The Cross The Weekly: Why did you choose to be interested in dropping out of school?
Jeremy Fontaniou: When I started as an economics and social studies (SES) teacher in Seine-Saint-Denis, school dropouts quickly became more interested in me than I came to them. We imagine the classic model of a student who gradually misses classes and eventually disappears from the institution altogether. But this form of academic failure is only the tip of the iceberg. The other part, more invisible and pernicious, concerns the students who continue to come to class, but who in their approach to school, both intellectually and mentally, are no longer there. A form of resignation emerges and it disgusts me very quickly.
Rachid Zeruki: For my part, this work is a continuation of my teaching in the Department of Adapted General and Vocational Education (Segpa). Statistical studies show that a third of Segpa students drop out before entering high school. We often cite a lack of motivation to explain these dropouts, but when we lift the iron curtain of academic difficulty, we find tragedies, insecurities, illnesses, and life trajectories marked by adversity.
How do you see school in France today?
RZ: The French school fails to respond to social inequalities. She reproduces them. The surveys of the International Program for Monitoring Student Achievement (Pisa), conducted every three years in OECD member countries, systematically provide evidence of this. In Segpa – which is a professional stream for which selection takes place at the end of CM2 – the majority of students come from humble backgrounds, children of immigrants and young people with a difficult life path.
JF: The finding of the lack of equal opportunity, highlighted in the 1960s by the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, remains unchanged. On the other hand, what I find particularly cruel is that elements of government language continue to perpetuate the myth of “When we want we can”. Not only is meritocracy a chimera, but this discourse also makes the children of the most popular strata feel guilty by telling them: “If you can’t do it, it’s your fault. »
Do you address this sociological reality with your students?
RZ: Being aware with students about the social determinisms that weigh on them can be very violent. We know, for example, that a quarter of homeless people are former children in foster care. This statistic is too hard to hear for a 13 or 14 year old living in a hostel. Personally, I’m not into that.
JF: In the SES program, social structures are the object of study in themselves. Therefore, it is about the existence of inequalities and their causes. For students, dealing with concepts such as class habitus or social reproduction can be very symbolic violence.
You make a similar observation about the meritocratic “myth”, but your teaching methods are very different. Can you tell us more?
JF: The position we take in the Reconciliations project is the result of an observation: students have an unpleasant tendency to use the freedom they have to squander their potential. They commit petty adolescent nonsense that leads to lateness, forgetting study material and, above all, not repeating the lessons at home. The rigor we are showing is aimed at reducing bad habits and bringing out tremendous unused capacity. Social inequalities must not become a pretext for lack of work. That’s why we relentlessly penalize tardies and missed assignments and have implemented weekly assessments in the form of multiple-choice tests to ensure students learn their lessons daily. As soon as they see an improvement in their results, students join the project. It’s a virtuous circle in which they regain a taste for effort.
RZ: Our methods differ because our audiences are different. My students have very often struggled academically and have had consistent failures in the past. Because of this contradictory relationship with the school, it is not appropriate to hold a discourse based on rigor and hard work. In order to stimulate the taste of knowledge found in them, I need external sources of motivation. Affect is one of them. It may come from the desire to please one’s parents, from the need for social recognition, or from a special relationship with the teacher. As I follow my students through their college years, the connection that is made over time is clearly a pedagogical lever. It makes them not want to disappoint me and follow me in the challenges I offer them.
JF: The worst thing about education would be to think that there is a miracle formula. The Reconciliations project responds to a specific context. Above all, its success reveals that pedagogical freedom is fundamental in the fight against dropout.
What is the role of parents in their children’s academic success?
J.f.: My main observation in my early years was that I couldn’t do it on my own. That is why I called on the families of my students for help. I needed a relay at home to make sure they worked properly after hours. The project we lead is based on collaborative learning. We need to put families back at the center of the game and send them a message of hope. No parent says no when a teacher calls at the beginning of the school year and asks: “Does it tell you that we are joining forces to help your child succeed? » They feel engaged and this association triggers new opportunities.
R.H.: Too often discussions with families are limited to bad news. However, failure at school is also violent for parents, as it is common for them to have experienced a difficult relationship with school during their youth. On the other hand, we know from a sociological perspective that monitoring schooling is a gendered task that relies heavily on mothers. Sometimes they are lonely and experience in their flesh the school difficulties of their children. I believe that there is a lack of effort on the part of the institution to include these parents and that the mutual distrust that is imposed leads to a lack of educational continuity.
In recent years, however, digital tools have been introduced to connect with families.
RZ: This is a positive step, but these means of communication are not inclusive enough. If Pronote (school life management software, interface between teachers, administration and parents, editor’s note) has become commonplace, it remains difficult for many parents who are illiterate or for whom French is not their first language to use.
J.f.: Spreading a tool is not enough. We must invite and initiate its use. The school imagines that in working-class neighborhoods all parents are digitally comfortable and have a smartphone. It’s wrong. At Drancy we communicate with families on our personal phones through weekly text messages and phone calls. Our method works because there is a strong personal commitment on the part of the teachers. But in reality, this success is a matter of resourcefulness.
R.H.: What’s more, this observation about digital technology is the same for teenagers. There is a significant gap between the availability and use of IT tools between the most disadvantaged students and children from the more affluent social categories. It’s not easy to use your phone to increase your cultural capital, take online courses, or document yourself. He learns. At the same time, access to entertainment on the phone can increase the phenomenon of dropping out of school in case of excess.
Do you expect the situation to improve? What would be your recommendations for combating failure in school?
RZ: Inevitably, the question of the values that the school wants to convey is related to the human and material resources that are made available to it. Lack of funds is synonymous with lack of ambition. However, in recent years, many items have been collected on dropping out of school. Micro colleges and relay classes are interesting avenues to explore. In this context of “reconnection,” closeness to families seems to me a radical necessity.
JF: Personally, I have little hope for structural change and I don’t think anything really positive will happen in the next five years. But on a more local scale, our project demonstrates that it is possible through trial and error and peer-to-peer discussion to find workable solutions. Only this fertility can only take place in a material framework that allows it, and in a context where the teaching profession is more valued, both socially and financially.
RZ: More recently, even if this is not all, far from it, we can note a rather welcome change in tone. To hear from the mouth of the current Minister of Education that schools are not fair to the poor is new. A few months ago, such a statement would have made him look like a dissident. We must now find the means to remedy this state of affairs.