For any parent the first day of school for your precious little one is daunting. Will they cry when we arrive and when I then leave? Will she make friends? Will the teacher be nice and not like scary ancient Miss Robbinson, my teacher when I was 5? Will she be obedient and not throw those awful strops she throws at home? Will she eat the canteen food? Will she join in?
Our little Mim started French Maternelle earlier this month. We’d been chatting about it at home for months before and she was excited and ready for a new challenge. The first day arrived and off we all trundled, actually we piled into the car cos we were running late. She didn’t cry but wandered straight into the classroom, found the toy kitchen and started yabbering away on the yellow plastic phone that was attached to it. Phew!
Three weeks in and we are all knackered! Mim doesn’t love school but she doesn’t hate it either.
Starting school is tough but in another country and another language I’d say there’s most definitely challenges you may not face in your homeland.
Here are some of my initial thoughts and experiences:
- Kids in France start school as young as 2 1/2, some of them full time straight away!! It is viewed as free childcare by many parents and Roger has had more than one conversation with colleagues who have questioned why we wouldn’t want Mim to go full-time. Mim’s teacher is also pretty adamant that her age group should be going all day otherwise they will fall a year behind (?!), we have compromised and sent Mim all day on a Monday but the rest just mornings with Tuesday and Wednesday only being mornings for all the kids anyway. Having 2 different cultural views isn’t easy, perhaps neither are perfect but we are learning to do what is best for our little one and not what is necessarily expected of us because it’s what everyone else does
- Making friends at the school gate isn’t as easy as people say it is. For one thing, I’m scared! My French isn’t great and so that makes it harder to just go up to some of the other parents and join in their conversations. It’s early days and I’m not the only one standing there on my own every day so I have hopes that things will change as Mim makes friends and as I become a regular feature waiting at the gate
- Communicating with the teachers is also tough going and understandably they can’t give an account to each parent about what the kids have done that morning but I would like a little more than “she was fine”. On more than one occasion Mim has said something and when I’ve asked the teacher is wasn’t actually like Mim said at all
- The school run is exhausting! Early starts, 20 min walk there (buggy & buggy board); 20 min walk back; pray Victor sleeps for at least another hour (rarely does); feed Victor; 20 min walk back to school; 20 min walk home; Lunch; pray the kids nap at the same time; collapse. On the plus side I’m gradually getting back into all my pre maternity clothes!
- Coping with a very tired and grumpy 3 year old and a less grumpy but quite demanding 2 month old isn’t easy. Some afternoons we chill out and others I have tried to do a bit of English reading with Mim when possible. Mondays after school Mim goes to her swimming lessons and Wednesday afternoons we pop along to the British Library in Lille with a friend for story time. Both of which Mim enjoys which is some light relief for me
My journey in the French schooling system is only just beginning so I thought it would be interesting to get some thoughts from a good friend of mine who has been living in France for a bit longer. Here is her story followed by some questions I asked. Her testimony is so encouraging and inspiring, so even if you aren’t a mum, are still living in your homeland, keep reading cos you might get inspired to do something completely new in your community! If you are a parent and your child is starting school soon you may also get inspired to get involved in your kid’s school and make a difference.
My name is Rachel Mumford, and I am married to John. We have three children, Louis, Mia and Sophie, aged 7, 5 and 2 ½ . We came to live in Lyon, France 4 years ago in 2010, so we have just done our 4th ‘rentrée’. For John, having grown up in France, moving back was going home. For me, although I had lived in France for a few months after my A levels, I had to relive culture shock through the lens of family life.
Before moving to France, I saw the English mums and how they often made friends with the parents of their children’s friends, either at school or a toddler groups, and I couldn’t wait for Louis, our eldest, to get stuck in after the move so that we would launch our French social life, and build lasting friendships that God could use and that we would enjoy. Such high, and unmet expectations!!!
Initially we lived 18 months in one village, before buying a house elsewhere. These were possibly the loneliest, most frustrating months I have ever known. Louis started school in the beginners class, called ‘Petite Section’, for children aged 3. He went to school in the mornings only, so one of us would drop him off at 8h20, and I would pick him up at 11h20, trudge home and make lunch. Louis spoke no French on arrival, and was in a large class. It took him a long time to start speaking any French at all. His teacher was nice enough, and sympathetic to the English mum with good French but little confidence, however with such a large class Louis got a bit lost, and it wasn’t until he was in ‘Moyenne Section’, the next year, that his French really took off.
It took me a few weeks after our move to realise something: I was different, not only because I was foreign, but because I was nearly the only stay at home mother there. Most of the women picking children up at lunch were either child-minders or grandparents, and the majority of children stayed at school for lunch. Where was the crowd of mums to chat to and get to know? In the mornings dropping Louis off I saw plenty of parents rushing in to drop off their kids and rush back out to get to work, but no one with time to spare. There were a few tired mums on maternity leave. Those who I did eventually meet would often be evasive when invited round for a coffee, and of the few that did come around, only one lady invited me back to hers in return a few weeks later. There were no Mums and Toddlers groups either. Life totally revolved around the school routine, but the children seemed to get along fine.
When we bought our first house in a village 5 minutes down the road I wanted this new start to be different from our first experience of French family life, and I had a plan! I made the decision to throw myself in and sign up to as many things as possible. We needed friends and were very blessed to move to a street with two other young families on it. I also began going to the park next to the school with the kids after school, and got to know as many parents as possible, over time. Many play dates later, the kids have found friends and we have grown friendships with many parents.
Although it was very scary, as I doubted my own capacity and felt embarrassed by my imperfect French, at the beginning of the school term I went along to the meeting for the ‘Parents d’élèves’ (Parent Teachers Association), and became a parent representative. It has been really interesting going to the meetings, helping parents whose children are having troubles, and contributing ideas to how the school is run. Last year I started up an English conversation class one evening a week which gathered a good few parents and neighbours. We have tried to be a family that make things happen, inviting people to events in our home, such as open house parties and guys’ nights. It has been a great way to gather and deepen friendships. We are thoroughly enjoying life in our village.
This year I was approached by the Mayor and asked if I would join the village council as one of his team of 19 and run in the election. We were voted in in March, and since then I have had the privilege and responsibility of representing the rest of the village on key matters at our local council meetings. I am in the commission for Youth and School affairs, and the commission for Culture and Associations. I felt these two groups gave me the best opportunity to shape life in our village, and it has been exciting to see some of my ideas put into action. I want to bring people together so that they feel part of our community too. There have been many changes brought in to the French school system this year after a reform was imposed. Each commune had to work out how they applied the reform, and I was so grateful to have a say. I felt like I could really represent the interests of the children, and fought hard for families on certain points that I felt were important.
Over the last couple of years I have gone into my kids’ classes and given one off English lessons, sharing about English culture and traditions, food and language. I have really enjoyed it. I am now employed to teach English in the Maternelle every Monday for this school year.
It takes a lot longer in France to make friends than it does in England. French friendships require gentle slow nurturing, whereas in England people tend to decide pretty quickly to form friendships, and are willing in invest time a lot sooner. This has been a big learning curve. The French way requires a lot more patience! We are two years into our life here in Sourcieux les Mines, and we are at a stage now where we have more intimate friendships, not just acquaintances.
So I guess in summary, I feel that God has encouraged us through our own needs for connections with others to remember the lonely and isolated, and how awful that feels. This has made us a couple who desire to gather people together, to be inclusive, and to try to make all feel welcome. I am excited by the many opportunities that arise. This adventure that God is leading us on is a daily challenge and a joy. The village school has been such a relational hub for me, and for that I am so grateful. I want to give and give to this school as part of my mission field, to see our village transformed by God’s love in action.
1. What have been the best things about schooling your kids in France?
I love the systematic way that the French system prepares children in the Maternelle to all be ready to learn to read and write once they turn 6 and start at primary school. In maternelle the focus isn’t on shoving a pen or pencil in their hands and getting them to hold it correctly and write. There is no rush. First, school provides activities that develop their fine motor skills, such as handling small beads. They later start writing block capital letters, and then straight into beautiful cursive handwriting. My kids go to a small village school, and it’s been great to get to know all the teachers, and be on first name terms with many of them. I am in the school so frequently, and with the English lessons that I have given, I know most of the children by name, and enjoy being greeted enthusiastically by many each day. They are so sweet!
2. What have been some of the challenges?
I think for my older two children particularly, the challenge of learning a language whilst attending school was huge. It meant that they were on the back-foot in terms of getting to know others and playing games. They muddled through at the beginning. The staff were very patient, and little by little they have gotten there. One big challenge has been teaching the children to also read in English, without any support, and trying not to conflict with them learning to read in French. Knowing that children learn to read when they go into the ‘CP’ class (aged 6, first year of French primary school), I wanted to make sure that my son was rooted in one language first before starting to learn to read in the other.
A huge difference between English and French schools is that French schools are ‘laïque’, or secular. You cannot talk about God or religion whilst at school. At Christmas there is no Nativity for the children to perform, but absolute focus on ‘Père Noël’ as the reason for the season… At Easter, don’t dare mention the resurrection! Only chocolate and bunnies, eggs and bells… However, Haloween seems to be allowed. I am still pondering ways around laïcité.
3. What are some of the biggest differences from schools in France to those in the UK?
The biggest visual difference is that children don’t have a school uniform in state run schools. The next is that the state school system is free to children aged 3 onwards, effectively free nursery school as part of the national education structure. Children at Maternelle are actively encouraged to bring in a special cuddly toy, or ‘doudou’ as a comforter for when their parents are not around. It is more common to see children sucking on dummies in France at an older age (but not beyond Maternelle), and these are permitted for drop off time and ‘sieste’ time. After lunch, children in ‘petite section’ and tired children in ‘moyenne section’ are put down for a sleep for a couple of hours, for a ‘sieste’. The schools are often equipped with dormitories, and the children sleep in low beds in rows. In France, because families tend to eat later together (around 7pm), children go to bed later (8pm or later…), and therefore small children are often tired at midday and ready for a nap after lunch. Speaking of lunchtimes, the children have a lunch break of two hours (ours is between 11.30am and 1.30pm) in which children have the option of eating the food at the canteen or going home to eat. There is no packed lunch option! My kids come home virtually every lunchtime, and it is a nice time together to regroup, speak some English again, and go back refreshed for the afternoon. Something I have found challenging about the structure of the school day is the lack of any considerable block of time to get anything done. I get two blocks of just under three hours, and it goes so quickly! There are days where I wouldn’t mind the 6 hours straight of the English school day! Many of the differences are so small, but of course something more noticeable is the way that friends greet each other. The French ‘bises’ greeting of kissing each other on the cheek can take a while once you get to know lots of parents!
WOW! Awesome testimony of perseverance and throwing yourself in to a community. I’m not sure I’ll be running in the Mouvaux elections anytime soon but what a great testament to Rachel’s determination to get involved in her local community.
Being a parent in a foreign country is tough, perhaps at times tougher than being an innocent little one who actually doesn’t know any different. We are so proud of Miriam. In the last 18 months she has moved countries, changed child minders, learnt another language and become bilingual, had a new baby brother enter her life and start Maternelle. There’s not many 3 year olds that could handle all that and still be so brave, fun and feisty.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.