It’s La Rentrée here in France and our three children have skipped off to Cinquième (year 8) and CM1 (year 5) with a spring in their steps.
Long may it last.
Bon courage to all of you school teachers out there, I really don’t know how you do it.
This year, I had my initiation into the life of a French Lycée teacher…
…and I am still recovering!
Here’s the backstory.
January 6th, 2022 – I’m recruited as teacher cannon fodder to be sent over the top.
I know, I haven’t even got a PGCE or French equivalent (CAPES) but, apparently, it doesn’t matter.
Just before Christmas, someone suggested that I send my CV by snail mail to the head of a nearby school, so I did.
Early January, I was inundated with missed calls and messages from both the school and the local authority telling me to get in touch.
When I eventually got through to someone, I was told that they had received my CV and they needed me to start tomorrow. I was desperately trying to remember which job I had actually applied for as I’d sent quite a few applications at the same time: campsite receptionist; sales assistant in a vineyard; dog walker; life model etc…but I drew a complete blank and had to politely interrupt with an embarrassed,
‘…erm, sorry, what job is it again?’
Much to my surprise it was in a Lycée working with 16-18 year olds. At this point, I’m thinking, ‘Oh great, an assistant role, whoopee, what fun!’
I got my pen and paper at the ready to take down the details as they were read out:
18 hours per week
Class sizes of 37
Salary 1,976 euros per month
Lesson times 8am – 18pm
Me: ‘Ok, I’m interested. So when can I meet the teacher?’
‘Madame, you ARE the teacher! The teacher you are replacing has been sick for two years. These students have not had a teacher since November. You will teach them. We need you to start… NOW!’
Me: ‘…erm, Madame, but I’m not a teacher. You have my CV, you can see I have never taught in a school in England nor in France. I think there’s been a misunderstanding. Yes, I did work at Rugby School, the UK’s finest Independent School (questionable) with the most impressive school fees (guaranteed), but I was a theatre manager, NOT a teacher.’
‘Madame, you are English, yes? So you can teach them.’
Me: ‘But madam, are you sure this is not against the law? You do understand that I have no experience, I have never taught in a school before and I have no qualifications?’
‘Yes, that is fine. Can you start tomorrow?’
It’s 6.30am. The bus wheezes to a stop outside the town hall. The bowels open and the carcass is filled with suitcases. A handful of teenagers stagger aboard.
‘Jean Moulin?’ I ask.
’Oui,’ replies the driver.
We bounce along the narrow roads, through vineyards and villages, playing chicken with any traffic that comes our way.
Kylie Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky plays full blast on Radio Nostalgie.
And I’m convinced it’s a sign. I AM so lucky.
It’s my first day as an English Teacher at Jean Moulin, Béziers, one of the largest Lycées in France with, I later discover, the country’s highest teacher suicide rate.
And so my Covid Adventure continues, this time on the hallowed ground of a French Lycée.
It’s two years since I was sacked from Rugby School via Microsoft Teams and six months since the Chinese Government made teaching online illegal. So, I’ve had time to fine-tune my adaptation skills. And, of course, if you have a family of five to feed, there’s not much you won’t try in exchange for a baguette.
The bus veers off the main road and enters what looks like something out of La Haine, billowing laundry masking a sea of high-rise flats. I pass a primary school, then a collège and then spot the immense lycée round the corner. Gangs of teenagers are hanging about outside on mopeds. It’s 8.30am and they are already on the coffee and Gauloise.
I gingerly walk past and see the sign ‘Acceuil’ (welcome) on a porta-cabin outside the security gates. I explain who I am and I’m given a map of the site, then I’m buzzed through security and enter the school grounds.
Teenagers are milling about and heading to different buildings. I pass a state of the art technology building and I follow my map to Building 3. Building 3 is a 1960’s monstrosity with soulless paint-peeling walls, endless corridors with no windows in sight – think The Shining meets Chernobyl – and find the room on the map.
I spend the day flitting between different classrooms observing teachers. There was a lesson on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet and – my favourite of all – The Troubles in Northern Ireland. When you’ve spent 20 years travelling back and forth from the UK to Belfast – brought to a dramatic end by Covid – it’s pretty surreal seeing pictures of your second hometown being projected onto a school board in the heart of the South of France.
At lunch, I get to hang out with the English teachers and finally have the chance to go through my list of questions.
‘Right, so, where do I find the text books with the syllabus and when are the exams? And I guess the ‘Terminale’ (Upper Sixth) will have an oral pretty soon given that it’s their last year? And if I could have copies of past papers, that would be fab too?’
To my surprise, I discover that exam preparation is not necessary and that I can basically teach what I want within the broad range of topics specified.
At the end of the day, drained and still confused, I head to the office labelled ‘Gestion Ressources’ (HR), as instructed. I am greeted by a delightful woman who has been waiting for my arrival. She hands me a freshly printed contract as thick as the Thompson Local, and indicates where I should sign. And so, out of sheer bewilderment, I do just that…
But, of course, nothing bureaucratic in France is quite that simple. The contract involves proof of address, marriage certificate and even children’s birth certificates. I’ve got accustomed to this but still ask ‘why?’, nonetheless.
‘Madame, you have children, yes?’
‘Yes,’ I reply. ‘I have three…but why do I have to give their names and birth certificates?’
‘Madame, when you are a teacher, you are a fonctionnaire (civil servant). If you have one child you get 60 euros extra, two children 120 euros, three children 180 euros…’
‘Wow, that’s amazing,’ I add. ‘And is that at the beginning or end of the year?’
‘Madame, it is paid every month!’
By the time I leave the school, it’s dark. The adolescents on mopeds are racing up and down the boulevard – clearly helmets are for losers – and the only business in sight, a make shift snack bar, is pumping out hip-hop full-pelt and has moved on from serving lunchtime kebabs to lager. Gauloises, of course, are always on the menu.
Over the weekend, I make a few phone calls to teacher friends and watch a few Youtube clips in preparation for Week One.
On Monday, I give Mr Benn a run for his money, step into the fancy dress shop, and leave through the magic door at the back of the changing room into the life of a Lycée teacher.
I mean, how hard can it actually be?