Observations, Thoughts & Impressions on French schools

I have now spent about 3 weeks at Ecole Concorde, observing, assisting, teaching, etc. Here are a few of my initial reactions to French schools (or at least my somewhat unique elementary school).

  • The kids learn cursive right off the bat — even at the stage they specifically pointed out, “Yes, in France we use connected handwriting” as in, the entire country. This was actually something I noticed before, that the French collectively have a very particular way of writing that struck me as being “different.” Now, I have observed the naissance of this phenomenon!! The CP students (first grade equivalent) have handwriting lessons, and already have begun writing in cursive. Incredible. In the US, I never experienced an emphasis on handwriting, and certainly not cursive. I was required to write in cursive I think in the 2nd or 3rd grade, but that was more or less the extent — and mind you that was some 13 years ago as well!
  • The kids seem to be very well-behaved overall, but the teachers take absolutely NO shit. French school discipline is terrifying. A child will be talking or making a bit of noise or moving really slowly, but otherwise not causing a disturbance, and the teacher will SHOUT in their faces. It’s just one of those cultural differences I think I will never really understand. I’m trying not to judge either, but I don’t think it is possible for me to be like that. “I am not happy with you!” “This is terrible work, do it again!” (while erasing the page) “You are a pain!” are all heard on a daily basis, with even the slightest provocation.
  • France is a school supply lover’s paradise! Everyone has a different color notebook or folder for each subject and they cut out, glue in, color code everything. Every child has at least two trousses, or pencil cases, which hold their pens, pencils, colored pencils, ruler, glue stick, scissors, erasers and more. Plus, notebooks or binders can sometimes follow students year to year. For example, at the stage we were shown English cahiers that had been with the students for 2 or 3 years of English classes, and so had all the worksheets, exercises, etc glued in year after year. A fantastic tool for measuring progress and sequencing, as well as being a great resource for the students later, I imagine!
  • In general, things seem slightly more oriented towards “getting it right” than developing individual creativity. They have to follow the instructions to a T, often right down to the genre of writing utensil (pencil, pen, colored pencil, markers…). It MUST be the right one. I have done two art activities with two different classes, and both times I noticed this tendency. First, in my CE1 class we made hand turkeys! The kids did a wonderful job, but every five minutes during the activity I was inundated with questions like, “Are we allowed to use markers?” “Are we allowed to draw on the feathers?” “Am I allowed to draw a farm next to the turkey?” Sure, Definitely, Absolutely! Later, in GS we were coloring a Thanksgiving coloring page, and the teacher asked me to do a model, so that everyone would use the correct colors. One boy chose to color his pilgrims green….and he was asked to start a new one. And throughout the 10 minutes we colored, I fielded a surprising amount of complaints like, “Waël colored the hat brown. Isn’t it supposed to be black?” At least they are looking out for each other?


  • The teachers are all called Maître or Maîtresse – that’s it. No last name. If one teacher refers to another, they’ll use the first name: What game did you play with Maîtresse Aurélie? As a result, in their English classes this is translated as “Teacher.” Only the Canadian teacher has asked to be called Mr. Gangé. Every single other teacher is Teacher or Maîtresse. Most of the kids call me Anne, though I occasionally get maîtresse from the younger ones.
  • The teachers are in charge of EVERYTHING. The only special teacher is Clément the music teacher. Other than him, the classroom teachers are in charge of doing the regular school subjects, art projects, and PE. I’m not sure how consistent this is in a larger school, because it should be noted that Concorde is very small.
  • The school day is split into two main periods: morning and afternoon. These are interrupted in the middle with a 2 hour and 15 minute lunch break, in which several students go home to eat with their parents. Both the morning and afternoon period also have a 15 minute recess built into them. And classes go outside for these recess breaks no matter what, as I learned this week when we went outside regardless of the pouring rain. There are two schoolyards: one for the upper grades and the other for the lower grades and maternelle. Both have a section that is covered, so there’s no indoor recess necessary!
  • Wednesday and Friday as also both half days. This is apparently new. Before the recent readjustment of the rhythmes scolaires, schools were off completely on Wednesdays. This seems like significantly less in-class time than the US! But I suppose it evens out eventually, because French high school students are supposedly some of the hardest worked in the world.

Fellow assistants, what else have you noticed? How much of this stuff carries over into middle and high schools as well?  ✽

6 thoughts on “Observations, Thoughts & Impressions on French schools

  1. Anne, you are on point on each bullet. I too don’t think I could get use to the constant verbal discipline that goes on daily. I work mostly at the lycée but everything is about the same more or less. 🙂


    1. Thanks, Krystal! I think what bothers me the most is the lack of mutual respect between students and teachers. This, admittedly isn’t very evident at the primary level, but some of the behavior my friends in lycées have told me about is concerning!!
      On the other hand, I totally respect French students for their impeccable organization skills!


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