Jennifer Yee

A Visitor in the Land of the Enlightenment
Part 4: Teaching English in France

Doing an Arts degree in Australia, I was always aware that I ran the risk of becoming a secondary-school teacher if things didn't work out properly. The thought was discouraging (though obviously not enough to put me off altogether). Yet if I tried explaining that to the average French person they would think me a lunatic. Becoming a teacher is the dream of ninety percent of my students here in France, and (I suspect) of students in the humanities in general. Teachers are quite an envied class of the population. So what makes their status so different in France?

One aspect is the holidays and teaching hours. Teachers have either 18 or 15 hours a week of contact hours (depending on their status, which I'll get round to in a minute). They generally only stay in the school grounds for those hours, and are quite free to prepare their classes and do their marking (which is obviously a considerable part of the workload, but how much depends on the individual) at home. They have about 15 weeks' holiday per year. But these are not the only reasons. Perhaps the most important advantage of being a teacher, to a French person, is that of being a "fonctionnaire", a word whose prestige in France is not adequately translated by our own "civil servant". A "fonctionnaire" is guaranteed to have a job for life, and this makes an enormous difference. The most cherished dream of an extraordinary proportion of French people is to become a "fonctionnaire", in order to put their "charentaises" (traditional French slippers) on of an evening and relax in the reassuring knowledge that however little work they do they will be sure of keeping their job.

There is also a third and very important reason why teaching is a respected and therefore enviable profession in France: prestige. Here we come to the heart of the matter: the "concours". A "concours" is a state exam, and for secondary-school teaching there are two main ones, the Capes and the Agrégation. The Capes is less prestigious, and since teachers who are only "certifiés" (ie they have the Capes) are obviously less competent than those who are "agrégés" (with the Agrégation), they are given more hours of work to do and are paid less for it. Thus the famous 18 hours for certifiés and 15 for agrégés. Apart from that, they may well be the same sorts of classes, so the logic behind this distinction is already an eye-opener: the more competent you are the less work you should have to do. To pass one of these "concours" means obtaining one of a set number of "places" in each subject each year, and as there are more and more candidates who are more and more highly qualified, this has become extremely difficult.

The "concours" of the Education Nationale are the glory of French Republican tradition. Their prestige reflects the admiration the French have for education (not something we know much about in Australia), but also for democracy, since these exams are anonymous and therefore not subject to corruption. And yet as a monument to rationality they leave something to be desired... Let me tell you the story of a friend of mine -- let's call her L -- who has a Master's degree in History. She sat for the History Capes three times and, though she did manage to pass the first, written exam twice, she failed the oral. She described her last oral exam to me. Candidates prepare in a library, where they can ask for specific books during the hours of their preparation before giving their speech. Each candidate has a different topic. My friend L was asked to speak about the history of the fishing industry in Japan, a topic she knew nothing about, whereas another friend, B, had to speak about the life of Heliogabalus, something that had been dealt with in classes that year. B's exam was in the morning, so the books he asked for were all there. But since there are a lot of students, and French libraries never put books back on shelves the same day, L -- whose exam was in the afternoon -- was only able to consult an encyclopaedia. Needless to say L failed her exam and B passed his; he is now a teacher, and she is unemployed. This sort of absurdity is common.  Yet there can of course be no accusation of corruption, as L's subject and the time of her exam were chosen anonymously. No, this is nothing to do with favoritism; it is what could vulgarly be described as an "attitude problem" -- my problem, since it makes me grind my teeth, not that of the French National Education, which seems to be carrying on surprisingly well -- and of course a financial problem: for L.

(Should I add, in parentheses, that the "concours" to be a primary school teacher includes a mark based on an athletics competition?)

My own encounter with the "concours" phenomenon came earlier, a few years ago. The Capes is not very highly considered in the university system, but the Agrégation is the nec plus ultra for all the humanities subjects, as I know to my cost...
I had been teaching English at the University of T. for two years, and I wanted to find out whether it might be possible to stay on permanently. I spoke to one of the Professors, Mme F, and said that I had nearly finished a PhD in French literature, but had an honours degree in English literature, and asked whether I would need to do a second PhD (I was actually contemplating asking her to be my supervisor!) or whether a few publications would be enough. She said that without the Agrégation I would get a job as lecturer over her dead body... Once I got over the shock of this, I sent my CV to the head of department, asking his advice on the subject. He very kindly granted me an interview, and politely had my CV on his desk as he spoke to me. (At the top of my CV, I should perhaps mention, it says "Australian citizen" and, in case anyone might be led astray by the shape of my eyes, "Born in Australia"). I asked Monsieur B what I should do, pointing out that it was difficult for me to do the Agrégation since it was only for European citizens. He said -- in French, but I could quote the exact words to you even two years down the track -- "Without the Agrégation, we cannot be sure that you master the English language".

When I had picked my jaw up off the floor, I left his office in a daze. It occurred to me that I probably did not master the English language since -- even apart from my increasing problems with franglais -- arguably no one did. I had a brief but charming vision of English as a wild horse from a kitsch illustration, rearing and tossing its mane to show that it was "unmastered", which almost reconciled me to my fate until it occurred to me that Monsieur B and Madame F, who I had never heard speaking English, did have the Agrégation and therefore, presumably, mastered the language. My wild horse theory was shattered, and for a while I wondered earnestly about the intellectual capacities of B and F: perhaps there was something seriously wrong with them? But eventually the real explanation hit me: B and F were not the ones from Mars, I was. I had landed there from another planet and my thought processes didn't work along the same lines; I had imagined that fitting in was just a matter of getting the accent right, but in fact I was confronted with a whole alien system to which I would never be able to adapt my brain.

This is the sort of thing I like to remind myself of when I have twinges of regret at the thought that I will soon be leaving this country.

Jennifer Yee