The great suffering of teachers in the face of academic failure


In a survey of a representative sample of 8,214 K-12 teachers on their personal assessment of the causes of school failure (published in 2019), we were struck by expression of powerful cleavages between those who “go forward”, and the nostalgic of a “school order”, in their eyes, as well as by the great suffering of all teachers in the face of all that prevents them to make their students succeed.

Initially, the purpose of our survey was to better understand how French teachers perceived the weight of the different variables that contribute to failure. Although these variables have been clearly identified in the scientific literature, their respective and relative importance is poorly understood, which creates recurrent debates in the community of researchers, teachers and educational institutions. The debate also agitates the French society, and, more globally, the countries where the school has a selective role in addition to an emancipatory role.

Surprisingly, before our initiative, no one had asked the key stakeholders, namely teachers, how they identified the problems of academic failure. As a result, we collected (in addition to evaluations of 100 hypotheses related to academic failure) more than 1,500 pages of verbatim in response to three open questions. Clearly, our respondents “went crazy”, they had big heart.

The media context is probably important not to be overlooked in the strength of their positions: the more than average performance of the French school is found in the public square during national assessments and international comparisons and laterally , teachers feel blamed. All in all, they are on the defensive.

“It was better before,” really?

The verbatim analysis revealed two major tendencies of relatively antagonistic positions. On the one hand, we have examined the expressions from “patterns” as it would be necessary to “restore, rehabilitate, finish, put back, abandon, prohibit, return to …” and, on the other hand, expressions such as “modernize , develop, create, encourage, etc.

We have found that the pastistic word outweighs the progressive word. An emblem of anger is what they call the “dogma” or “taboo” of the single college. It is singular to note that most of the respondents wishing to disappear, however, have known nothing else, given their seniority, than this unique college even when they themselves were students. They do not propose anything specific to replace it.

Do they only know how it was before – really – except in a confused imaginary world where the “professional channels” eliminated from their class all those who did not have at the base of particular appetite for Montaigne and the equations? Of course, the meager argumentation that accompanies the prominence of this radical measure – almost magical – does not fail to be accompanied by the promotion (in the form of a good conscience) of the effectiveness of professional courses, which are better adapted to ” some students with practical intelligence “.

Among the optimists, we will see widely proposals for reforms of evaluation methods, as well as the development of the use of digital tools in the classroom. Again, we sometimes find a certain radicalism, for example about teacher training “stop we propose moldy recipes unsuited to our students the XXI th century.”

What emerges is a disintegration that produces irreconcilable clans. How to make cohabitate in the same project the one that advocates “firing teachers who arrive late” or send the students “in the depths of deprived countries to give them a good lesson” and one who wants “to include in programs learning meditation, relaxation, and emotion management to foster concentration and a better school climate “?

A system to change?

A first point seems nevertheless to reach consensus, it is the request of additional means. However, when we detail these means, we fall back on different priorities: some claim their need for training, others insist on a necessary improvement in wages.

The same is true of relations with the institution: some would like the weakening of the weight of the hierarchy, more autonomy or the end of the inspections, when others would like for example a “real status of authority for the directors of schools “.

The strongest cleavage probably concerns the modes of evaluation and the orientation: some advocate an early selection on the notes, the others say they want to let hatch a project of study without sanction or “chopper”, in the benevolence.

It should be noted that we hardly find in our corpus of questioning by the teachers of their own practices. It seems that only changes in the superstructure (more like going backwards, with hardening) should improve success, as if the setting created conditions and constraints to which the student must adapt or leave.

Is there nothing to change in the ways of teaching and considering the pupil? This blind spot would it not then promote these smoky utopias that promise some families money well the school of self-fulfillment and happiness to learn in autonomy?

Recurrent pessimism

From our corpus, we could compile 100 pages of quotes that show what Blanchard-Laville had named in 2001 “a depressive professional position”. This phenomenon was also pointed to by officials as Xavier Darcos ( Proposals on the moral and material situation of teachers in France . Report to the President of the Republic ) in 2007 when he reported “a weary climate, demobilization and bitterness “, After studies at the initiative of the MGEN ( The climate of primary schools , under the direction of Georges Fotinos).

While in the 80’s we spoke only of “teacher unease” today we speak outright of “burn-out” or “institutional violence”.

Some excerpts from the corpus to convince us of the seriousness of the problem:

  • “I’m happy to retire, teaching has become a real pain. Being insulted by 15-year-olds who are never punished has become unbearable. “
  • “After 20 years of teaching and almost daily challenges, I still do not know exactly what I’m supposed to do …”
  • “If it were to be redone, I would do another job and yet I like working with children, but this debilitating administration is killing us slowly: no management worthy of the name, no training, no consideration, no perspective. “
  • “I answer your questionnaire and I have not corrected the 29 X 3 notebooks, plus written productions that are eyeing me, nor prepared my day tomorrow … I’m tired, tired. “
  • “For thirty years that I teach, I came to want to leave a job that I love yet! I feel like luring children and being an agent of a detestable policy! I am worn! “

These testimonials speak for themselves and leave a bitter taste: how do we expect students and their parents to believe in and embrace emancipation through school if the teaching staff no longer believes in it themselves?

Author Bio: Jean Ravestein is University Professor emeritus at Aix-Marseille University (AMU)