The Biggest Differences Between Teaching In France and Teaching in the USA

I started college in 2008– in the peak of the economic recession, and just two years before Scott Walker would be elected as Governor of Wisconsin and proceed to reform teachers’ unions.

Throughout my college career, the subject of teaching was politically charged. Each semester I was faced with comments and “advice” from professors, academic advisors, and fellow teachers about the hardships of teaching– I shouldn’t be studying to become a French teacher because there wouldn’t be any jobs (false); I shouldn’t go into teaching because job stability is scarce and the politics are worse; it’s a good idea to get an ESL certification because that’s the only way I’ll ever manage to land a job. Okay.

In a way, I was lucky that I entered the field of teaching when I did– I didn’t know what I was missing out on; I didn’t know any difference. Today’s current reality for teachers has always been my only reality, whatever that may mean. I’ve taken it with a grain of salt.

I completed my student teaching from August – December 2012, and then taught ESL and summer school, as well as substitute taught briefly in Wisconsin public schools from January-July 2013, before leaving for France that September.

Four years later, after one year as a teaching assistant with the TAPIF program and two years of working as a lectrice, I have finally just finished my first year as a full-time secondary English teacher in France. Looking back, I can’t help but compare and contrast my home state and my adopted country, in regards to their individual approaches to my chosen profession. Below, I’ve created an updated pro-con, or compare and contrast list, in regards to what I find is better, worse, or equal (but different) between being a teacher in Wisconsin vs at a private school in France.

  1. Autonomy with Teaching and Curriculum-

France wins this hands-down. When I speak with my mom or other teacher friends at home, I am so, so grateful for the autonomy I have as a teacher here at my school in France, in regards to lesson planning, curriculum development, and overall trust among teachers, department heads, and administration.

This year, I was given a lot of preps (7!). Thankfully, I worked in parallel with fellow colleagues for a few classes, so only had to start from absolute scratch for two different preps. On the one hand, having synced / expected learning targets / standards for my classes to hit for each trimester would have helped to give me a sense of direction. On the other hand, I feel like the Common Core, which was just being implemented in the US as I was leaving, is a bit overkill– not to mention stressful. For example, every time I downloaded something from Teachers Pay Teachers, I would see the long list of standards and targets alongside a simple lesson plan and get super stressed out. Needless to say, I appreciate having the ability to adjust my learning targets according to my specific students and their specific needs, instead of moulding them all to fit the CC expectations. Not to mention, with the amount of prep work I had to do, I really and truly do not know if I would have survived had I had to submit daily or weekly lesson plans to my department head or administrator, as I know many teachers in Wisconsin now have to do (we do give a yearly overview, however). I find that when I have more autonomy, I do a better job. I also feel like in return, there is more mutual trust and respect.

This upcoming school year, our school and our department are implementing both learning standards and targets for all of our classes in the middle school in both Paris and Lille. I feel like this is a great compromise and a happy medium.

2. Time Tables / Schedules:

This works so very differently in both countries. In the USA, as a teacher you are required to be at school from x time to x time each day (ie: 7:30-3:30, Monday-Friday). This includes prep time in the morning, preps during the day, as well as lunch / supervision duties.

In France, on the other hand, secondary teachers are only required to be at school when they are actually teaching. Secondary teachers in France are considered full time if they teach 18 hours per week (not just physically being at school, but actually teaching in front of a class. For the record, I taught 23 hours this year, so I worked a lot of overtime. If you do the math, it works out somewhat evenly in comparison to US and French teachers being in front of students. Simply put, in France, when you are not teaching, you are not required to be at school– planning, grading, and research is done at home. However, I think this idea also comes from the fact that teachers in France do not have their own classrooms. We go wherever our time tables tell us, and otherwise we all have a communal working space in the Salle des Profs (Teacher’s Lounge.) My school’s teacher’s lounge specifically has two rooms: a large one with six large tables for each department, nine communal computers, a photocopier, a mini fridge, a coffee machine, and small lockers for each individual teacher, as well as a smaller room with couches for relaxing (plus, a kettle for tea, as half of our staff is British).

Having such a time table has been an adjustment for me, because while I taught 23 hours per week, I was at school almost all day, every day due to the large gaps in my time table (for example, I taught from 8:25-11:00 AM and then 12:00-13:40 and then 15:25-16:10), which made almost a full school day. During this time, I have to either do my prep in the teacher’s lounge, an empty classroom, or in the coffee shop down the street. On Tuesdays and Fridays, I didn’t start until 10:15 am, which was honestly a lifesaver. However, I also taught until 5 PM on Fridays, which can also happen (and that was awful for both myself and the students.)

All in all, I prefer the French system of time tables.

3. Lunch

In the United States, in general, you are considered a good worker if you work through your lunch. (Because God forbid you take a break.) I do believe this mentality is slowly starting to change. In Wisconsin, I usually had about 30-40 minutes for lunch. We come from a culture where it is pretty normal to gobble your food down and eat quickly. I often ate in front of my computer. It is also common for teachers in the USA to be forced to have lunch duty during their lunch times, or to have students in their classroom during their lunch times.

In France, I have between 45-60 minutes for lunch. And during that time, I eat lunch and do nothing else. More often than not I eat at the cafeteria, because as staff our meals are subsidized, and I’ve been able to save a lot of money on groceries.

Overall, I prefer the French way.

4. Vacations

In the United States, public schools have 4 days of holidays in November for Thanksgiving, 1.5 weeks for Christmas and New Years, 1 week for Easter / Spring break, and then almost 3 months for summer break. There are a few random bank holidays thrown in there as well (Memorial Day, Labor Day, MLK Jr. Day, etc.)

In France, we have two weeks in October, two weeks at Christmas, two weeks in February, two weeks in April / May, and then 1.5 months in the summer.

Although my last day of work this year was July 7th, I much prefer having more breaks during the year, especially as a first year teacher. It gives me time to catch my breath and revamp.

5. Politics / Political Correctness

Sometimes I find it funny that it’s many times the conservatives who complain about today’s “Political Correctness.” However, it often feels like school districts also cater to those same kinds of people and complaints, in regards to the literature we teach and the subjects we study (*cough* abstinence-only sex ed *cough*. ) Overall, I am given a lot more leeway in regards to the books and topics I want to teach and talk about in France. I got permission to teach The Perks of Being a Wallflower this next year. However, this book is banned across many high schools for its content. (For reference, I looked up a few school districts who had banned this book some of reasons included LGBT teens, teen sex, partying / drug use, and masturbation. However, the most shocking thing this book contains is a date rape scene, but it was described as ‘sex‘ by this school district– not ‘violence’. I find that disturbing.) I also did an entire unit on the US Presidential Elections, where I completed a series of lessons comparing Donald Trump to Animal Farm’s Napoleon, using direct quotes and references from both politicians. Something tells me none of this would fly in an American public school. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing. I did enjoy being able to speak more openly about various world issues, especially current refugee crisis.

6. Alcohol

Can I just be frank when I express my appreciation for France’s lax attitude regarding alcohol? Graduation ceremony– free champagne. Start of the year party– free champagne. End of the year barbecue– free champagne. Lunch breaks– go ahead and have a glass of wine. Perhaps this is because wine is such an essential part of French culture, perhaps it’s because the drinking age starts at 16 for beer and wine and 18 for liquor, or perhaps it’s just that the United States just needs to relax.

7. Transportation

I am torn on transportation. The United States provides the iconic yellow school buses (which are a bit of an anomaly to the rest of the world). These buses are free and provide students with a way to get to and from school safely and conveniently. In France, most students arrive via public transportation, or they stay in the boarding house during the week because they live too far away to do a daily commute. However, the US has terrible public transport– perhaps if we were a bit better connected (and less spread out) we wouldn’t need yellow buses. On the contrary, students in France do not drive (the driving age is 18) although many arrive via bike or moped.

8. Extra Curricular Activities

This is where the United States trumps France. Extra curricular activities are what makes American high schools what they are, whether it be sports, theatre, music, art, or clubs. Additionally, spirit weeks, pep rallies, football games, and volunteer opportunities are what makes high school so exciting. These aspects are such a fantastic part of American culture and the high school experience. There are so many ways and options for students to get involved, try new things, and learn new skills in American high schools. Because of my involvement in gymnastics, diving, marching band, and student council, I developed a lot of time management skills, independence, and confidence.

Here in France, most extra curricular activities are done outside of school, and are not done to the same extent. However, because our school is international with the IB program, there are more ways to get involved than a typical French public school (volunteering, a few sports activities for the boarding house, student council, etc.)

9. Smoking

French teens smoke. Lots and lots of them. It’s super annoying and extremely gross. I hate walking through a cloud of teenage cigarette smoke (teens as young as 13 or 14) on my way to the building. Most foreign teachers are repulsed; most French staff / students see no problem with it. Staff are also allowed to smoke just outside the walls. This is just something I will never come to accept or understand about France. (On another note, French kids can simply see the nurse if they need condoms. No shame in something as normal as sex.)

10. Lack of Services for Special Needs Students

I know I will get a lot of backlash for this one, but France is seriously lacking in gerneal teacher training and push-in inclusion when it comes to special education or FLE (French as a Foreign Language) students. I’ve spoken about this before. Unless the student has been tested and has a special “okay”, you cannot really make official adjustments for him / her. It’s hard to accommodate because you can clearly see that there is something wrong, but there is no IEP-equivalent or follow up. Additionally, there are usually no special education or ESL / FLE teachers at the school to help classroom teachers accommodate to these students’ needs, so, when a typical classroom teacher has literally had no training on how to help this student with special needs, and there is no special ed teacher at the school, the student simply falls further and further behind. (My school has FLE classes to help anglophones catch up, but that’s a luxury for a private school where parents pay.) Many times, students with special needs will go to separate schools, even when it would usually be unnecessary.

11. Secularism / No Pledge of Allegiance

According to the law of la laïcité, you are not allowed to wear religious symbols or express religious beliefs or thoughts in schools in France. Despite this policy’s flaws, and although I still have some issues with the biases of some religions over others, overall, I get it.

Finally, have you ever realized how screwed up it is that we as a nation stand each day and “Salute our flag”? I literally never realized how bizarre this was until it was pointed out to me by my foreign friends. It’s very cult-like… much like you’d see in countries such as say, North Korea? And why do we say, “One Nation, Under God”? (See religious reference above.)

12. Career / College Paths

Although this is a bit of a generalization, in France, students have to start thinking about their path and their career when they are about 15 (in tenth grade.) At the end of their sophomore academic year, they decide which Bacalaurréat exam they will prepare for, as well as which série or “stream” which also determines what subjects they will specialize in (S, ES, or L), and therefore what kinds of fields of study they will be most prepared for at university. I used to be quite critical of this until I understood a bit more about it. Now, I’m torn and I see both sides. I really love the United States’ general approach to education and learning, especially at the university level. I find it admirable that people can change careers or start over at any stage. I feel like American culture encourages this and sees nothing wrong (despite the fact that we still have variations of the American Dream.) France, on the other hand, forces people to choose sooner– I know how much growing and changing young people do during this time, and how little life experience they have. It can be difficult to have to choose something so specific at such a young age when you have so much left to learn about the world, especially under the pressure of parents and society to do one stream (S) over another (ES or L), for example.

Anyways, there you have it– my list of the biggest comparisons and contrasts about teaching in France as a full time teacher versus teaching in the US. As time goes on and I see the very real effects of administrative control over individual schools, I wonder if I will ever be able to adjust to teaching back in Wisconsin. I guess only time will tell.



12 thoughts on “The Biggest Differences Between Teaching In France and Teaching in the USA

  1. I loved reading this! I always struggle to give my perspective when people ask me about American schools, partially because I never taught here and partially because education seems to vary so much between states and even counties in the U.S. I also didn’t have the “typical” high school experience, so I can’t really speak to what’s normal here.

    P.S. A couple weeks ago at work, someone said something about not being able to order a cocktail at a lunch because their boss would be there, and the French coworker was like …why? What’s the problem? Haha.

  2. When I did TAPIF, my good-bye lunch (at school, in the English teachers’ lounge) included Polish vodka, since one of the teachers had just chaperoned a trip to Poland. I did like the laxity surrounding alcohol.

    I also hated all the teenage smoking. I hated smelling it, but I also worried about the kids themselves.

    1. I cannot believe how much more I drink now. I feel like a character from Mad Men.

      SOO agree with you about kids smoking! I had a conversation with some of my students to really try to understand why they do it, and most say it’s for stress… so odd. 😦 Wish it wasn’t such a “cool” thing to do! Xx

  3. Like you, I’m also really unsure if I’d be able to go back to working in an American school…. Especially elementary school teachers in the US seem to be really overworked and unfairly judged (especially by parents!!!). My mom has a 30 minute duty-free lunch, and has an hour free while her class is in specials (PE/Art/Spanish/etc), but two or three times a week, she has to meet with her team to plan during that hour…. Even working as a substitute that didn’t have to plan or do any marking, that non-stop schedule was grueling day after day. I have some issues with the French school system in general (at least as I’ve experienced it) but I definitely think the culture is much more respectful of teachers.

    1. I know, it’s crazy. We no longer have collective bargaining in Wisconsin so districts have a lot more individual control–/ can be a good or bad thing.

      I agree that there is more respect for teachers here in France- although we still get hose offhanded comments about how much vacation we get.

      1. Virginia’s always been a non-union state, so I don’t even know how they work really… 😐 hahah I wonder if /every/ country has a version of the too much vacation complaint !!

  4. My only experience teaching in France is from TAPIF. I did a lesson on American schools and my students were really amazed and even jealous of all the extra stuff we get to do in American high schools. one of my students even said after the lesson, “thanks for showing us how much cooler american schools are than french ones. now i’m depressed…” she was joking of course, but, idk i think she is a little right in some ways. It seems that all French students do is go to school all day and come home and do homework at night. there doesnt seem to be any….fun or school spirit within the school. the things i remember most about my high school were the extra curricular activities and events…pep rallies, football games, spirit week, prom, senior week…stuff like that. my students were impressed that we had school colors, an alma mater, a mascot, and friendly competitions within grades (my high school had a junior-senior egg fight every year lol) i think it’s a shame that french kids don’t get to experience things like this in school. school doesnt have to allll be about learning and work, i think. but they definitely got us when it comes to lunch time!

    1. Ha, yeah the high school experience is such a large part of American culture; I miss it!! I agree their days are ridiculously long- perhaps that’s why many turn to smoking??

  5. Thanks for this interesting read, Dana! I’m not a teacher (no experience beyond TAPIF really) but enjoyed reading about the differences. I love that the French take a real lunch in most cases and are more lax on alcohol!

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