It’s like a weird dream where I have been plopped in front of a class and everyone thinks I’m the teacher, but I’m not. And yet, it’s not like I’ve hidden my non-teacher past. It’s not like I didn’t submit my non-teacher CV. I never pretended I had any experience on the battlefield, and yet the school administration has seen fit to send me to the front with a wooden gun and no ammunition.
I try to act like a teacher, mostly based on what I’ve seen in the movies, blended with a few mushy memories of high school. I try not to act like those boring drones who made me hate school, but like the few sparkly ones who made class interesting enough to stop looking at the clock and learn something. Unfortunately, those teachers had training, and I do not.
In this dream, I find myself walking down the hallowed hallways of major French universities, mighty edifices where the likes of Pierre and Marie Curie played with radium. Huge reverberating corridors that haven’t been remodeled since the dawn of the Fifth Republic. Students bust a gut to get into these places, enduring in most cases a “prepa,” which is a highly selective prep school where you spend two years cramming your head with encyclopedic knowledge on a variety of subjects in preparation for the adjective-defying entrance exams. Words like “awesome” and “daunting” slide off the shiny surface of these gun-metal hard tests that can only be cracked by those with the strength and endurance of an angry buffalo.
Any French student who has made it through lycée has already endured the baccalaureat exam, a comprehensive test that overshadows the last two years of high school, so it doesn’t really phase them to learn that in order to get into an elite school, they will be required to beat their brains out for another two or three years, and then submit to an exam that takes place over days, in hangar-like buildings, with thousands of other students.
People get annoyed when you use words like “sadistic” and “self-defeating” to describe higher education in France. Or if you point out that the system is a machine designed to discouraged anyone who is not super confident or super brilliant. “But it’s virtually free,” they huff, pointing a long finger at the USA, where annual tuition at even the semi-elite schools now cost more than many people make in a year.
This is true. There is no denying it. Even the most expensive schools in France generally do not go over 4,000 euros per year and most public schools are much less. The non-elite universities cost next to nothing. The problem is, they have so little money that for non-essential yet required courses like English, they hire people like me. Native English speakers with limited, if any, teaching skills. Then they throw them in front of a classroom without a textbook, syllabus, program or any guidance to speak of. You are lucky if you get a chance to sit down and talk to the person who hired you (most do it by e-mail), and if they bother to show you where the bathroom is, let alone explain how any equipment works, if it actually does.
Yes, we are the vacataires. The “temporary” professors. The Great Unwashed of the French university system.
To be continued…