Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"The French Paradox," or "Why I Can Scream at My Kids All Day and They Still Won't Listen"

Man. Tuesdays. It doesn't matter how much sleep I get on Monday night, how cheerful I am when I start the day, or how many cigarettes/cups of coffee I consume in an effort to prepare myself, by 4:30pm every Tuesday, I am crass, cranky, overly caffeinated, and out for blood. Woe to anyone who should stand in the way of me getting to the door when that bell rings. Woe to any teachers or students who dare detain me with questions after the appointed time. And woe to the entire world should I happen to find myself without cigarettes (or worse, with cigarettes but without a lighter) when I finally do exit the schoolyard. You know in cartoons, when there is a bullfighting scene, and the bull looks exceptionally angry, pawing the ground, snorting and kicking up dust, preparing to charge at the first sign of anything red? That's me at 4:29. Really, it's me anytime after 2:30.

And the thing is, at first glance, my Tuesdays don't look that bad. Classes from 8:30-10:15, forty-five minute break. Class from 11-11:45, two hour lunch. Classes from 1:45-3:15, and every other week, class from 3:45-4:15. No big deal, right? Well, it wouldn't be, if not for my 2:30-3:15 class. This class single-handedly puts me in the aforementioned state of mental infirmity every Tuesday. No question, no doubt, no reprieve. Every Tuesday. And it's not even the whole class that drives me insane. It is, at most, 5 or 6 students out of, maybe, 25 total. Generally, I only see a quarter or half of the class at a time. I come to the classroom, the teacher hands me a worksheet, calls up a group, and we head for an empty classroom on the other side of the schoolyard. Once we arrive in the classroom, 3/4 of the students sit down at the table and quietly await my instructions. But there are always 2 or 3 who are talking, throwing things at each other, poking each other with pencils, pens, what have you, and just generally being pains in my ass. I do my best to quiet them and explain the activity, though the best I can usually hope for is that they will actually be physically in seats and talking at some volume level below shouting. I try to explain the activity, but the other students either can't hear me over the ruckus, or they are distracted by it (and often incited by it) and are not even looking at me. So then we start the activity, but no one knows what they are supposed to be doing, so I basically have to re-explain it to each student in turn, because I can never get everyone quiet and listening all at once. Then there are always misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the instructions (for which my French might be partially to blame, I'll admit), and frequently I end up with one of my good, well-behaved students crying because she can't understand what I want her to do because the others are too loud. And she made a mistake and it's the end of the world and she's sobbing and snot is running down her face and I am trying to comfort her, meanwhile paper wads and erasers are whizzing over my head and the good students are shouting help to each other over the cacophony of the bad students running in circles around the table, hitting each other, swearing in French because they think I don't understand (which also frequently leads to tattling by the good students)-- basically doing anything but what they are supposed to be doing. And then, suddenly, our time is up and no one has anything done, and I get to look like a jerk who has no concept of classroom management, and no idea how to teach.

I have tried several different approaches to dealing with this class. First, since it is generally the same students every week who give me trouble, when I take them back to the classroom I immediately tell the teacher who was misbehaving. I don't know about all of you, but when I was growing up, misbehaving for a substitute or other person who was not your normal teacher would likely earn you double the punishment of regular classroom antics. In this case, it doesn't seem to have made any difference at all, as I have been reporting the same names every week for several weeks now, and am still having the same problems. Secondly, those of you who know me well know that I am not generally known to tolerate "guff," as it were, from anyone, let alone a rag-tag bunch of 9- and 10-year-old French kids who don't respect my authority. I am perfectly comfortable in front of a classroom, and perfectly comfortable doling out stern admonishments when the situation calls for it. I feel like anyone who has worked with me in a classroom setting or who has been a student of mine would say that I have a good grasp of classroom control, and that I generally maintain a warm but assertive demeanor with my students. But warm and assertive went out the window weeks ago. Warm and assertive couldn't be heard over the din.

When I first arrived in France, and was completing my required hours of classroom observation before I began teaching, I was initially dismayed at the tone almost universally taken by French teachers with their students. Teachers here resort to yelling-- insults, generally-- with the slightest provocation. Not enough hands raised? Tell them they are all worthless. A student misses a question he should probably know? Mock him openly in front of the class and call him a "nul" (literally a "nothing" or a "zero"). Someone is fidgeting with his school supplies? Sweep everything off the top of his desk onto the floor and carry on with your lecture. When I began teaching in the US (before that, even, when I began working at Camp T), I was trained to always give corrections with warmth: "That's not quite the answer I was looking for, Billy, but that is a good point," and to praise effort even if the answer isn't correct. I was trained to teach from a place of positivity and encouragement, and to use praise and empowerment to motivate my kids to learn. In France, however, shame and embarrassment seem to be the primary motivators, and a good blow to the ego supposedly motivates a French student to improve just like praise motivates an American student. Don't get me wrong here, there are plenty of good teachers here, well-liked by students and parents alike. What I am talking about here is more than a difference in style or pedagogy-- it is a difference in culture. And I got some very interesting insight on this difference while talking to a teacher today.

"Ze French, zey are ze coq on top of ze shit 'eap," she told me. This is Brigitte, one of the teachers I work with the most, who is also rapidly becoming one of my favorite people here. She is French, and grew up here in the midst of the turbulent 60's and 70's, which saw the most political unrest in French history after the Revolution. As such, and probably also because her husband is British, she speaks of French politics and culture in a somewhat jaded manner. But she had a very interesting, if not entirely kind, take on why French teachers are so negative, and on why my students don't listen to me. We were having coffee together during our break, right after my terrible 2:30 class, and I was bemoaning the fact that nothing I had tried was working to keep these students under control, mentioning that it was hard for me to understand how French teachers could be so much more strict than American teachers, and yet French students are so much more unruly than their American counterparts. This is when, after checking to make sure there were no other (French) teachers around, she made the comment about the rooster on top of the dung heap. She explained to me (and keep in mind this is just her opinion) that, like the popular stereotype says, French people really do think that they are better than everyone else, and that even when they are in the "merde," i.e., the dung heap, they will still strut around and crow and show off their feathers. Because of this, they also like to pick on the flaws of others, and criticize and cut others down, to further inflate their own egos. She thinks this is why French teachers are so negative: because it's just how French people are. Critical. And kind of mean. Which, incidentally, I also find to be true. French people are critical and kind of mean. I also wonder if, since a blow to a French person's ego is supposedly the deepest cut you can make, the insults spewed by teachers really do motivate some students to do better, even if it's only so that they don't get called out in front of the whole class anymore. I also wonder if the French ego has something to do with why my kids don't listen to me. It's been a long-held stereotype that France and the US are, for lack of a better word, "frenemies." Yes, politically we are supposed to be bff's, but Americans supposedly dislike the French just for general reasons of French-ness, and the French supposedly dislike Americans just for general reasons of American-ness. Again, kind of true. So my students' disrespect could potentially have something to do with their little French egos telling them they are better than me, or maybe just their being influenced by Franco-American relations in general. Brigitte, however, has a totally different theory. Having been raised by radical communists in the middle of a political maelstrom in France, Brigitte, unsurprisingly, rejected her parents' political views and ended up on the more conservative side of politics. She is also kind of old. Keep these things in mind as I explain.

Apparently, in the early 80's, France realized it was running low on children. Wanting to maintain its short work week and early retirement age, the French government started offering a 1500 euro "bonus" for families who decided to have a third child or more. According to Brigitte, this caused all the poor and stupid people to have more children to get the money, and now what we are dealing with in the schools are the children and grandchildren of all these poor and stupid people, who apparently must have bad genetics and remain poor and stupid, or at least stupid. Then she said something else about how French people love to talk more than anything else in the world and that because of their egos they won't shut up when you ask them to. So I'm not sure if, in the end, she was blaming it on genetics or egos, but by this point she was sounding a little bit batty. I just smiled and nodded, and am now hashing out my thoughts on the issue for all of you.

So I have done all this babbling without really reaching a conclusion. Is it just that I have a particularly defiant group of students this year, or is it their immutable French pride that refuses to allow them to submit to my authority? OR are they just so used to being yelled at that nothing even phases them anymore? And what, if anything do I do about it? Le sigh. I hate Tuesdays.

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