Un beau métier

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C’est un beau métier, c’est un très beau métier.

My host, Yannick, had been a captain of an ocean-going commercial ship, had made a career of it, and retired at the top of his game to establish the Kasbah Timdaf, where we were staying in Demnate, east of Marrakech. He was full of emotion as he drove the Land Rover back from town. “It’s a wonderful job, a really beautiful job.” He was talking about teaching. And in French métier does have the sense of a “calling” rather than a job.

After breakfast on Friday, as Joan and I were planning our return to Marrakesh from Demnate, Morocco, Yannick mentioned that there was one more school for me to visit, the local school right in the centre of the town. I wasn’t expecting another visit – the visits to the mountain schools the day before had provided enough food for thought.

We took the Land Rover into the town, Yannick waving as he passed to all the people he had gotten to know in his five years of building the Kasbah Timdaf and starting his business. We parked at the entry to the souq – the open market that wound down the contorted alleyways. I could see the pale pink plaster of the two-storey school buildings behind the ten-foot concrete walls. A high wooden gate with the typical curved top was half-closed; we stepped through the gap into a deserted school yard, the last few students disappearing into their classes.

We met with the Director of the school, who greeted us with the amiability characteristic of the people we met in Morocco. We stumbled a bit in our initial conversation; his French was weak, and my Arabic was non-existent. Then, the French teacher arrived and our conversation gathered momentum. He was filling in, the Director said, because the permanent Director was away sick. It was a good school, and most of the boys and some of the girls went on to the Collège. The French teacher was wonderfully friendly, and had been teaching at the school for sixteen years: he knew it well, knew the students well, and clearly loved his work. Next ensued a discussion of the teaching of Berber, appropriate after our expedition the previous day, up into the Berber country in the Atlas mountains. On the Director’s desk was a series of textbooks for the teaching of Berber. It was a new initiative on the part of the Ministry of Education, to allow and promote the teaching of Berber in those schools that wanted to do it. Berber is apparently a difficult language, without conjugations of verbs, for instance, which we are used to in English and French.

Could I do a tour of the school, and perhaps visit a class or two?

The Director’s reaction was uncomfortable and apologetic: unfortunately approval for such a visit would have to come via a formal application, which would take some time. Apparently a group of well-meaning French visitors who had given the school financial and material support had taken some pictures and compiled some accounts of their visit to the school, and even with the best of intentions the school and its activities did not come off in a favourable light. All was not lost in my case, however: it wouldn’t be a problem if I wanted to visit the class of the French teacher, who volunteered and was given permission for a sort of informal visit.

My host Yannick accompanied me to the class. The schoolyard was dusty, with some small fruit trees planted next to the buildings. We climbed a flight of stairs, and entered the classroom. The students all rose to their feet, as expected – not quite in unison, but they did all manage to stand and smile while we were introduced. Their uniform was simple: for the boys, a white shirt and dark pants, and for the girls basically the same thing but under a jellaba. About half the girls wore headscarves. By this time I was becoming aware that to judge the liberal or conservative nature of the community I was in by the prevalence of headscarves was simplistic. It is a measure of the outward social conservatism, true, but it is far from an adequate measure of a myriad of other qualities (such as intelligence, diligence, good nature, character) that are probably more important in trying to form a picture of the people who were so hospitable toward me, the stranger from a very distance place.

On the way to the classroom, the Director had apologized for the condition of the school, but actually it was a significant improvement on the schools I had seen further up in the mountains, an hour away. I told him not to apologize; we all do what we can with the resources we have, and besides it is the relationship between good teachers and students that really define a school. An excellent teacher must have two essential qualities: a love of students, and a love of his or her subject.

The class we saw was an outstanding affirmation of that point. It was far from rigid. Students were active and lively, eager to participate, and effective. All because it was an excellent teacher, one who had brought these sixth grade students to an impressive level of French. They enacted dialogues, did some reading and answered some questions. I added my bit, explained where I was from and what I was doing. I turned to Yannick when I was done and he was squeezing a tear from his eye. As soon as we were finished, and out of the room, he erupted. He was so moved, so affected. He was totally unprepared for the reaction he had had, watching those students learning, participating, responding – clearly they enjoyed learning, and their classroom was an environment where they learned without fear of failure or criticism. He never remembered school being like that for him. It was fantastic. He couldn’t help the tears in his eyes. Their level of French, for sixth grade!

For my part I was moved by his reaction. In the car back we continued our conversation. He was impressed by how free and easy the pupils were, how they clearly did their work, but didn’t live in fear of the teacher. At first he thought that maybe there was a lack of structure in the class but in fact it was an excellent environment, a perfect balance he said. I inserted my affirming phrases, agreeing. There is not much that is more uplifting than the experience of learning, and an excellent teacher, such as the one we saw, creates the conditions for learning. An excellent teacher watches and listens for the inflections in voice, the hesitation, the eagerness, the glances and the lowered eyelids of trepidation or shyness, the spark and fire of understanding. Yannick couldn’t stop talking about it even after he got back to the Kasbah – once someone new came within range and asked him how he was doing, he would launch in. I helped him with the English speakers.

Nothing is more important in a school than excellent teaching. Many other things contribute to the overall success and power of the learning experience for the students: good families that value the quest that is education, resources, planning, high expectations, a profound moral dimension are some other essential elements. But an excellent teacher, who does his or her work devotedly, professionally and with a humble sense that we are all serving purposes much larger than we are, has an influence and power that is hard to express.

I think of my colleagues at school in such moments, with gratitude and respect. Committed, devoted teachers.

C’est un beau métier, c’est un très beau métier.

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Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden was Head of School at St. Michaels University School for 22 years, from 1995-2017.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience on your blog. I can somewhat relate. I was born in Lebanon where I first learned French. I now use in this beautiful language in my own “métier” as a French teacher in an Independent School all the way in Victoria, BC, ways away from where it all began for me.
    The sentiment in “C’est un beau métier, c’est un très beau métier” comes to life when I meditate on my own journey as a French teacher.

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