"If I had to do it all over again, I'd go back to teaching".

The number of entrants to secondary education entrance examinations has fallen by over 30% in fifteen years. And the situation is no better in primary education. Agnès Perrin-Doucey is Dean of the Faculty of Education, and before that, she taught from kindergarten to university, via middle school and high school. She talks to us about the human values of a profession at the very heart of our societies.  

Agnès Perrin-Doucey, Dean of the Faculty of Education, and Philippe Augé, President of the University of Montpellier, addressing the students of the "métiers de l'enseignement, de l'éducation et de la formation" master's program on November 7.

In 2023, the number of candidates taking the competitive examination for primary school teachers was 38% lower than in 2021, and 18.5% lower for secondary school teachers (Le Monde 2/01/2023) . Are all teaching and education professions affected by this decline in attractiveness?
The phenomenon is very visible in all teaching professions, a little less so for the CPE competitive examination, but it's coming on slowly. There's a decline in the attractiveness of jobs that deal with people in general. We're also seeing this in the healthcare sector. It's a trend that's affecting other European countries, even if France is a country where teachers are still pretty badly treated.

Is this a homogeneous phenomenon?
In primary education, academies such as Créteil and Versailles are more affected, but even in Montpellier, which is a sought-after academy, the eligibility rate has fallen to 1.5 candidates per post. In secondary education, many disciplines are struggling to recruit. We're talking about mathematics or German, but this is also the case for French. There are still some highly prized disciplines, such as EPS, philosophy and history-geography, but even here the number of candidates for the competitive examination is starting to fall.  

Why do you say that these professions are suffering?
There's the question of pay, but that's not the only one. Civil service jobs have long been discredited by society in general. For teachers, there's also the incessant and exhausting reforms that end up creating disinvestment, with some reluctant to commit 42 or 43 years to the profession. Then there are the international surveys that convey the idea that French schools are in decline, without explaining the reasons for these weaknesses, and without saying that French pupils are among the best in the world. It's an illustration of the social divide in our country, which is very present at school.

The use of contract staff has risen by 1.5 points in secondary education in 5 years, and in primary education the number of contract staff has risen by 38% compared with 2020 (Senate information report 8/06/2022). The Académie de Versailles has even organized jobdating to recruit ( France Bleue 27/05/2022) . How can we motivate young people to take the exam?
Today, many teachers take the contract route. In secondary education, the competitive examination is national, and many students don't want to go to the academies where there is a shortage of teachers. This subject was very much in the forefront of the meeting organized with the Rector: "Are you planning to set up an academic competitive examination for secondary school teachers? [Read Meeting future teachers at the UM, 7/11/2023]. And then you take the exams later too. At 24 or 25, you're already settled in life, and many young people are in couples and want to settle down. It's all this that weighs on recruitment.

The resignation rate among trainees has never been so high, and is currently ten times higher than that of permanent staff (Senate information report by G.Longuet, 8/06/2022). What do you think is behind these resignations?
In Montpellier, the rates aren't as high. It's essential to have internships, but it's true that sometimes certain experiences can shatter young people because they realize that teaching is difficult and tiring. There's the voice, the breath, the physical fatigue... The teacher in the classroom is the one who drives the energy, so you need a lot of it. That's one of the things you discover when you learn the job. Personally, I came into contact with pedagogy when I was quite young, first as a vacation camp leader. When you're woken up in the middle of the night because a child is sick, even though you've only been asleep for two hours, you learn to forget yourself and get up. These experiences don't teach you how to teach, but they do teach you the life skills that are essential for teaching and dealing with young children.

You've talked about the "savoir-être" of the teacher, what do you think they are?
The first "savoir-être" for teaching is benevolence and self-control, but it also means knowing how to assert authority, being firm while remaining fair. Ask your students, they all say the same thing. A good teacher is someone who is fair, who helps you progress, who listens to you, who understands you. He's the one who can take the pupil from where he is, and take him as far as he can go. It's a bit like the honest man of the 18th century. You need to reread Montaigne's Essays; he had a lot to say about what makes a good teacher.

But not all students in a class are at the same level, so how do you get them all there?
Yes, and that's why fairness is an essential value. You're a better teacher with experience, even if it's not always that simple, because you can't succeed with all students. And then, of course, there's mastery and interest in one's subject, and all the intellectual qualities that make for good transmission of knowledge, even if I don't like the word transmission.

Because it implies that there is an empty vessel that the teacher will fill with his or her knowledge. As I often say to trainees at the start of the year, we don't teach, we teach. It's the student who learns, and we create the conditions for learning. That's why today's training programs place greater emphasis on what we call soft skills. Learning to develop a non-violent relationship with oneself and others, for example. In France, we've largely stuck to the idea that knowledge should be adapted to the technique of the trade, but there are many other skills to be acquired.

In other words?
For example, a school teacher is expected to master the technique of learning to read. Yes, of course, but above all they need to be able to analyze how pupils learn. When it comes to learning to read, pupils learn in extremely different ways. They also need to know how to develop the pupil's relationship with reading.

There are techniques involved in teaching, aren't there?
Yes, but that's not the main thing. It's a profession that demands a high level of understanding not only of the discipline itself, but also of the psychology of children and adolescents, of society, of history, of pedagogy, and of oneself. As Jaurès once said: " You don't teach what you know or what you think you know...: you only teach what you are. That's a debatable quote, as private dimensions must also be set aside. But when he says "what you are", he's talking about commitment, about being a citizen. It's what has shaped and built us, and of course it's a profession in which the question of human values is a major issue.

Is commitment a fundamental value of the teaching profession?
I don't think you can do this job if you don't have a commitment to humanity or citizenship, if you don't question the importance of the job for humanity. Clearly, it's an intellectual profession that has to do with politics, but it's often turned into a technical profession, particularly in primary education.

Do you encourage students to go into these professions anyway?
The other day, a student asked the Rector and everyone else present: "Do you think this is the most beautiful profession in the world? I don't know if it's the best job in the world - it's the only one I've ever done - but if I had to do it all over again, I'd go back to teaching, even in the current context. I've blossomed in this profession, because I've found what I was looking for. A passion for my subject, literature, a passion for teaching, a passion for human relations. I've been able to progress steadily in my career, and maybe that's helped me not to regret my choices. And today, there are still students who believe in this profession. I don't know if that's what you call a vocation, but they go because they want to teach.

What has the teaching profession brought you personally?
During her visit, the Rector told the students that we all had a model teacher. I've got a lot of model teachers too. But I also think that every teacher has students who have marked their lives, students who have helped them grow in their profession. There's an Inspector of Literature in the Montpellier academy who has designed a project called "Ces élèves qui nous élèvent" ("These students who lift us up"). That's exactly what this profession is all about: students lift us up.