Working and/or Eating?


For the second year, I have been sent by the school authorities to another school to give oral exams. This entails getting up early, driving 90 minutes to get there and listening to seven candidates in a row before the lunch break and then listening to another batch of seven before driving back home.

This morning, while the four examiners were sipping the cup of coffee we had been offered on arrival, the headmaster came to greet us and announced that a secretary would come to sell us lunch tickets. I politely declined, adding that I had brought my own food and would join the others in the staff dining-room.

At that point the head replied that people were not allowed to bring into the school food that had not been prepared on their premises. It echoed something I had heard in my own school but had not investigated since I can always eat at home this year. It was a bit too early for me to think of something clever and polite to answer so I kept silent.

However when the time came to have lunch I chose to ignore the remark and brought my mixed rice and chickpeas salad into the dining-room. By then I had pondered the question and had an answer ready in case someone asked me to eat outside. It was a little cold and windy so there was no way I was moving out.

I am not undisciplined on principle but some situations can really irritate me. I know that the French secular system has no place for religious “idiosyncrasies” but the incident made me realize that it not possible to be a vegetarian either, not to mention that I wonder what they expect people who have food allergies or intolerance to do. It was in fact the case for another of the examiners who also brings her own food.

My morning stupor prevented me from asking the reason behind this peculiar rule although I suspect it has to do with the zero-risk syndrome. It seems unlikely that a rotten egg eaten by myself in the staff dining-room might infect the students but I cannot imagine why schools would take such drastic measures.

The Mysteries of Teenagehood



A couple of years ago when my students created a Facebook profile, they usually did not bother about privacy and it was usually possible to see their photos and read or write on their walls.

Fast forward two years and numerous articles about the dangers of revealing too much about oneself, their FB accounts have become as tight as the CIA data. Until something a little unusual comes up.

Last night I created a FB profile for the language exchange we have with a high school in Sweden and invited them to join. Since I had noticed that communication via email was difficult with our students I created this persona to share thrilling announcements about payment deadlines, health cards, meetings, … I wrote them an email to let them know about this FB profile, stressing that if they did not want to share their data with Echange Franco-suédois they would need to alter their privacy settings.

Within 20 hours 17 students out 25 have asked to be Echange Franco-suédois‘s friend and it seems none of them have changed their settings thus allowing me and my two colleagues to share the exciting news they or they friends post on FB. Go figure.

Judaism in a Nutshell



Prior to a chapter on Jews in Medieval Europe (England for me, France and Germany for my history colleague), I tought it would be wise to revise or introduce a few basics about Judaism.

I have settled on a matching exercise: the students will have to match 31 terms and their definitions. I have also added a few pictures. I realize however that it is not easy to select the words and notions I want them to understand and remember.

If you were in my shoes, what terms would you have chosen?

Downs and Ups


I reckon that one of the reasons why I have not been blogging so much since September is the situation at work. The school I teach at – a French state school – has been going from bad to worse in the past few years.

Although we still have some great students, we also seem to have more than a fair share of rude, lazy, inconsiderate teenagers who spend their time texting from their phones and fail to understand why this enrages us.

Some colleagues are off-sick because they suffer from burn out or depression. Only this morning an experienced economics teacher burst into tears at 8 because of a violent incident that had happened yesterday evening and which meant she felt she could not face her class today.

I personally have an ongoing battle with a business class about coats (which they refuse to take off), textbooks (which they don’t bother to bring to class), note taking (which they try to avoid) and endless conversations (between themselves). I try not to give up because of what I believe a decent lesson should be like but it’s hard.

Dialogue with the administration is not easy. The deputy head blames everything on our inability to deal with students and is convinced that he would do a much better job if he were in our shoes. This obviously does not help and only creates more tension and frustration. The head is new, which means he is still very cautious in his dealings with the whole staff.

As a result, in December, we decided to unite and work together to improve the situations on several fronts. We made a list of the people who are sick and tired of the whole situation, asked them to email their complaints and organized a three-hour meeting (at the beginning of January) which 50 teachers attended and during which we drew up a list of problems and (suggested) solutions. This resulted in a short meeting with the administration yesterday where they agreed to consider our points and discuss them with us at the beginning of March.

So far we are not sure much will come out of this but the climate in the staff room has improved. People are more talkative and some colleagues now dare to share their problems. This is a small step albeit an important one in a profession where people are reluctant to admit failures and difficulties.

Today’s Inspection


The last time I was inspected was ten years ago so you can easily imagine how I felt this morning when the lesson started.

In France it is not the school which gets inspected but the individual teacher(s). So today two of us (out of ten English teachers) were concerned by this rare event.

The students behaved well, not that they really do otherwise normally, but at least they played their part and were cooperative. I was a bit disappointed that the more timid girls were more quiet than usual and that the most dynamic boy was off sick but, all in all, it went well.

The inspector seemed delighted with what she saw and during the conversation that followed she was praiseful and showed appreciation of what she had observed. I must admit that I was on a cloud as I often feel that, in this job, we hear more complaints than congratulations.

She also announced that she would raise my “grade” which will translate into a financial promotion in the short run and a more formal (albeit also financial) one in the long run..

Now I can go back to sleep relax and wait for another ten years.

To illustrate this post I have featured a photo of the Jewish high school in Hong Kong, Elsa High School, which is part of the Carmel School Association and is located in Shau Kei Wan.

Rabbi Lau in French Secular School


Of course, Rabbi Lau wasn’t physically present in my classroom this morning but the words he spoke in the video we watched seem to have made quite an impact on my students.

Thanks to Jew Wishes, who provided the link in a blog post, I read a wonderful and poignant article about Rabbi Lau and the Russian teenager who helped him survive in the Buchenwald slave labor camp.

On Tuesday mornings I have a group of four students. They are part of a larger class whom I meet twice a week but get an extra hour since they are preparing an oral exam and not a written one.

The idea is to provide them with extra material, vocabulary and cultural information on the topics we study with the class as a whole. I had already given the article to read (along with a few vocabulary exercises and questions) to my students and thought this small group would enjoy watching a video for a change.

The video can be seen on the Aish website – it is also possible to download it. Rabbi Lau speaks in Hebrew but there are English subtitles, which was nice for my students as two of them don’t feel very comfortable with English.

So the students watched it and took notes. I then asked them what they had understood before we watched it more carefully a second time. When we stopped it was obvious that they had been impressed by Rabbi Lau’s personal story, inspiring words and personality.

Taking Over


I have mentioned on one or two occasions that I have two new classes this year. I teach them Business English and prepare them for a two-part exam: a written paper and an oral.

For the written part of the exam the candidates get an article they have never seen before and which is related to a Business theme such as “Getting a Job”, “Human Resources”, Company Values”, “Retailing”, “Getting Global”, “Business Ethics” and ten more. They have to summarize it and translate a few lines. The oral is in two parts: they need to account for a written or oral document and also present a former work experience in English.

It is a new challenge both because it is completely new to me and because the students are older than those I am used to. I realize that I like the fact that they are older and usually more mature than ordinary high school students. It is nice to deal with young adults.

However I still feel daunted by the fact that all this is new to me. I am used to a certain type of English vocabulary and teaching situations but not to Business English – or at least not much. In addition I am taking over a colleague who had taught this course for years. Therefore I am always wondering if I am doing the right thing and what he would do.

I guess I’d need some sort of specific training that would help me feel more confident and at ease. Meanwhile I will have to trust my instincts and understanding of what the course is all about and how it should be devised and taught.

Getting Ready To Leave


We are about to leave Sweden after a day in Stockholm tomorrow. The students seem very happy with the exchange, which is very rewarding for their teachers. One girl went as far as saying that this was the best exchange she had been on (she said it was her sixth!).

Two out of the three collegues who take part in the exchange on this side have been to Israel. One English colleague my age even met his Swedish wife in a kibbutz near Eilat – where they were both working – 25 years ago.

While here I ate a lovely feta cheese and dill pie and will try to post the recipe next week; hopefully with a photo if I make it for us too.

When we get back Rosh Hashanah will only be hours away so I will need to be extremely organized. Some stuff (challot for instance) are already in the freezer ready to be defrosted. I have scheduled a dish of salmon, orange and honey as well as chicken. I hope to be able to make a cake.



– How can you not be horrified when a former students of yours takes his life at the age of 17?

– How do you come to accept such a terrifying piece of information when you remember him as one of the most pleasant and charming students you have ever had?

– How can you possibly comfort his friends and schoolmates?

I was away with my French and Swedish collegues for the weekend and got the news when we came back only a little while ago. This is is the second time one of our students has killed himself in the past six months. This boy was my student last year and was in the same class as the girl wo killed herself in April. Once again I feel shocked, devastated and at a loss for words.

Besides we are still in Sweden but we know that thanks to msn, FB and mobile phones, the students here are bound to now about his death. Tomorrow morning when we see the students again, there won’t be the school social worker and doctor to help us deal with them.

I hope and pray that we’ll be able to find words that will resonate with the youngsters who are under our responsibility and help them come to terms with such shocking news.

Sweden – Day 2


Swedish students are more autonomous than French students. My colleagues and I are not sure why but it is a fact. As a result we were student-free today as they were being taken care of by their Swedish counterparts who guided them through the town in the morning and took them to activities for the Swedish freshmen in the afternoon.

I went to two lessons with my Swedsih colleague this morning and marveled at the way her students speak English. They are more confident than most French pupils, speak freely in English when asked to work in pairs and are also much more fluent than the teenagers who are currently part of the exchange – although the latter are quit emotivated by languages.

In the afternoon we visited an exibition by the American artist Jim Dine whose nine-meter statue of Pinocchio stands in the middle of Borås, the city where we have the exchange. The exhibition was about Jim Dine’s obsession with the Italian puppet and featured the numerous statues he has made.