4 Things I Learned as a Substitute Secondary School Teacher in France

I am a native English speaker and have been living in France for a decade. During this time most of my work experience has been in the teaching field, be it teaching English or other subjects including history, both at the university and secondary school levels, and on a full time and substitute basis. My assignments have run the gamut from mind-numbing, challenging (to say the least) in a negative way and pretty dull all the way to challenging in the “I love my job” sort of way and inspiring – sometimes all within the same school term.

Here are 4 things I learned along the way during one year in particular:

1) You can get thrown under the bus.

For countless numbers of young graduates initial experience teaching in French secondary schools is gained thanks to the well-known language assistant programme which allows people with an undergraduate degree – subject to specific conditions including an age limit that varies a bit from country to country – to go abroad and test the waters of the vocation that is teaching by conducting classes in their native language (be it English, French, Spanish, German or what have you) at primary or secondary schools, in close collaboration with a trained local teacher who plays a kind of supervisory role.

This was not the case for me. My first experience teaching in French secondary school (on the heels of a stint as an instructor at a French university) came as a substitute English teacher in a collège, or middle school. Far from the neatly coordinated setup that is the language assistant experience, this was a job I landed by sending in a speculative application to the Rectorat (Local Education Authority) of my region. I was given the job sight unseen and simply told where and when to show up.

When I got to the school, which was nestled in the middle of suburban high-rise buildings, I was told by an administrator that it would be an interesting experience. The word “interesting” didn’t set off any alarms in my head, neither did the location of the school get me to wondering about what the student body was likely to be like. The principal poked his head out of his office just long enough to give me a tutorial on how to diplomatically break up a hypothetical classroom fight. In my mind I dismissed this as advice I’d never need so this didn’t get me thinking either.

Only when I began work did I realise just how “interesting” – the unenjoyable kind of interesting – the 3-month assignment was going to be. I had unwittingly agreed to take on classes in the French equivalent of special education i.e. all the classes no other teacher would touch with a 10-foot poll because of the litany of difficulties associated with them, and I was to discover that their contempt for the youths in these classes extended to them not wanting to give any semblance of friendly advice to the one colleague tasked with facing them all. I would also come to realise – much to my chagrin and bewilderment – that the hands off administrative apparatus that collectively were the deans, the vice-principal and the principal were about as willing to provide me with the means to innovate and catch the pupils’ interest as a vegan is in eating a cheeseburger.

Some of my pupils had behaviour issues and others had learning disabilities, while some were in the special class because they had family problems distracting them from school, causing them to fall behind, and yet others were there because they were non-francophone foreigners and basically didn’t speak French all that well, if at all. Thus, not much needs to be said about the powder keg I was supposed to get amped up about the language of Shakespeare. Most of the time in class was spent dealing with behaviour issues, and efforts at organising culture-themed  lessons to get them to experience the language in a different way were consistently hamstrung by the administration’s refusal to commit resources to any such activities (art & craft and culinary workshops for example). After a while the whole thing just became glorified babysitting with a dash of pedagogy. I realised by the end of the assignment that school admin had just been hoping all along that I’d quickly take a hint that such classes were tedious (i.e. beyond helping), get tired of trying to teach the youngsters who all had problems I was not equipped to deal with (and no training was provided), and settle into my role as the designated supervisor of the hour, until the Rectorat was ready to move me somewhere else and send along the next unsuspecting patsy for their own frustrating, eye opening few weeks at the school.

2) Classism in education is real.

After my middle school special ed assignment, my next gig was at a lycée (high school) with one of the best reputations in my region. I went into that experience expecting it to be just like the first one but it wasn’t; my classes were chatty but there were no particular problems to speak of in the conduct department; I spoke at length with both the principal and vice principal before taking up duty; the teachers worked as a really close-knit group, so no problem there either; the school was not located in the depths of a housing estate, so its student body did not come along with the baggage that was standard in my previous school; resources seemed to abound.

There was one class I had with students who reminded me to a limited extent of the ones I had to contend with at the collège. They stuck out like sore thumbs in this school’s environment. Their elocution was different, as were their backgrounds and plans for the future as well as, interestingly, the academic counselling they were given by the school. Simply put, the vast majority of this school’s pupils were from well-off or well to do family backgrounds and were encouraged to have lofty goals, often including getting into a top tier business, law, medical or political science school, but a minority segment of the pupils who attend the school only by dint of benefitting from a program meant to give underprivileged youths the opportunity to attend schools not usually accessible to them were encouraged to aim for some short course or other, deemed as within their intellectual reach.

3) There is apparently such a thing as a perfect school with perfect students.

Of course in reality that doesn’t exist, but my third and final assignment for this one particular academic year, at a lycée, still stands out as my favourite teaching assignment of all time. Maybe it was because they hadn’t had a teacher for so long and exams were looming but, for whatever reason, everything seemed to click; the principal and VP at the third school were even nicer that at the second (I taught at both schools at the same time for a few months), and the sixth formers / 12th graders did all assigned work and hung on my every word in class and even attempted to strike up conversation with me on the bus after school in English. I still dream of going back there to teach.

4) Youngsters from minority / immigrant communities feel like there is little for them to aspire to.

Going back to the collège were I began, the demographic map of my classes went all over the world, as there were mostly pupils of sub-Saharan African, North African, Spanish / Gitano and Portuguese descent, with smaller amounts of Turks and Roma as well, and even one from Latin America. Almost none of them had French parents. Almost all of them lived in the housing estates surrounding the school. Speaking to them about their prospects after school revealed that quite often some variant of the same comment (which could be described as defeatist) would be made – “they won’t give us jobs”. Despite my attempts to reason with them about the benefits of getting training (not necessarily learning English) to possess the skills to get jobs, they seemed convinced that no matter what they did they were subpar because of their lower academic performance which put them in the class they were in and that, beyond that, they were inherently unemployable because mainstream French society viewed them as such. This being the case, as far as they understood it, there was no impetus to get a useless education. Recent controversial comments made by an oppsition MP voicing her unhappiness over plans to expand the teaching of Arabic language in primary and secondry schools are indicative of how little esteem is held in some quarters for those of non-European origin and anything associated with them.

Intriguing experience indeed while it lasted.



  1. It is a really interesting post.
    I grew up and studied in France and somehow, I always felt this kind of classification of schools. I was a good student and usually over congratulated for that. It seemed that my teachers were really surprised that someone like me, who was not born in France could read or write. I have been in a super selective high school. And after the end of the 2nde, they strongly “encouraged” everyone with difficulties, or they suspected wouldn’t have their “baccalauréat” to change for high schools offering more “technical” or “professional” diploma.
    You pointed out something that bothered me for a long time without beeing able to put words on it. Thanks.
    Congrats on your blog. It is very interesting.


    1. One school I taught at had 2 different campuses a few km apart: one had the “minority” students, doing some general bac but also quite often the professional / vocational courses and the other had only general, and it seemed like it had more motivated teachers too.


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