Being a student in France

UPDATE:  I passed and actually with flying colours (86% to be exact!) but not before having to do the oral exam in front of the whole class!  Talk about pressure…  And now I’m into the next level, B1 and have a whole other semester ahead of me but not without some familiar faces… my fellow expat friend Amy and Michelle are in my class too!

I’m just about done my A2 level in French class.  My final written exam was Friday and my oral exam is Monday morning.  I think I did well but my idea of “well”, which in Canada would be a 80-100%,  has changed drastically in the face of the French culture and school system.  Once I find out my results and assuming I’ve passed, I’ll start B1 right away on Thursday.   It’s a bit silly actually because we’ll have 2 days of class and then get right into a (much needed) 2-week school holiday, but there’s nothing to complain about with that school schedule.

There’s been a few things I’ve learned about the French school system through teaching English to my groups of French children as well as being in the school system myself.  The biggest, obvious difference is the school-free Wednesdays and the 2-week holiday that occur about every 6 weeks.  Makes you wonder how much school the French children actually go to.

The lady who hosts the French conversation group I go to lived in the States while her kids were young and despite starting earlier each morning, commuting for longer, going to school 5 days a week and having less school holidays, she noticed her children where less fatigued in the American school system then when they were living in France.  And her family preferred that American model. 

It’s interesting to read that teachers and the school system in general is much tougher and harder on children… in homework and in discipline.  They don’t get the encouragement and the “you can do it attitude” that is bountiful in North America.  When I was training for my teaching job, I was told to always encourage the children and positively reinforce responses because “they don’t get that in the French system.”  There was an interesting article in the Economist that talked about French culture and the general happiness of the French population (which incidentally has a high number of suicides).  And it alluded to the stress at school children are subjected too.

For myself, I can see how the pressure and defeatist feelings would mount.  In the day before our final exam, our teacher took half hour to hand back our homework.  This homework assignment wasn’t any different than the ones we’ve had all semester: it was a simple written expression.  Some people at home use dictionaries and get help from their native French spouses, others even wing it on the way into class on the metro.  She never said she’d be ‘grading’ it as if it was our exam and had never given us a single grade the whole semester.

So as she went through each person’s paper, she voiced publicly the common mistakes that each person makes and what they need to work on (with less than 24 hours before the exam mid you).  That was the first somewhat shocking thing.  Then she said to every single one, “so if you improve your faults and write better tomorrow on the exam, I’d give you xx out of 20.”  She was ‘grading’ everyone at around 13-14 points.  And when she came to the ‘best’ person in the class, she had no remarks for improvement and yet said she could score a 15, maybe 16.


I found it so bizarre.  By the time she was done, she had graded everyone between 13-16 (which was apparently generous).  She must have received numerous puzzled looks, because she went on to explain that this is simply the culture in France.  You could hand in a perfect, mistake-free paper, and you wouldn’t get more than 16/20.  She had asked one girl if her husband helped her with her paper to which she replied, yes.  And yet, the most she would get was 14.  So a native French speaker, writing a 100 word essay wouldn’t even get more than 70%.

The margin between failing (oh and a pass in our class is 62%, not 50%) and doing “well” is extremely narrow.  Which begs the question, why strive for perfection when it is literally impossible to achieve here.  To me, that actually explains some of the mediocracy at people’s own jobs that I’ve witnessed.  It seems from school age, they are taught they’ll never achieve perfection, nor near perfection.  If out of 20 you can pass with 13 and quite easily achieve it, why “kill yourself” and get a mere 2 or 3 extra marks, knowing that the perfect 20 won’t happen.

This of course is just my narrow experience and view.  But as an high achieving, A/A+ student all my life where yes, I got perfect and near perfect on assignments and courses many times, I find this quite heart breaking.  They never get the sense of pride and accomplishment when achieving the mathematically best mark, 100%.  Are they are never told that they can be perfect?  Perhaps perfect doesn’t exist here.

And that certainly is one of the biggest cultural difference and culture shock I’ve experienced so far.    

And so, I await my results and anxiously hoping that I have achieved… mediocracy.

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  • Amy

    Wow! So interesting about the grading…I had no idea! That is crazy!