Penn GSE French-American Educational Leadership Knowledge Exchange

Three French School Visits – Eric Chism

Penn GSE doctoral students Tammie Smith, Eric Chism, and Errick Greene pose with French principals at the site of a school visit during their trip to Lyon.

Penn GSE doctoral students Tammie Smith, Eric Chism, and Errick Greene pose with French principals at the site of a school visit during their trip to Lyon.

My visit to LYCEE DE L’EDIT on April 5th, 2013 proved to be insightful, rewarding, and ripe with opportunity.  The insight emerged through a classroom visit in which two UPENN colleagues and I had the opportunity to talk with some French high school students. The students were eager to share their interest in American culture, and their familiarity with popular culture figures such as Beyonce’, Tupac, and Clint Eastwood. They perked up when I asked them if they had considered post-secondary studies in the United States. Our tour guides, two French principals, said that our visit left an indelible mark on the French youth. One of the principals even said, “they  (students) will tell everyone in the community about your visit to their school, and they felt validated by your appearance.” I entered their classroom expecting a totally different experience. I held assumptions that the students would not be very interested in adults  looking at their class, but was surprised to learn that our presence had created a “stir” among the students.


Vie Scholaire – Errick Greene

In my post-Lyon travel haze, I’ve been reflecting a bit on my experiences in this beautiful city.  One aspect of the French school system that I found to be quite fascinating is the Vie Scholaire (school life) program.  Unlike in the U.S., where teachers are expected to manage student behaviors in the classroom for the most part, French teachers are not really expected to do so; at least, not in their secondary schools.  The French primary school teachers have schedules that require them to spend much more time with students outside of instruction than their colleagues in secondary schools, which increases their responsibility for addressing students’ social-emotional needs.  The secondary teachers’ schedules include 15 – 18 hours of instruction, with no requirement to spend more time with students, working collaboratively, sponsoring clubs, etc.  Of course, there are those who take on these additional roles and tasks, but they are few in numbers.

The Vie Scholaire is both a program and a philosophy that supports the secondary students’ social-emotional needs as they matriculate through school without the direct and focused support of the teachers.  As I understand it, teachers believe their role to be instructional, not educational – the distinction being a focus on imparting knowledge as opposed to a more holistic approach to child development.  In stark contrast to U.S. school systems in which teacher evaluation systems typically include expectations regarding classroom/behavior management and building a collaborative learning environment, the French culture calls for something like the Vie Scholaire to fill that gap.

Un Diamant dans le Rugueux (Translation: A Diamond in the Rough) – Bill Gretzula

On Day 4 of our adventure, our team visited Le Lycee Robert Doisneau in Vaulx-en-Velin. A “lycee” is the equivalent of an American high school with students entering after “college”, the equivalent of a middle school.  The lycee we visited is not what many would consider a premiere institution.  Not if you look at certain indicators, but something special is indeed occurring in the school.

We were told that there are 2,300 lycees in France and that this school is ranked around 2,200 on the general baccalaureate given each year to qualified candidates.  Our gracious host, Mme Marie-Francoise, showed us “value added” data that tells a different story.  Students at this school are obviously being afforded educational programming designed to support their continuous growth.  A large percentage of students have shown growth on the general baccalaureate over the past three years.  The percentage of students taking the “bac general” increased from 71% (2009) to 77% (2011).  For those students taking the harder pathway through Technological studies, their scores have gone from 53% (2009) to 67% (2011).  How is this possible for a school that serves such an overwhelming number of students at-risk for dropping out, a concern expressed by an Inspector who joined our conference on Day 3.?  He went so far as to say reducing the drop out rate is a high priority for him and the Ministry.


“Psycho-Pedagogy” – Dr. Jonathan Supovitz

After lunch we roll (almost literally) to the middle school, named after Jules Ferry, the father of the modern school system in France (the French John Dewey?). The school is in an old convent, and houses 600 middle school students. The school is one of two middle schools in the city, with 48 teachers, of which 13 of them are shared with other middle and high schools (in many subjects). We spend most of the time at the school in a fascinating conversation with Monsieur Chefler, the principal. He seems good-natured and chuckles a lot, but has a serious and determined air about him, as well.

I ask him what is his biggest challenge as a principal. He pauses and folds his hands together under his chin, and purses his lips. Then he begins to speak in French, which our translator, Frederick, interprets.  “Each student will have a difference between passing and ‘to become oneself'”, Frederick translates. “Our aim is to have each student be ‘a true human being.’ “Achievement relates to school and to who you are,” he explains, meaning that academic achievement is only part of his work, while personal development is a parallel part of his sense of mission.


Visit to a Technical High School – Dr. Jonathan Supovitz


French Technical High School instructor in school workshop.

At 9.30 this morning I disembark from the train in Chambery, a quaint, small town about an hour into the countryside from Lyon.  My colleagues had begged off the visit, so I am exploring solo.  I am warmly met by my hosts, good natured Pierre, who speaks excellent English and is from a high school in nearby Albertville (where the winter Olympics were held in 1992 and, which he boasts, is the only high school in France with a ski team).  My other hostess is Mme Maryline, the energetic vice principal of Monge High School, which is a large technical high school nested adjacent to a regular high school. Together, the two schools serve about 1,400 students.  The building is a large campus, recently renovated, which also houses boarding students from the region. We are accompanied by Frederick, an English teacher who serves as our translator, and Emannuelle, a charming middle-school assistant principal from a nearby school, which we will visit in the afternoon. Interestingly, the technical high school has only 17% girls. Frederick tells me that in his five classes of 25-30 students each, he has only 1 girl!


‘Fiche de Voeux’ (Wish Card) as a Leveraging Tool: Issues of Trust and Culture—Dr. Jala Olds-Pearson

During a recent visit to a school in Lyon, France, I was surprised to hear, and witness, firsthand, some of the differences that exist between my leadership practices and those of my French colleagues. Whereas I am expected to visit classrooms everyday, principals in France are not permitted to enter a classroom and observe teaching and learning—unless the classroom teacher grants them permission. For example, when we visited the teachers’ lounge, I watched in awe as the assistant principal went from teacher to teacher to ask permission to visit their classrooms. Luckily, for us, she was able to successfully find a small number of teachers that were willing to grant her permission to bring guests into their classroom. Although I was somewhat aware of principal duties in France prior to the school visit, witnessing a firsthand glimpse of the school culture was an eye-opening experience.

Consequently, my observations raised several questions about student academic outcomes. Since principals in France are not permitted to observe teacher instruction, what sources of data do they use to provide at-risk students with appropriate, targeted support? What methods do they employ to examine root causes of knotty student problems, like, social-emotional disturbance or learning deficits? Do they have multiple strategies to motivate teachers to move beyond their comfort zones and broaden their teaching capacity? Or, do principals rely primarily upon the ‘Fiche de Voeux’, wish cards, as a way to leverage their authority and motivate teachers to be cooperative?


School Leadership: Principal Learning Teams – Penny Sparks Nixon

School leadership continues to emerge as a catalyst for school improvement and school success. As a result, the professional development of school leaders often appears as a key theme in conversations about school leadership. During the Penn-French American Educational Leadership conference, we engaged in a lively debate with our French colleagues regarding the necessity of ongoing professional development and support for school principals.

During the conference, I took the opportunity to promote the idea of Principal Learning Teams as a powerful professional development approach for school principals. Principal Learning Teams are professional learning communities designed to promote collaboration among principals. Principals are encouraged to share promising practices; collaborate on providing a safe and supportive learning environment in their respective schools; conduct school site visits to learn from each other; establish strategies for connecting with school and community partners; and provide professional development opportunities for all stakeholders.


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