Cultural comparisons between France and the U.S. mostly tend toward the differences in cuisine, style of dress, language (obviously), or traditions. What about education? How are French and American schools similar? I was able to observe the similarities and differences firsthand when I worked as a teaching assistant in Limoges, France, through the TAPIF program. Here are 9 of the biggest things that struck me during my time there.
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1. No yellow school buses in France.
There are no buses run by the school district in most French cities. Instead, parents and students rely on the public transportation network provided by the municipality or region. Or parents drive the students themselves. In Limoges, many families lived in small towns outside of the cities, so getting to and from school could be a bit of a hassle.
2. French students are allowed to leave the school grounds.
This rule typically only applies to older students. Middle and high schoolers can leave the campus between class periods, for lunch, or if they have free periods. They usually must present a carnet or notebook with a pass in it identifying themselves and showing permission to leave and re-enter. There were usually monitors who checked ID’s, part of the vie scolaire of the school.
Since most of the teachers at my school were a bit older than me and, well, recognized by the vie scolaire monitors, they wouldn’t be stopped on their way in and out of the school grounds. I, however, was stopped more than a few times and asked to present my carnet before the monitors actually looked at me and realized I was definitely too old to be a student there. The first few times it happened I had to explain that I was the teaching assistant, but eventually, they recognized me too and wouldn’t stop me.
3. An hour or more to eat lunch.
Often, they have two. Typically there’s 2 one-hour time blocks back-to-back in which they can meet up with their friends off-campus, find lunch, and hang out. Some also choose to stay and eat in the school cafeteria or use the time to catch up on homework.
4. Classes are scheduled until 6:00 pm.
They have a two-hour break at lunch, and a free period at some point in the day, but they also attend classes from 8:00 am – 6:00 pm. Many students are involved in extracurricular activities like sports, or music lessons, which they do in the evenings after class as well. To make up for the 6:00 pm ending time, French schools have Wednesday afternoons off. A lot of them will also do their extracurriculars during this time. Wednesday’s free time is nice, but many of the students often feel tired during the week. They stay in class until 6:00 pm, go home (or to an extracurricular), eat dinner, do homework, crash into bed, and repeat.
5. More vacation times.
Although the schedule varies by region, all public schools in France follow a rotation of seven weeks on, two weeks off, from September until the end of June. They have most of July and August as their big summer break, but they end up with eight weeks of vacation total during the school year. As a teaching assistant, I got this time off too! My contract wasn’t the entire length of the school year, just from October to April. So 8 weeks off for a total of 7 months of work? Not too bad! I used the time to travel to other cities in France and to other countries in Europe.
6. No school-affiliated sports teams.
Students who participate in sports typically do so with a club or organization outside of school. French schools don’t usually need mascots, school colors or much school spirit, since schools aren’t competing against each other in any capacity.
7. School spirit week.
There is no equivalent of a “school spirit” or “homecoming” week at French schools. Sometimes they host themed days on which they dress up or do special activities. But these tend to be associated with a special cause or particular holiday.
8. No school dances.
Any social gathering resembling a school-sponsored dance or formal doesn’t really exist in France. Generally, school-sponsored events, gatherings, activities, etc., are less common in France than in the U.S. My group of 9th graders were in awe when I showed them a photo of me in my prom dress from high school (I looked a bit ridiculous in the photo, but the idea of prom still fascinated the students nonetheless).
9. No graduation ceremonies.
The cap, gown, diploma, pomp, and circumstance that all go along with a formal graduation are lost on French students. The closest they get to the ceremony is watching renditions of it in American television shows and movies! In fact, some of the English teachers organized a “graduation” ceremony for the Premiére (11th grade) students who had passed their Cambridge English exams the year before. I helped them construct about 100 felt graduation caps for the students to wear then subsequently toss at their ceremony. It was a delight.
Final thoughts on being a teaching assistant in France
These are some significant distinctions between French and American schools. Some are bigger than others – no mascots! – but others are more minimal. For the most part, students’ daily lives are the same in France as in the US. They go to class, hang out with their friends, and stretch themselves too thin on homework and extracurriculars. All in all, not so different.
For more about the TAPIF program and being a teaching assistant in France, head to the TAPIF website!