Day in the Life of an American English teacher in France

8:30AM – Morning Classes

Classes at my school can start as early 8:00AM, but since I am about as far from a morning person as there could be, I asked my school to kindly not give me any classes before 9am. Luckily for me, they granted my wish ! So, I usually roll up to the school and park my bike around 8:30 or 9:30, depending on the day. 

One big difference between French and American schools is that if you’re not teaching at a given hour, you aren’t required to be in the building. Whereas America teachers typically have meetings and planning scheduled into their day, and are expected to be there every day from the first bell until the last, their French counterparts are free to come and go throughout the day. While there are the occasional after school meetings, it’s rare to have obligations outside of class hours.

Each class block lasts 55 minutes, and certains classes have have a double block. Another quirk of French timetables is that they aren’t organized on a fixed Period or Block schedule system. There’s no notion of M/W/F or T/Th classes either. French students stay with their homeroom class for all subjects. The class schedule is the same every week, but differs day to day. A class could have English, French, PE, and Biology on Monday; Latin, Spanish, Math, and French on Tuesday;  Physics, Econ, English and Spanish on Wednesday and so on. 

Here’s an example of my teaching schedule from 2021. I taught 2 classes of 5ème (7th grade), 2 classes of 2de (10th grade), one class of 1ère (11th grade), and one class of 1ère spécialité (11th grade advanced elective English). As you can see, I didn’t have any classes on Tuesday : this meant I had the day off to do as I pleased if I wanted ! It also meant I had some extremely long days with 6 or 7 hours of classes per day. 

This year my teaching schedule is slightly more balanced : I teach every day, but I only have 3-5 hours of class per day. This year I teach three different levels : 3 classes of 6e (6th grade), 2 groups of Terminales (High School seniors), and the same 1e spécialité.

And here is an example of a student schedule for a typical 6ème class (6th grade) at my school. Typically, French Elementary schools and Middle schools almost always have early-release Wednesdays, or even all of Wednesday off, whereas high schoolers might not, and some intense high schools can even have classes Saturday mornings !

What always strikes me is how many different subjects French students take compared to their American counterparts. If they add in 1 or 2 optional electives (options), students can upwards of 12 different subjects. With some of them meeting just 1-2 hours per week, it must all be rather difficult to keep up with !

In English, students have 4 hours/week in 6e (6th grade), 3 hours in 5e, 4e, and 3e (7th-9th grade), and 2.5 or 3 hours/week in high school.

9:50 AM – Recess

After 55 minutes of class, the bell rings, I gather up my things, and I make my way to the Staff Room for morning recess, which lasts 20 minutes. I usually spend this time prepping my photocopies for the rest of the morning, or else chatting with colleagues. The coffee machine is usually in high demand — luckily, I prefer tea 😉

10:10 AM – Morning Classes part 2

The bell rings and once again, I grab what I need from my cubby and head off to the next classroom. In many schools in France, teachers don’t have fixed classrooms, though this differs depending on the school and their ressources. Where I currently work, the students stay in the same classroom all day while the teachers rotate in and out. I once worked in a school where no one had a fixed room; teachers AND students rotated every hour. This led to ridiculous things like seeing the same class in three different classrooms throughout the week, thus three different seating charts and three chances to forget what day it is and get lost 😂.

Without launching into a long diatribe, I am not a fan of being a “travelling” teacher and I dream desperately of the day when I have my own classroom and can really take ownership of the space, organize my classroom they way I want, have access to all my materials without having to lug them around in my backpack… Maybe one day….

11:05 AM – Lunch Break

With a few exceptions, 11 o’clock is often the start of my lunch break this year, although some days I have class until 12pm. I very rarely eat lunch in the school cafeteria, preferring to bring lunch from home. Unlike in American schools, French students aren’t allowed to bring their own packed lunch. For hygiene/safety reasons, if someone is eating in the cafeteria, they must eat cafeteria food ! Otherwise they go home (or in the case of a lot of high schoolers, they go out) during their lunch break, which usually lasts at least an hour.

Most of the time I take my own packed lunch to the little English office on the 2nd floor. I share a desk there where I keep my books, most of my materials, and a steady supply of tea and honey ! It’s a great place to work and catch up / rant / brainstorm with colleagues. The co-worker I see the most often there is a wonderful Australian teacher who’s been at the school for a dozen years. She’s the perfect person to bounce ideas off of or blow off steam with after a difficult class.

Unlike my counterparts in the states, I’m not required to do any particular lunch or recess duty during this time. Any clubs, activities, or meetings that might take place during the lunch hour are strictly on a volunteer basis only.

1:30 PM – Afternoon classes

On most days, the 1:30 bell signals the end of the lunch break for me, so I go down to the school courtyard to take my class upstairs. My school has 4 stories : on the ground floor is admin and the cafeteria. The middle school occupies the first two floors, while the high school classrooms and the science and computer labs are on the top two floors, along with the Art and Music rooms. The gym is in a detached building behind the school, and the library is on the second floor.

As you definitely know if you’ve spent more than 3 seconds on my blog, I teach English as a foreign language to beginner and intermediate students. The French National Education curriculum for foreign languages is fairly broad – rather than prescribe certain grammar points or cultural aspects to  study at each grade level, they give overall benchmarks based on the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) which describes language proficiency in 6 levels from A1 to C2. It’s more or less the European equivalent of the ACTFL, if you’re familiar with Foreign Language teaching in the US.

As long as the CEFR benchmarks are met (A1 at the end of 6e, A2 at the end of 3e, B1 at the end of 2de, and B2 at the end of high school), teachers have full freedom aver what and how they teach. The school curriculum does also advise a task-based approach with teaching of culture at the forefront, rather than pure grammar lessons. 

Because my school is a combined middle and high school, I get to work in both, and it’s honestly something I really enjoy ! I love the energy and enthusiasm of the younger students, but also have fun digging into juicier subjects with the high schoolers. In middle school I’ve taught units on British and American schools, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Saint Patrick’s Day, Pirates, Dragons, and the Notting Hill Carnival. In high school I’ve delved into subjects like haunted castles in Great Britain, the contrasts of the White House as a public place and private residence, Superhero comics as propaganda, the ethics of Artificial Intelligence, the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Windrush Generation, and the controversy over Australia Day. I love that the English-speaking world is full of so many rich and interesting stories, which allow me to learn alongside my students !

6:15 PM End of classes

Oof, two days a week I have class until the very last possible moment… 6:15 PM !!! Imagine being a teenager in class from 8AM to 6PM !!!! Depending on their schedule, they usually have breaks during the day where they can at least leave the campus, but regardless, that is a LONG day ! Needless to say, it’s not always easy to get students focused so late in the afternoon, so I try to keep activities as engaging and interactive as possible.

As you can probably guess, after-school activities aren’t a big thing in French schools. My school has a middle school basketball team that practices Wednesday afternoons, and there are sometimes small clubs or activities organized by teachers during the lunch break, but extra-curriculars are quite limited and the majority are organized outside of school. No theatre club, student government, or cheerleading squad. The focus is very much on academics. Little weekend jobs for teenagers are also pretty much non-existant.

For teachers, this means that we also aren’t solicited to run after-school clubs ! As mentioned before, there are really very few responsibilities we are expected to participate in outside of class hours. The only mandatory engagements are “journées pédagogiques” “conseils de classe” parent-teacher meetings, and invigilating or grading official exams.

The latter two responsibilities are pretty self-explanatory : parent-teacher conferences usually take place once or twice throughout the year in the evening. Parents or teachers can also request additional meetings outside of this official conference time if needed, but it is most often the class’s homeroom teacher that handles these. Journées pédagogiques are staff inservice days that can be a full or half day. Every school is free to plan as many or as few of these days as they wish and according to their needs. My school usually averages around 5 per year.

Conseils de classe are a very unique and French concept with no direct equivalent to the American school system. At the end of each trimester, the teachers of every subject hold a formal meeting in the presence of two parent delegates and two student delegates. The goal of this meeting is to address any problems that arose throughout the trimester and to finalize the students’ report cards. The final conseil de classe of the year is also when the teachers can suggest that a student be held back, or suggest what electives he should take or drop depending on his grades/behavior etc. These meetings can last anywhere from 1 to 3 hours per class and as such are usually spread out over one or two weeks.

7:00 PM – Finally home

After those looong afternoons, I usually spend a little time clearing my brain from the chaos of it all, organizing the papers I’ve been lugging around all day, posting the homework online, and prepping photocopies for the next morning. By the time I get everything done and hop on my bike, I’m home around 7PM. On days that I don’t have class so late, I manage to get home earlier, thank goodness ! I will add that it’s pretty rare to have class as late as 6:15; there are only a very small handful of classes scheduled that late. Because I requested to start my day later, I am one of the lucky few to stay later as well.

This year, since I have two levels that are new-to-me, I often have lesson plans to finalize (or create…) when I get home — most teachers know that the work never ends 😭. I try to be as efficient as possible during my daily breaks, but every now and then the work piles up and I have to pull some late nights. At those times, I’m grateful to be a night owl who starts classes after 9AM !! In general, I tend to avoid grading at home – I’m much more efficient grading at school. In the past year, I was also able to avoid taking home too much work on the weekends and using that time to just relax and focus on personal things at home. I haven’t always been successful this year, but I’m trying my best to stay on top of things, while also setting some boundaries to avoid workaholism and burn-out.

The final major difference between French and American schools is the annual calendar : the French school system is very generous with school breaks ! Throughout the year, we have four 2-week breaks scheduled after every 6 or 7 weeks of school : Fall Break, Christmas Break, Winter Break, and Spring Break ! These vacations might seem excessive, but given the intensity of the weekly school schedule, they always feel extremely needed. By the end of the period, students and teachers alike are EXHAUSTED from the relentless rhythm of school.

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