People of the pandemic: The French teacher who became a lockdown YouTube star

·6-min read

Marie-Solène Letoqueux, a kindergarten teacher in a small town in Brittany, burst into the social media limelight during the first lockdown in France when she created a YouTube show that won her accolades and thousands of followers and, eventually, numerous awards. This is the first installment of a FRANCE 24 series about people who made an impact during the pandemic.

French media have celebrated her as a “YouTube star” and a “queen among teachers”, but Letoqueux brushes aside these compliments, saying she was only doing her job. Perhaps, but not all teachers created a YouTube channel to ensure the continuity of their students’ education during the pandemic.

When French President Emmanuel Macron announced the closure of schools on March 12, 2020, Letoqueux was rather pleased. “I figured I’d be able to take care of my little girl, who was only 4 months old at the time," says the 34-year-old teacher in Luitré-Dompierre, a town of 2,000 near Fougères. "But my husband quickly understood that I couldn’t stand not working for long, that I would go stir crazy. So he suggested that I continue to teach via YouTube.”

Hesitant at first, Letoqueux finally let herself be talked into it. It helped that her husband is an old hand at video production: Himself a former YouTuber (known by the pseudonym RealMyop) and a video game enthusiast, he has his own production company and produces popular science content for channels such as Arte.

Time to go live

The equipment and the skills were there; all Letoqueux had to do was roll up her sleeves and turn the project into reality. The couple transformed a room in their house into a classroom and created the show’s framework.

A small team of professionals quickly came together: Ronan the husband, with daughter in the baby carrier, served as director; a graphic designer created the set and another designed the opening credits – which left Letoqueux the job of teaching and presenting.

After a few rehearsals, the team took the plunge. They invited the parents of the class’s 26 pupils by email to follow the new programme, “La maîtresse part en live” (a rather fortuitous play on words that can mean either, “The teacher goes live” or “The teacher spins out of control”).

“No one expected this but the reactions were enthusiastic,” Letoqueux recalls. “I received a lot of encouragement from parents, my principal and my colleagues.”

The first episode went online March 23 – aired live, to avoid hours of video editing. Some 60 pupils watched the first virtual lesson with their parents.

“I wasn't really very comfortable during the first episodes,” Letoqueux says. “But I improved, thanks to feedback from the parents. I became more theatrical and I learned to adapt to the constraints. For example, I realised I had to give students more time to think and respond, since it was all about teaching.”

Soon, the pupils and their parents were won over. Word of mouth and social media worked their wonders. The live video sessions, initially intended for the nursery school students of the tiny town of Luitré, quickly spread beyond Brittany. “People were connecting from all over the world – from Canada, New Zealand, Chile, Japan, Africa, the Middle East ... I absolutely did not expect to cause such a stir,” Letoqueux says.

Some episodes reached record audiences of more than 9,600 connections – the equivalent of about 400 kindergarten classes – and around 13,000 parents were exchanging photos, videos and impressions on a shared server.

“The show responded to parents who found themselves a little helpless during that period. Others were just happy to be like little flies on the wall, observing their children’s behaviour in class."

Organising a community

Faced with the scale of the show's success, the team recruited a community manager to moderate the inflow of comments. A small group of parents helped the team store all of the support material. Letoqueux also relied on other teachers – members of a “remote kindergarten-teaching” Facebook group – for new ideas, since she was producing a one-hour live broadcast, four days a week.

The show’s formula was always the same: opening theme and credits presented by the teacher, the date and the weather, followed by stories, songs, handicraft workshops, cooking lessons and other activities, sometimes with Letoqueux in costumes or capes. It was a winning formula: “You’ll never get bored on this show,” the daily introduction promised, and the proof was in the numbers – the channel soon had more than 90,000 subscribers.

But the end of the lockdown meant the show’s run was also about to end. On May 4, 2020, Letoqueux announced she would return to teaching in class at the request of her principal.

What she hadn’t foreseen was that thousands of her YouTube channel subscribers would join forces and launch a petition arguing that the programme was in the “public interest”, demanding that she continue. In the end, at the request of the rector of the Rennes academy, her school district office, Letoqueux extended her digital adventure until the end of the school year, July 3. The petitioners won, as did children whose schools hadn’t reopened.

‘A nice interlude’

Letoqueux’s initiative was soon emulated by others. “Other teachers embarked on similar projects,” she said. “I’m glad I was able to inspire some people.”

The media were also inspired. “I was invited to interview after interview. At first I stammered – I wasn’t particularly comfortable with it,” she says. After a while, strangers were recognising her in the street. “It’s pretty fun. But what pleased me the most about the whole story is seeing all this mutual help springing up around the project. The show also allowed me to progress in my profession, to learn new teaching methods, to grow more comfortable with the students.”

This past school year, Letoqueux put away her fairy hats and superhero capes and went on to teach the kindergarten class of the Saint Joseph de Bonabry private school in Fougères. “It brought me closer to my home and face-to-face with real students, in the flesh. Seeing them in real life, seeing their reactions, rediscovering the noise of the classroom, I missed all of that. I was very happy to get back to it.”

But Letoqueux’s adventure did not end there. She received the National Education Academic Palms, an award bestowed by the state on distinguished teachers for valuable service in education. Ironically, she was even chosen as Breton of the Year at the annual “Victoires de la Bretagne” ceremony, which rewards people who have made regional news during the year. “It's funny, considering I come from Normandy,” she said with a smile. She was also offered new projects, such as writing children’s books.

“This project was a nice interlude for me, but for now, I want to continue my work as a teacher. It’s a true calling, which I have carried with me since the ninth grade. But who knows, I’m keeping all these proposals in the back of my mind for the day when I can no longer stand the students,” she says, laughing. “But that time has not yet come.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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