This is the second piece about teaching in Paris by Erin Thesing, an American elementary school teacher who worked for several years at schools in Philadelphia and the District of Columbia before moving to France.
Last summer, she applied for a dream job at an international school in Paris, where she had long wanted to live. She had no expectation of being chosen, but in a big surprise, she was hired as a fourth-grade teacher and started there last fall.
In her first post, she wrote about preparing for her new job and wondering how different her work would be in another country. Would her experiences in Philadelphia and D.C. schools prepare her for teaching in Paris? How well would she work with her new colleagues?
Thesing has a master’s degree in urban education from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of New Hampshire. She enjoys running, reading and cooking — and until moving to France, spent a good amount of time planning trips there.
By Erin Thesing
Walking toward the stairs to my classroom, glass container of hot lentil soup precariously balanced atop my laptop and spiral-bound narrative writing unit, I mentally tick through my to-do list, prioritizing what I can squeeze in during the 20 minutes that remain before I pick my students up from lunch. Risking a crashing Jenga tower sort of display, I scoop a spoonful into my mouth, and hurry past a pair of teachers, managing a “Bonjour!” and a nod.
“Bon appétit,” they laugh, miming my food shoveling.
It isn’t the first time my seasoned colleagues here in France have commented on my eating. Dipping a carrot stick into hummus during recess duty is met with, “Sit down! It’s bad for your digestion.”
Pausing to say “hi” while spooning a few bites of my roasted vegetable bowl as I walk out the teacher’s room invites, “Assieds-toi, Erin — enjoy. Sit,” as a chair is pulled out for me.
“I gotta get ready for writing,” I say, before hurrying back to my classroom where I will sit alone, annotating my writing lessons between each bite. “There’s not enough time.”
It is a refrain I have heard my fellow teachers say at every school where I have taught, and one I was surprised to find myself saying here in France. “There is not enough time.”
At home in Washington, we swapped sneaky snacking strategies. My colleagues bit off a sandwich between reading conferences, chewed two apple slices while transitioning between classes, and even stored crackers in their scarves!
Teachers know very well the benefits of collaboration and making time to meet with our colleagues, (I smile when I think of the months of Saturdays spent at my D.C. charter school with Rachel, my fellow second-grade teacher, creating a semesterlong project that involved building mud huts and felting Mongolian vests), but the schools I have worked in have hardly had the time and space needed to meet the basic demands of our job, let alone enough for necessary teacher-driven collaboration.
Because it’s true: There is not enough time.
The moment your alarm clock rings, the race begins.
Check for an email from your principal, informing you that you’ll need to cover a sick teacher’s science class during your planning block that day.
Hope you hit the light on North Capitol and Florida Avenue at 7:15 a.m. or that the transfer between the Line 9 and the Line 10 Metro bus is less than six minutes, so you get those extra 15 minutes.
Run to the photocopier and pray it isn’t still jammed from the night before. Gulp down the tea from your travel mug.
Blow up primary source photographs of covered wagons so students can closely study them.
Wave to a teacher as she passes, a stack of books for her guided reading groups teetering under her chin.
Cobble together enough place value blocks from the first-, second-, third- and fifth-grade teachers so each student has enough to model the multidigit multiplication story problem.
Run to the library to find just the right book for your writing conference with Matthew.
Cut the homework to the size that fits their reading notebooks.
Write the morning message and schedule and, yikes, is it 8:30 already?
Circle the tasks you didn’t finish on your to-do list.
Run to the bathroom one last time because goodness knows it will be a few hours before you get the chance to go again.
Hustle to the top of the stairs to greet your students as they walk up, bursting with stories about the supermoon, mudslides in California and reminders about changes to after-school pickup plans.
There is not enough time.
During one year, my D.C. charter school colleagues and I tried to find a solution. We met at each other’s homes for dinner once a month.
“We never see each other,” we lamented. “You’re just down the hall but all I manage is a wave as I walk my kids to art.”
We shared macaroni and cheese, bubbly water, glasses of wine, stories from our classrooms and what we hoped we could collectively change to help us feel more connected, less frenetic and better able to do the work we love. Sometimes it took us hours before we’d reach our agenda — empathetic, tearful laughter filling the kitchen. The time-anxious among us watched the clock, as it inched closer to our school night bedtimes.
Still, the more we shared, the more we understood each other’s classrooms, each other’s needs, and each other. “There is not enough time,” we’d sigh, hugging each other as we packed up our baking dishes and soup pots, “See you in a few hours.”
We determined that between weekly professional development administrator-led meetings, teachers only had one hour for individual planning each week, and that few classroom teachers had a consistent lunch break.
“We need a daily lunch break,” we decided, choosing our first cause — a chance to breathe and prepare materials during the day. So some teachers took charge of rearranging the schedule, allowing 30 minutes each day to take a bite of a salad while laying out the water colors. Others worked with the operations team to procure enough lunch tables so we could serve lunch to our students together in the common area instead of in our own classrooms, sharing lunch duties.
Together, over school night roasted cauliflower and clementines, we had made a way not only for lunch breaks, but also for a budding feeling of connection and shared responsibility.
Making that time to grapple together was important. In their book “These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon our Public Schools,” Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi chronicle the work of opening and teaching in progressive, democratically run public schools in New York City and Boston.
A key ingredient to democratic schools, they argue, is progressive education reformer John Dewey’s “associative living,” which was central to their Mission Hill School’s mission statement. They promised each other: “Our community must be prepared to spend time even when it might seem wasteful hearing each other out….”
Finding the time for my colleagues to meet together on those Mondays was hard, especially when narrative report card deadlines and student-led conference portfolios loomed. But I like to think that we created the time for lunch breaks by making the time to work through something difficult together.
Meier writes, “I have learned that sustaining a democratic culture depends on building practices that enable us all to develop strong habits of heart and mind through frequent association with one another. Something as seemingly simple as setting time aside to voice our opinions, to hear one another out, to wrestle with ideas and face dilemmas together is actually imperative.”
In their schools, making the time, even when it felt like there wasn’t enough, was a priority for building a “culture of almost fierce collegiality.”
Moreover, it is important that in schools, we publicly live what we strive to teach our students. In Meier and Gasoi’s school, teachers met and engaged in that messy work “within view and earshot of students, so that children would come to see their teachers as empowered adults who were committed to and versed in democratic practices.” It is crucial, therefore, for schools to make time for this work to happen inside our buildings and in the company of our communities.
In a private school in France, I told myself, it might be different.
“You’ll be wishing for more time with your kids,” a colleague told me, describing the schedule.
In fact, between daily French classes, specials, and the union-protected one-hour-lunch-break, I have at least two student-free hours a day. And with the exception of two 40-minute grade-team meetings every eight days, the time is mine for reading my students’ reading notebooks, scouring the Library of Congress site for Industrial Revolution images, and even making a cup of tea. Individual planning time is precious and protected.
But the trade-off — as we rush around to take care of our own classroom needs — is Dewey’s associative living. Even with the school-provided planning time and lunch breaks, we teachers, like in many schools, continue to work in classroom silos.
We dart off emails to communicate efficiently and worry about interrupting each other’s planning to ask a question, trying to squeeze in everything that goes into effectively teaching children before packing our bags with what we will still need to finish at home.
“There is not enough time,” we sigh to each other, rushing to pick up our students from art and music.
Perhaps this association starts, I’m now realizing, with sitting at that table for lunch. In fact, taking time to eat lunch with your colleagues is not only a ritual in France, it is a subsidized benefit.
French companies are required to provide their workers with a cafeteria or, in smaller organizations like my school, chèques déjeuners, a monthly pack of subsidized lunch vouchers for each workday. French workers often use these vouchers to leave the office and share lunch together at a nearby restaurant. Eating lunch around the same table is considered to be not only social, but also hygienic (unlike my students’ desks covered in eraser crumbs and pencil smears).
My rushed American habit of lunch on the go — always proving oneself the hard worker — is one that is hard to break, especially when it feels like there is not enough time. In my experience, stopping to eat can be stigmatizing, a sign that you must not be working hard enough.
But the French must be onto something with lunch. Pausing to eat together is not only “vous va si bien,” as advertised on the cover of the check booklet, it is necessary for Dewey’s association. Making that time to see and know each other is essential to building a culture of collaboration and collegiality.
Two weeks ago, I gave it a try. I abandoned my stack of writer’s notebooks and sat with a group of teachers around the same table to share a potluck lunch in celebration of one teacher’s birthday. Friends served homemade quiche and wedges of cheese to each other. They scooped salad onto each other’s plates and insisted, “You must try these sweet potato pancakes,” passing the plate around.
As more teachers entered the room, they greeted each other with kisses and hugs, asking about each other’s holidays and children, putting aside, for a moment, the school assembly and assessments piling up on the back table. I found myself immersed in their stories and warmth, feeling connected to something more than my own classroom and to-do list.
When I finally looked at the clock and I realized I had but three minutes until my students’ own lunch ended, it hit me. Pausing for lunch, in fact, is not about taking a break from work, but rather about making time to know and care for your colleagues. It is the first step toward wrestling with challenges together. Accepting that chair and taking advantage of the infamous French lunch break for being together is a good place to start.
Maybe we’ll soon be plotting the next great changes to our school communities, working together to forge a way to maintain the energy to do this job we so love.