What I refer to here as “the school system” is the traditional public school system in countries like Canada or France (or similar societies). The big majority of young people going through these school systems become anxious adults with a huge lack of self-confidence. Why is that? Let’s take a closer look at the school system, or how our societies destroy people instead of building them up.
Many (not to say everybody) of us have grown up with grades as THE reference of succeeding or failing at school (and in life); but this is a wrong system. In a one-man show, Adib Alkhalidey, humorist in Québec, was talking about his school experience and asked this question: “Why is it that when I don’t understand, you give me a failure? I didn’t fail, I just didn’t understand!”. I think that’s a very good point!
He also said “There are serious consequences to associate mistake with failure. When your entire life you’ve been told that mistake is failure, you feel deeply insulted when someone corrects you. I don’t want to live like that. When somebody corrects me, it means that I have things to learn, it’s wonderful!”. I couldn’t agree more!
Another very serious consequence of learning that mistake is failure, is that you integrate that success means no mistake; to succeed, you must be perfect. But this is not possible as human beings; so this huge amount of pressure and judgment leads to anxiety at school and burnout at work…
Using grades as the ultimate judge is destroying students; that’s the reason why I don’t use grades in my classes. We do not need points or letters to be able to see or know our progress. Moreover, grades build up competition (even with yourself) and encourage judgement (or bullying). We’re not here to judge each other but to help each other to make the best of this learning journey.
My first experience with the Canadian school system was in a bilingual elementary school in Ontario in 2012. I volunteered as a teacher helper in French Immersion classes, grade 2 to 4. What amazed me right away, as I was walking through the corridors, is their policy about no bullying. With quotes, pictures, drawings and videos, every child was educated about respect and how others should be friends you support, and not somebody you can mock or bully.
When I came back to France after, I told pretty much every teacher or educator about it and how it was so needed in the French school system.
In October of that year, the sad story of Amanda Todd shook Canada; the news spread across the ocean and week after week, young people in Canada and France started to share their stories. Many were depressed and thinking about suicide; all of them under the age of 18. I still remember a mother testifying about the suicide of her 10 year old daughter…
In a speech in front of the National Assembly in 1849, Victor Hugo said: “I say that these are things that should not be, I say that society must spend all its strength, all its care, all its intelligence, all its will, so that such things are not. I say that such facts, in a civilized country, engage the consciousness of the whole society… “. I couldn’t agree more; this is without even mentioning all the school shootings happening every single year in the United-States.
As long as the schools are not safe, the societies have failed their peoples.
I’ve had teenage students telling me that some teachers were shaming them when they made a mistake or didn’t know something; how is it possible that people like that are still teaching in school?
Frederick Douglass said: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.“. I teach adults and I’ve seen the damages of their school experiences: I’ve seen the fear in their eyes when they don’t understand, I’ve seen the shame when they make a mistake, I’ve seen the silence because they don’t want to talk in front of others… They come into the classroom with their school background and we can’t undo it; we can definitely improve their feeling and life, at least regarding their learning journey, but it takes more time and energy, when we should instead stop the destruction of yound people to have stronger and happier adults.
I take this opportunity to remind you that there is no danger in my classroom: I don’t tolerate bullying. It’s a safe place for being who you are, right here, right now, and together, we’ll try to reach your goals. It’s very important for me that my students know and feel this; feeling comfortable (safe physically and mentally) in my classes comes before the fun. Of course, we’ll have fun, but the first thing I want is for my students not to be afraid to ask questions, make mistakes or work with others.
During my volunteer experience, I learned that redo a school year is not how the system works in Canada (or at least in Ontario). I asked “So what do you do when a student is struggling too much and doesn’t have the proper level to go in the next grade?”; I’ve been told that there are after-school tutoring programs and teachers write a report at the end of the year to sum up what the child needs to work on for the next year. The way I understood it is that parents and teachers are the “education team” and kind of work together so that the children can be at their best.
Again, I was amazed to see this partnership and the trust in teachers. That was definitely not the same in France, and actually, it got worse with the years. There is a big gap, and I would even say a “war” between parents and teachers. How I see it is that many parents don’t want to take their responsibility in their kid’s education, so this part has been thrown into the teachers’ hands. But the teachers, as awesome as they can be, are not the parents; there is the teachers’ work and the parents’ job.
Parents go against teachers’ recommendations or try to tell them how to do their job, when they don’t even take their own responsibility as a parent. This imbalance has created big issues in children’s behaviour.
But Canada is no exception to this. During this experience in 2012, I was a nanny in a family with 3 kids. I quickly noticed that the eldest was struggling with school work; she would almost always make a scene when she had to do homework. One day, I was helping her and trying to go further to see what the real issue was. Suddenly, she tells me through her tears “I don’t know that!”. I could feel that she was not talking about the answer, she was telling me she didn’t have any idea of what we were doing (or how to do it).
At school, I asked a teacher what the children were supposed to know (school’s expatations) in each grade. I realized that the girl was actually 3 years late in French (and maths)… I just couldn’t believe it; no wonder she was anxious and making a scene! I talked to the parents and they said “Ok, thanks for letting us know; we’re going to talk about it.”. In my head I was like “That’s it? We have to do something right now, otherwise she’s always going to think she’s stupid and not capable of succeeding at school!”.
I told the parents that I would tutor her in French and maths every week. It was a challenge as her self-confidence was almost at zero. We managed to do a few things but obviously, it was not enough. I thought “How come this sensitive and insecure girl doesn’t get the support she needs?”; after I left, I often wondered what she became in a system like that…
Gisèle Viallemonteil, French psychologist specialized in work psychology, told me that for a kid to be mentally healthy and build strong self-esteem, they need 2 “trees” to grow in their life: the “family tree” (personal life) and the “social life tree” (school and then work). If one of them (or both) collapses somehow, the kid will automatically be impacted psychologically, sometimes in irreversible ways.
But this is only one issue. The number of students per class and the lack of means are two other main issues. Governments are responsible for this: budget cuts and less teachers or educators where we need more… Programs, classes, books, technology, schedules…the teachers are not free to do their job properly; they can just try to do their best with what they get.
Several teachers, from Canada, France or the United-States, have told me “You cannot save them all…”; I felt the heaviness in their hearts as they shared this… I believe this is the worst thing that can come out of the school system. This is where we’re at now: trying to do as less damage as possible, trying to “save” as many as possible and too bad for the others…
I say that I disagree, I say that I don’t want to be part of this system, I say that it is not acceptable to keep going like that! Education should be the second priority (after health) of every single society.
One and only system
I believe that claiming that one and only system will work for everybody is already a mistake. Human beings have so many different ways to learn! Albert Einstein has a very good way to put it: “Everybody is a genius; but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”.
Students/children are seen as empty boxes that teachers should fill up and if your container is different than the “norm”, then it means you are the problem. What does that say about our societies?
Education should be about exploring, trying, learning, growing, improving, blooming, finding what you like to do and what you’re good at.
One thing is for sure: every single country who keeps a system that destroys young people instead of building them up, should be ashamed to call that “school”. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in education for all and I think school should be free; but it shouldn’t be the way it is now.
I have so many examples to prove how wrong the school system is, but I think you got the point… Thankfully, what I describe here is not happening in every single school.
A new era
Just like everything else (health, economy, nutrition, industries…), governments should readjust regularly to adapt to the evolution of societies. In France, the school programs are reviewed every 5 years approximately; but the system is not. Politicians are not the right people to do this; teachers and parents, hand in hand, should be the ones to talk and decide how we can improve the school system.
Now you may think “Well, ok Sarah but what do you propose then, if the school system is so bad?”. I’m glad you asked! Some people don’t wait for governments to catch up and have decided to start something new to offer an alternative to the traditional school system. That’s how in these past few years, we have seen the rise of new (or not so new) schools. Some of my favorite examples are: École dynamique, Ecole en forêt or education within the family.
I’m not president or prime minister, but if I had to build a school, it would be like this:
- Instead of grades, teachers would adjust to the students to create their own learning journey
- Instead of big classes with the same age, we would have small groups with different ages, so that students can learn from one another (team work!)
- Instead of products, students would be considered as equals and would be free to make propositions to improve the school
- Teachers would be chosen based on their ability and/or experience, and not degrees or position
- Physical and mental health would be in the list of subjects students can choose from, including psychology and nutrition
- Instead of being diminished or just a hobby, activities like dancing, cooking, building, sawing or discovering our wonderful planet Earth would be part of the education
- The lunch and snacks would be organic, plant-based and possibly made by the chef and students interesting in cooking
- Everybody would be welcome to join, disregarding the social background or the parents’ income
If this is a school you would like to see come to life, please reach out and we might make this dream come true together! 🙂
For all the parents who would like to learn French to help their kids, feel free to contact me and let’s see what we can do together! 😉
I’m going to quote Einstein one last time: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”. This is an invitation to all my fellow teachers: what if each and every one of us decides today, that we are going to change the system? You can already do something at your level and together, we can make it bigger for a better future for the next generations!