Based in Long Beach, California, "Teach Me Mr. West" is a blog by Jason West. His posts explore the rewards and challenges of being a highly effective 21st century educator.

Sacré Bleu! The Parisians Have Mastered Teaching!

Sacré Bleu! The Parisians Have Mastered Teaching!

I’m not sure if you follow me on Instagram  (and if you don’tcome on! Do it! It’s free content!), but I spent the bulk of my spring break in Paris. It was amazing and I may or may not have over-posted on my IG account while I was there. But to be fair, you can’t walk fifty feet without stumbling across something either gorgeous, medieval, or both. So what was I supposed to do? NOT post about it? Come on…

But I didn’t just walk around Paris with my mouth agape at all the beauty and historical significanceI learned many things while I was there, too. Things like:

  1. Notre Dame took over 700 years to build (which, fun fact, is only twice the amount of time it’s taking to make this final season of Game of Thrones!).
  2. The French government regulates the number of ingredients in baguettes (it’s four: flour, water, yeast, saltthat’s it).
  3. Because of this, baguettes are typically sold in the morning and the late afternoon because they don’t last longer than six hours (and if they last longer than six hours, consult a doctor, I guess?)
  4. It’s true that Napoleon was notoriously smallbut he was, like, REALLY small (I saw his hat and it looked like something that could be sold at the Baby Gap under their “Baby Revolutionary” spring line).
  5. American croissants are disgusting sponges made from recycled tires, merely posing as the most glorious bread of all time.

Okay, that last one wasn’t a fact as much as my opinionbut like the theory of evolution, it’s pretty much a fact.

There was one more thing—one more fact, that is—that I took away from my trip to Paris that I never expected. It turns out, Parisians are the best teachers.

It’s true! The French are, by my estimation, the best teachers I’ve ever come across. Granted, I’m not particularly well-travelled—my parents used to take me on vacation to exotic destinations like, “the touchless car wash” and “the fancier mini-golf course on the other side of town.” You know how you’ve always wanted to go to Disneyworld, Jason? Well, how about the Disneyworld of mini golf: the Congo River Putt-Putt! It’s located off the freeway just on the edge of the state border, so you KNOW it’s gonna be lit! Why are you crying?

I guess what I’m saying is, unlike my 100% accurate “opinion” on American croissants, take this opinion more as “lacking sufficient evidence to prove contrary.” But the Parisians gave me many examples to back up my claim. Check out this 100% true anecdote (one of many similar interactions with Parisians, in fact) and see how many examples of great teaching you can find:

I walk into a café with my wife.

WAITER: Bonjour m'sieur dame! Deux pour le déjeuner?

ME: Hi, two please?

WAITER: For lunch? Just the two of you?

ME: Yes.

The waiter seats us. We eat and then the waiter brings our check.

WAITER: Where are you both from?

ME: California.

WAITER: Ah, yes! I love it there! I lived in LA for a little bit. A few years. Is this your first time in Paris?

ME: Yes. It’s beautiful here!

WAITER: Oui! There is a lot of history. Have you been to any museums?

ME: No, not yet. We are thinking of going to the Louvre right now. What do you think?

WAITER: The Louvre is very nice, but it is very large and it’s hard to see everything. If you want something smaller and more intimate, you should definitely go to Museé d’Orsey. It’s in the sixth arrondissement. It’s beautiful and intimate, and you can see everything even though it is quite large.

ME: Sounds great! Is it far from here?

WAITER: No! You will just go down that way about half a kilometer on Rue de Verneuil, make a right on Rue de Poitiers and in about two or three blocks, you’ll be at the museé.

ME: Thanks! We’ll check it out!

My wife and I leave and walk right to the museum without any complications.

Okay, so full disclosure: my wife did most of the speaking during this conversation (she’s the boss both domestically and abroad), but for the sake of simplicity and to better illustrate my point, I simplified the dialogue to just me and the waiter. Sue me.

So what did I see in this (and the countless other examples like this) during my time in Paris? Well, let’s review:

1.     The Parisian waiter first spoke to me in his language; but once he realized I didn’t understand his language, he changed how he spoke to meet my needs. Obviously, this is a literal example, and I’m not encouraging teachers to learn the native tongue of every foreign language-speaking student. Though, that would be cool—Hey Johnny, I know you only speak Klingon at home, so I’ll ask you again: nuqjatlh? But wouldn’t you agree it takes a good teacher to be able to switch from the language of a teacher to the language of a student?

2.     The man asked a few questions about my life and volunteered a little bit about his life. This seems like pretty basic stuff, but you’d be surprised by how many times this doesn’t happen between students and teachers. What happens between students and teachers is often one-sided, where the teacher may ask students about their lives, but not share much (or anything) with the students. And as anybody who’s been on a bad Tinder date will tell you: a one-sided conversation will not result in intimacy.

3.     The Parisian waiter gave me a choice. See, he definitely wanted me to see a museum, but he allowed me to choose where I wanted to go. He validated my initial plan, but he also offered alternative suggestions and guidance for something he believed I’d enjoy more. When a teacher gives a student a project, they usually tell students what they must do and then enforce strict parameters on the project. Instead, consider the Parisian waiter’s approach and care only about the end result (in this case, that I visited a museum). That way, you can focus your energies on offering guidance to students (as they choose their own methods and interests) rather than enforcing parameters.

4.     Lastly, the Parisian waiter gave me directions in a manner that was straightforward, yet challenging. He didn’t dumb anything down for me, either. He simply told me what I needed to do (which was difficult because I wasn’t familiar with the layout of the city) and never strayed away from using the necessary vocabulary of the task. I’ll talk more about this next week, but it’s so crucial to give your students a task (while using academic language) and to trust that they will understand it. As teachers, we want our students to succeed so much that we do more handholding than we need. My wife and I ended up finding the museum without any issue. We were definitely uncertain about our ability to find the museum, but our anxiety over getting lost in the city made us so much more focused on reading the street signs that we ended up succeeding without making any mistakes. Trust that your students will “get it.” And if they fail, there’s always Google Maps.

As I said, this was not an isolated incident. All across Paris, I encountered locals (one after another) who held the same qualities as our most amazing teachers. They were extremely patient, informative, kind, and never condescending—basically the antithesis of the French stereotype. They made me feel capable and excited to explore and learn more about their city. There’s something to be said about a city that’s constantly filled with tourists creating high-quality teachers. After all, what are students if not tourists of our content?

As for my Parisian waiter, I truly believe that if he decided to work in education, his natural pedagogical skills would lead him to become a highly effective teacher. And, I mean, he did bring me a beautiful (authentically French) croissant—so he’s already my favorite teacher…

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