What I’m Learning About Schooling as an American Parent in France
1. Don’t expect to be coddled or cuddled.
French teachers have one goal in mind at the beginning of the year: to teach their students a fixed curriculum that is pre-established and approved by the administration. There is little fluff in the French curriculum that is not purely academic. Especially at a younger level, children are not consistently praised for their efforts or small successes in order to build confidence. I’ve come to ignore the lack of stickers, stars, and “great job” marked in the kids’ notebooks. In France, the style of teaching and learning emphasizes academic excellence, discipline, and diligence.
2. No open door policy
French schools usually have gates and once the bell rings in the morning, students are no longer allowed in. Except for the youngest students in maternelle (ages 3-5), parents are not allowed through the gates even at drop-off unless there is a specific reason to speak to a teacher, and usually, this is pre-approved. Communications with the teachers are done through a cahier de correspondence, or a notebook where school updates, meetings, and messages to the teacher are written down.
3. Sitting still
French school kids are expected to sit still and behave in class, even at the youngest age. They are rewarded with recess time three times a day — two shorter breaks, and one long recess after lunch. The playground is usually a zoo with kids running around, laughing, shouting, and getting rid of all the pent-up energy stored from sitting still for so long. As an American parent, better to stay away from the school gates and ignore recess, much less supervised than in the US, and often a Darwinian struggle for survival.
4. A brainiac not popularity contest
French children look up to the smart, academic students in the class, and strive to be like them. Popularity contests based on looks, social status, and clothing brands are less common. Elementary students have a way of knowing who the best students in the class are: they often compare notes amongst each other outside of class and know exactly where each other stands in class rankings.
5. Handwriting is not a lost art.
Take any fourth grader in France and watch him or her write out a sentence while you try to contain your admiration! The French put high importance on cursive writing (they don’t learn anything other than cursive), even grading it and making it a huge priority in the early elementary years. It is an important part of all their classes and school work, much of which is still handwritten.
6. Independence is a virtue.
Elementary students often walk or bike to school on their own (from 4th grade onwards in general), or with a parent if they are younger. Independence is taught early on in France so that by middle school students need much less of their parents for carpooling or other practical matters.
7. Five star lunches
There is nothing but sheer admiration for the French for emphasizing proper nutrition amongst all school children, but in particular in the elementary years. Every day they sit down to a hot meal, oftentimes made freshly on the premises. Varied and balanced menus are pre-approved by a nutritionist, and the children are given 30 minutes to eat (sitting down at a properly-set table), before going outside to play for an hour. The French believe that proper eating habits, proper nutrition, and teaching children how to eat many different kinds of foods is essential to their upbringing. It is not optional in France. Food is an important part of the culture, and local governments and public schools walk the walk with an amazing lunchtime menu.
Although it is tough to swallow, the 8 (yes 8!) weeks of vacation French children have before summer vacation starts (usually another 7 to 8 weeks!) are usually a big relief for the students who have long days (8:30 AM to 4:30 PM) and weeks of academic rigor; they welcome the opportunity to relax their brains. The French expect a lot from their students, but in turn, they are rewarded with periods to relax, unwind, and forget about academics regularly.