La Maîtresse

My children go to Hogwarts. You wouldn’t think so just looking at the primary school building, a fairly nondescript 20th century construction. But just across the street, adjacent to the courtyard where children clamor uncontrollably during the récré, there’s an imposing, majestic building that houses the school’s cantine and the classrooms for the older students. Classified as historic by the city of Paris, it screams of Hogwarts. Standing before it at dusk on a blustery autumn evening, its façade is severe and intimidating; Harry Potter could easily be sweeping by you in his invisibility cloak, escaping the punitive snarl of Professor Snape.

France’s education system is known for its severe and intimidating structure, one that places academic performance above things extracurricular or social. Short-pants and Buddy-roo’s school feels particularly rigorous; they have homework every night, the book-bags that they carry home each day weigh as much as they do, they are tested often and their class ranking is public.
I have the sinking feeling that the girls have learned far too early to see mistakes as something to fear rather than to learn from. At the same time, they are getting a solid education. I’ve heard too many troubling stories about US schools passing students just to move them along. That won’t be happening here, at least not at our beloved Hogwarts.

This stern ambiance is palliated somewhat by their participation in the English section, led by two creative and ambitious teachers who also care about the learning climate and the community. They invite feedback, they ask us to help plan a Halloween party or a holiday celebration so that the kids get a feeling about the culture, not just the structure of their parents’ language. The English teachers are accessible and willing to engage easily with parents. They even use email. How modern.

This is a stark contrast to many of the French teachers in the school, in particular the new teacher assigned to Buddy-roo’s class, whom I’m call Madame Deville. She’s replacing a teacher who was a bit of a cold fish, so when we first saw that there was a new, younger teacher, many parents rejoiced. Not for long. The homework assignments those first days were barely cloaked barbs at the adults for not assembling the full complement of school supplies or turning in the paperwork in a timely fashion. The homework the next week was daunting, with explicit and rather complicated instructions about which cahier and in what order to learn twenty random words that appeared to have little in common, plus the “house of 10” multiplication table and also this week’s poem to illustrate and memorize so that it can be recited in front of the class. To a second grade child who’s all of a sudden terrified of making a mistake, this is overwhelming.

Just getting Buddy-roo to sit down and concentrate has always been a bit tricky, but now there is a particular angoisse to her procrastination. She constantly has a reason to interrupt her work; to sharpen and re-sharpen her pencil or get the right pen or re-arrange her papers or to double check the cahier for the length of the assignment or get a drink of water. I know nagging will not help and I don’t want to add to her stress, but my best efforts to remain cheerful and encouraging have already been stretched to the max. Make it fun, I keep telling myself, inventing a game to inspire her to put those words in alphabetical order. But who am I kidding? That’s not her idea of fun. Not for hours every night.

(The other night at a neighborhood bar, a friend of ours who’s son is also in Buddy-roo’s class performed an hysterical monologue demonstrating how he’s ready to hang himself after helping his 7-year-old son do homework for two hours one night. We’re not the only ones who are suffering.)

I don’t expect Buddy-roo to display a seamless scholastic-competence at the young age of seven. But I do want to help her avoid getting stereotyped in an education system where your reputation gets cemented rather early, where teachers are inclined to point out your weaknesses and hold you to them. It makes me wonder if this school is right for her, for both of them. But if not here, where? Where can they get this rich bilingual, bicultural experience and strong academics plus the social and emotional support?
Does any school offer all that? Any school we can afford, that is?

At the class meeting, Madame Deville counseled the assembled parents complaining about the homework to set their worries aside, citing a French law that states it is illegal to force school children of this age do written homework. The children won’t be graded on their homework, she assured them. But if they don’t do the homework, will they be able to keep up in class? She shrugged.

Unfortunately I couldn’t make that meeting – I was away on business – but I feel as if I was there because it has become the talk of the school, especially this particular moment: “Veuillez avoir de la bienveillance,” Madame Deville scolded, warning that when notes in the cahier de correspondance don’t use the formal French politesse, our “aggressive words” put her in a bad mood and she’ll it take out on our children. Stunned parents are still hashing this over as they cluster together at morning coffee klatches and the afternoon sortie d’école. One father asked me if I thought this meant that if he wasn’t polite enough it would cause the teacher to be more punitive to his son in particular, or to the class in general? In general, one hopes. But no-one is sure. Everyone is reeling from this.

De-facto, bless his soul, steps empathetically into her shoes and reminds me how much we dreaded hosting a dozen kids for not even three hours at Short-pants’ birthday party. It’s not an easy job to spend the entire day, every day, with 31 young children. If she receives a scribbled, annoyed note from even a handful of the parents on any given day, that would certainly put her in a bad mood and impact her ability to tolerate the antics of the children. He has a point, I suppose, but I don’t think it calls for a pronouncement to the parents in such a finger-wagging way.

I should go on record: not all the French teachers at Hogwarts are so persnickety. Buddy-roo’s teacher last year was absolutely lovely. At a meeting this week, Short-pants’ teacher praised the class and told us she wouldn’t test the children on their reading assignments because she wanted them to experience reading as something one does for pleasure. So they’re not all prickly.

I am attempting, against the tide of tirades about Madame Deville, to keep my mind open. I cautiously address her each time I write a note in the cahier de correspondance (she mandated the parents, at the aforementioned meeting, to use her surname; the salutation of “Madame,” without her last name was insufficient). I use all the little flowery phrases from my book about how to write French letters. It’s already a challenge for Buddy-roo to like school. She doesn’t need an overzealous schoolmarm bearing down on her because her mother is too proud to play along.

Last week I politely requested a private meeting with the Madame Deville; I have been granted a ½-hour appointment with her next Thursday morning before school starts. I’m eager to see her close up. Is she the wicked witch of Hogwarts-Paris as everyone has begun to believe? Or is she just trying to get her “I-may-be-young-but-I’m-strict” stake in the ground so she doesn’t get pushed around? That’s what I hope to find out.

Any tips on a good strategy for this meeting?

10 Responses to “La Maîtresse”

  • deedeesue Says:

    I wouldn’t hesitate to go with shameless flattery and perhaps a small but obviously expensive gift!

  • j Says:

    Tips from a teacher: Tell her you like her scarf, then tell her how much Buddy-Roo, likes her… a little fibbing flattery goes a long way, even if it’s not particularly Parisian or culturally correct etiquette. Definitely ask for her advice. Does she know of any websites that cater to age 7 national curriculum? Does Buddy-Roo really need to do all the homework? Sounds like you got a case, if it’s actually illegal to force them to do the written stuff! Get her to smile! I bet she was told not to do so ’til Christmas!!

  • Santafelee Says:

    Listen to her, ask questions… how can you best support her in her work with buddy-roo…. recognize the enormity, the challenges and value of her work!! You will be good at it.

  • Virginia Gowen Says:

    Passing your blog along to 1) my bff who has taught Kindergarten and Transitional First Grade for 25 years and 2) my Principal. Both will have a quick reply for me/you. Personally, I’d like to smack Madame. Perhaps she should find a job at the perfume shop….

  • Liza Says:

    Drink a little Salada tea before you go …

  • Delphine Says:

    Une idée pour Buddy-roo pour les devoirs : un peu de brain gym avant d’attaquer les devoirs ???

    ah, les maîtresses !!
    personnellement, quand je vais voir une maîtresse, j’essaie comme De Facto de me mettre à sa place et de m’imaginer toute la journée avec 31 enfants tous très différents devant elle. Même si elle est douée et aime ce métier, c’est éreintant !
    Je commence toujours par leur demander leur avis à elle sur comment ça se passe pour l’une ou l’autre de mes filles dans la classe. Comment elles les trouvent, si il y a des difficultés ou pas.
    Ensuite seulement je parle de mon point de vue à moi, et en général sous forme de question, ou de “j’ai l’impression que… qu’en pensez-vous?” : un peu comme si tu étais en pleine facilitation, à ne pas vouloir influencer ton groupe et que tu pose des questions plutôt qu’affirmer des choses.
    Demande-lui si elle a des idées sur comment tu pourrais aider à ce que les devoirs se passent mieux et moins longtemps avant de demander si elle peut ne pas tout faire…
    Good luck !!

  • Marinera Says:

    R U sure she doesn’t read blogs? not this one I hope?? 😛 good luck. great tips from upper comments.

  • Kunyi Says:

    I think it would be important for any teacher to know that their work is valued, and they have support from parents (whether or not the latter is absolutely true). Maybe her comments about how to address her is a very stark and honest explanation of this very thing, and what she needs.

    In a first meeting, maybe the only thing you need to do is be your warm, sincere self, and find out what she needs, and where she’s coming from. After that your family can decide what your approach will be – how much you want to take on and how to manage the expectations.

    I remember when we were first doing “homework” with my son. It was absolutely excruciating and called for patience I didn’t have. The whole thing would have taken 10 – 15 min for a different child. But it was a 2 hour series of tantrums and tears (mine and his). Like your baby said – this might change (and it did). And, I came to find out later that the teacher was appalled that we spent so much time and energy on it. I should have come to her first and been clearer about the purpose of homework for these wee people, and her expectations. But no, I was determine to do it “right.” So far there seems to be no lasting damage to the poor child from doing homework with mom.

    All the best – I’d love to know how the meeting turns out!

  • Betsy Says:

    Dredge up one of the lovely portable coffee cups virtually nonexistent in Europe (you know the American ones that we used to set in our car cup-holders while we sat in rush hour traffic?)…fill it with ice and Kiaku con Cognac.

    Presto-Change-O! Madame Deville will be Madame Delight!

  • Nicole Says:

    Thank you for this post! I am currently lighting candles at church and sacrificing chickens (cover all the bases, I figure) to ensure a place at Hogwarts for next year since our currently private school across the river in the 5th seems to be such a disaster. Our little girl is so scared of her maitresse that she won’t ask to use the toilet and has come home twice with huge bloody wounds covered in dirt because she didn’t know who to ask for help after getting hurt in the cour. The maitresse won’t even respond to my ‘bonjour’- so much for the famous French politesse. In fact, it appears that Mme Deville and Mme WWW (wicked witch of the west) could be one in the same. Ah, its good to go into this with our eyes wide open, but it is incredibly frustrating to have to accept that this is just the nature of the beast.

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