expressed at least that many. There were laughs but Hamed, himself smiling, was undeterred. "Yes but not just points. I'm taking about major criticisms." There it was, the French habit of mind, what better way to value something than by taking it apart?
I obliged him as best I could by returning to some of earlier points and enlarging upon my comments.
The second question came from Francis, the prof de philosophy who was one of the first to invite me inside his circle of friends and who has been for me an irrepressible font of knowledge all year about French culture and history as well as a keen observer of American letters and culture. "How has this year affected you personally and as a teacher?"
It was very late at that point and I don't think I did that question justice other than to state what is probably obvious...this has been an experience of a lifetime and life changing experience and not just for me but for Beth and for Tess and for little Colm. This year has been for our family what Mexico was for me and Beth just before we got married. Whereas daily life back home has the unfortunate tendency to stretch families apart, here we have cocooned ourselves in a manner of speaking. That cocooning was initially enforced by the difficulties we had breaking into social life here. By the time we made contacts we had also made ourselves very happy within our own family space. We look forward to coming home, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit to some anxieties about being pulled away from the family again. Here it has been a win win situation for us.
As for me personally, I cannot say precisely what the effects of this year will be for it seems likely that they have grafted themselves onto me almost without my noticing...that's what happens when you stay in one place for so long, the unfamiliar becomes familiar, change becomes normal.
Perhaps I'll be more mindful of the value of domestic rituals surrounding food and meal time and of civil rituals like greeting people, perhaps I'll expect more of the same mindfulness from my students, perhaps I'll appreciate even more the resources (both natural, we miss the wide open spaces, and material) we have available to us at home, perhaps I'll be inclined to be more reflective and less reactive, perhaps I'll have more empathy for all young people who worry about what their future is going to look like, and perhaps I'll relish even more the opportunity to share a wider world with them and to help them acquire one of the passports to that wider world, language.
One thing is for sure I have found another place in the world where I feel as though I can pass what the French call a bon moment. The world got smaller and cozier for me this year. I owe much of what I've gained from this experience to the fraternity that is the profession of teaching.


Anonymous cjones said...

Another home run! Keep hitting like this, and the Bosox may be calling.

7:56 AM  
Blogger kc said...

I know someone who played triple A ball for awhile who said he once got called up for what he called "a cup of coffee" in the show...I love that expression.

9:04 AM  

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