Teaching in France: headteacher Stephen Jankowski shares his experience

Teaching in France: headteacher Stephen Jankowski shares his experience

So, Steve, where did you grow up, and when did you realise you wanted to become a teacher? I grew up in North West London, in a place called Kilburn until I was 14. During my school studies I actually moved to near Luton, to...


So, Steve, where did you grow up, and when did you realise you wanted to become a teacher?

I grew up in North West London, in a place called Kilburn until I was 14. During my school studies I actually moved to near Luton, to a small village – I think there were only about 20 people in this village, ha-ha! It took some adjustment moving from such a central location crowded by people. It was a significant change in general.

Changing schools perhaps didn’t help my education. Growing up, I changed schools several times, in fact. I remember one of my schools was a grammar school – one could describe it as Victorian-esque in its methods. It was very strict and subject-driven in terms of achieving results.

As a child and a teenager I never wanted to be a teacher, believe it or not. I didn’t do overly well in my education. Nevertheless, I attended university, got a degree, and pursued my interest in theatre.


Did your experience of education affect your career choice?

Yes and no – as I said, I never actually wanted to be a teacher, and I wasn’t a fan of the strict methods of teaching and lack of freedom in school. I thought that old-fashioned teaching was disenchanting with its need for institutionalisation and control.

I always enjoyed theatre, and the history and culture behind it, and I found university gave me a far greater sense of freedom than I had experienced before. I studied at Goldsmiths College, London. I also found acting to be ‘rich’, in terms of the surrounding lessons and culture it entails.

The theatre was a new motivator for me. And I truly believe that education should be fun! If you don’t want to be studying a subject and are doing it for the sake of completion or ‘because you have to’ then you shouldn’t be there.

After my degree, I also had a few job experiences relating to the theatre and acting – some of which involved teaching and presenting to others. I did also delve into teaching, however I finished by the age of 29 – it still wasn’t for me!

When did you get back into teaching?

I didn’t ‘want’ to teach until perhaps the age of 50 when I started my current job at Kingsworth International School (Primary and Secondary). … You could say I rediscovered teaching! The role came up and I thought that I may be underqualified, especially for the role of headteacher, however, I secured the position and I haven’t looked back since. I guess I had the necessary life experience. Obviously, it helps though that I was familiar with France and the culture, since I had moved there some years before. It was already my permanent home.

Furthermore, I have always been a firm believer that education is for life – I thought my new role would be both a learning curve for me, and the staff and students. The school is still a start-up – it only opened just over four years ago, and the Primary School has been open for just two years.

Your website says that Kingsworth school “adopts modern philosophy and approaches to education”. Can you explain this further?

Yes, of course. Kingsworth is a school that combines realism with a holistic approach to learning. What I mean by realism is the knowledge that students study to move onto higher education such as university, and to prepare for their working lives; however, we are not purely exam-driven. Academics are great, but education needs to be fun, and approached in a way in which all can benefit from different learning methods.

We should all enjoy it! It’s largely about positive and productive communications.

Do the teaching styles therefore vary between the Primary and the Secondary school?

To a certain extent yes, by the time students finish their Primary education; Secondary school is where the realism comes into play. It’s interesting to see how the approaches of staff differ overall though. Kingsworth Primary is a bilingual school, equally split in terms of teaching staff. Three staff members speak in English at all times whilst three other teachers speak in French. The education then results in a 50-50 learning outcome. I often see traces of Anglo-Saxon teaching methods as opposed to traditional French culture – but, because our staff members are also international, their experiences and approaches all vary, which is nice to see.

What about the future? – Are International Schools beneficial to education?

International schools help celebrate diversity. I know what it’s like – having lived in London, you get people from all ethnic backgrounds, which is great. It’s the same in schools. Students of different sexes, races and religions all together helps create more rounded individuals and a culturally diverse learning environment. Being able to express yourself as well as getting perspectives from others is rewarding.

A down side of International Schools however is they are often private – or the tuition fees are extremely high. Admittedly they have proven success, for example most international and private schools boast fantastic academic results. Here at Kingsworth, I wouldn’t say we have ‘privileged’ learners. We have an array of students from all different economic and cultural backgrounds.

Are there any challenges you’ve faced both teaching in England and France?

Well, I’ve faced many challenges in terms of education and my career. A similar challenge maybe, universally, is the ‘copy and paste culture’ – students either with their homework or classwork copying and pasting the answers online or from friends.

In a broad sense, what is the importance of teaching or learning abroad? What are the benefits?

From my understanding, for both teachers and learners, when you attend a school abroad, you are not the only one ‘out of your comfort zone’. And being out of your comfort zone is healthy, and aids development. Students and teachers are from various backgrounds, so have different perspectives on teaching and learning. This aids the learning process – you never stop learning.

In a way, I think it closes stereotypical ideas about certain countries and cultures too. For instance, at Kingsworth, if there’s ever been an individual in a class who’s misbehaving or jeopardising the learning environment, because of the diversity of students, they do not judge and say ‘Oh, it’s because they are this nationality or from that religion’. Collectively, they (like the teachers), just think an individual is being naughty.

What are the benefits for bilingual teachers and learners?

Similarly, bilingual learning helps structure the thought process. You don’t have to be an overachiever with academics, but if you can speak two or multiple languages, it provides rich opportunities in terms of learning, further studies, and job opportunities.

Languages aid your personal development immensely. We have some students here who can speak four languages even.

International schools in general help eradicate the ‘monolingual = mono-cultural’ thought process. If a country’s language is spoken worldwide, some people can be arrogant or lazy, in terms of not appreciating the value of learning another language – or about other cultures. This is wrong.

Tell me about a funny or memorable highlight in your teaching career?

I wouldn’t necessarily define this as the funniest, but looking back now, although it may have been the wrong choice of actions from myself it’s memorable, ha-ha! It’s the only time it’s happened.

At a previous school, I was teaching an English Language & Literature combined course… I found myself lecturing for about 20 minutes and the students literally didn’t care… They chatted, they laughed – anything but paid attention. I tried persistently until I had had enough.

Crack! I threw a handful of books down, over my desk, with a couple landing on the floor, and I stood up, said “I’m off to the library”, and walked out. You might argue it was the wrong thing to do – or that such behaviour is now frowned upon by teachers. However, the students immediately followed, apologised and persuaded me to stay and teach. They realised they were wrong and had learnt the better lesson.

Do experiences like that motivate you to do your best?

Of course, everything I experience working in a school motivates me… My biggest motivation though is the respect of the kids. I love for students to see the bigger picture – the process of this learning environment and the goals beyond that. When learners respect you, or are grateful for your hard work, that’s a great feeling.

Education is so useful, for all of us. Getting them to realise that is key.

Lastly, if you had one bit of advice for teachers considering or newly starting a job abroad what would it be?

Just one bit of advice? … Go and live there first!  From my experience, it’s better to get a flavour of the place you’re working in. Teachers should live in their new or desired destination for a year or so before teaching, otherwise you don’t get the same experience. This could be travelling, for example – you should travel to a few destinations, particularly whilst you’re young, and then decide where you’d like to teach.

Ideally, you want to surround yourself in the culture of the place, and immerse yourself with new experiences. Just going straight to a new school abroad, yes, there’s culture, but you’re enclosed within the International framework of the school.


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