The beheading of history teacher Samuel Paty has put the spotlight on schoolteachers, and in particular their role in transmitting basic French values, like freedom of speech and the separation of state and religion. But what are teachers’ real roles? And how do they feel about the responsibility?
Samuel Paty was murdered by a man who was angry over social media posts by a parent of one of Paty’s students after the teacher had shown some of the caricatures of the prophet Mohamed printed by the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, in a lesson about freedom of speech.
Since the end of the 19th century, those values have been part of the remit of public school teachers.
The 1882 law introduced by education minister Jules Ferry made school secular and mandatory (for 6- to 13-year-olds), and introduced “moral and civic education”. Public school replaced religious education from the Catholic Church.
Today, civic education remains part of the school curriculum, from primary through high school. In middle school, it is up to history teachers, like Samuel Paty, to teach it.
“It has always been one of our fundamental missions,” says Rachid Zeroukki, a middle school teacher in Marseille.
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Civic education in middle school covers institutions, and rights and responsibilities. It also addresses laïcité, or secularism, introduced with the 1905 law separating church and state.
Zeroukki teaches in a Segpa, a special education section for students who need extra help. Over the years, he has developed a way to teach laïcité by working directly with the text of the laïcité charter, which is posted in every school.
With his students, they decipher the legal language and write their own charter using words that they can explain to their friends.
“These are students who are hard to motivate to work, but this is a subject that interests them, because it is very present in society,” says Zeroukki.
Students come into the class with preconceptions: “They have a negative vie of laïcité, as against religion. This is what is shown throughout society, fed by the media and some politicians. But when you look at the text itself … it does not oppose religion.”
Middle school history teacher Julie Van Rechem says teachers teach laïcité as it is written, which comes into conflict with how it is talked about and interpreted outside of school. The 1905 law protects individuals’ rights to practice their religion.
“But the way it is spread in the media, by politicians…. It is more like the absolute neutrality of citizens… no religion allowed at all,” she says, which puts teachers in a tricky situation. “We have these two injunctions: We know what we have to teach, but what the media says, what the parents ask sometimes, what the politicians ask is not at all what we are asked from our institution.”
Teachers in France are used to juggling different constituencies. Since the end of the first Covid confinement in May, teachers have continued teaching in schools opened by the education ministry, even in the face of uncertainty about the spread of the virus.
Paty’s murder came at the start of a two-week school break. This Monday, school is back in session, at the start of a second Covid lockdown, with teachers asked to mark a moment of silence, and teach a special class about freedom of speech.
Van Rechem says that while she was shocked by the murder, she will not be changing anything about the way she teaches – even her own presentation of the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that set off the murderer.
Teaching and showing the caricatures is not officially part of the middle school history curriculum, but she has shown some of them in the context of media studies.
Van Rechem is careful to set them up, before showing them.
“When I talk about... cartoons, and sometimes a very offensive ones, I always try to show some cartoons that are offensive to me,” she explains. She will show cartoons depicting lazy teachers, for example, and tell her students how she finds them offensive, but she has to accept that people see her profession differently than she does.
When she does show the Mohammed caricatures, she chooses them carefully.
“I try not to be on too many levels of understanding,” she says. One of the caricatures shows a naked Prophet on his knees, with a star on his buttocks, which she would not show. “In that cartoon, you have nudity, pornography – words that are very, very hard to explain and give nuance to teenagers.”
A lot on their shoulders.
“We have more and more things to pass on to students,” says Zeroukki. Besides values like laïcité and freedom of speech, they have practical considerations as well.
“During the confinement, there was all the digital preparation, and again, we got the impression that everything was our responsibility.”
He and other teachers readily accept the responsibility, but they do not have the support.
“There is never enough,” he says.
Van Rechem agrees. She feels used by politicians, sometimes: “I think that politicians use school as a tool, to show that they are dealing with problems, but we do not have the means to do it all.”
More from these teachers in the Spotlight on France podcast.