Investigation

Teaching French in the United States: Difficult, but Not Impossible!

Becoming a teacher of French in the United States is no easy task. You have to navigate the required qualifications, certifications, and hiring criteria, which differ between public and private learning institutions and states. What’s more, native Francophone teachers looking to emigrate to the U.S. have to deal with visas, recruitment programs, and the surprises that inevitably await wherever they end up. Buckle up; there’s going to be a few patches of turbulence!
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© Boris Séméniako

“At one point in Louisiana and Maine, speaking French was enough for the Ku Klux Klan to plant a burning cross in front of your house,” says Fabrice Jaumont, education attaché for the French embassy in the United States. In the interwar period, this racist organization would regularly target Francophone communities. In Louisiana from 1921 onwards, not only was it obligatory to speak English in public schools, but students were also forbidden from speaking French. This assimilation through education was highly effective: A whole generation gave up on French and turned to English within just a few decades. And it was only in the 1960s that this French ban was lifted in Louisiana and Maine.

French is now the seventh most spoken language in American homes – and the second most widely taught foreign language after Spanish. “We estimate that at least one million U.S. students are learning French,” says Fabrice Jaumont. In recent years, dual-language programs have multiplied, and there were 182 French-English programs in the American public school system in 2021. Parents are particularly interested in this style of teaching, and are fully aware of the cognitive advantages that bilingualism can offer their children.

However, the United States is a complicated country and its education system varies enormously. “Nothing is centralized when it comes to schooling,” says Fabrice Jaumont. What’s more, there are major differences between public and private education. Although the latter only makes up 25% of American schools, French is taught across both systems. Private schools, even those accredited by the French Ministry of Education, can recruit whoever they want because they define their own criteria. Meanwhile, public schools follow the certification regulations set out by local Boards of Education, which change from state to state.

A Shortage of Teachers in the United States

Despite an appetite for French, 47 of the 50 American states find it difficult to recruit language teachers, according to a report from the American Association for Applied Linguistics. While the demand on the jobs market is still very high, becoming a teacher implies having the time and money to complete the necessary training. And increasingly fewer U.S. students are turning to the teaching profession. “It’s a generalized problem,” says Fabrice Jaumont. “Both in France and the United States.”

This educational shortfall is impossible to measure exactly, but it is chronic and in danger of eventually affecting the teaching of French, according to Eileen Walvoord, the president of the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF), whose website lists job offers aimed at French teachers. “It is difficult to fill vacant positions in rural communities, but big cities are also bearing the brunt. This is negatively impacting full-time positions, and the challenge is even greater when looking for teachers to fill in for maternity leave.”

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© Boris Séméniako

As you can see, becoming a French teacher in the United States is no bed of roses. For the last ten years, applicants have been forced to meet increasingly strict criteria. Public schools demand a qualification in both French and teaching, validated by four years of university. Candidates must also pass a basic competency exam, submit an application detailing personal educational practices, and carry out a two-year educational training program at the end of their studies. “The training course is often an obstacle for students who want to be teachers,” says Eileen Walvoord. “An innovative program at the University of Connecticut includes the course and enables students to save a year.” But at 52,000 dollars for this master’s degree, without counting housing, books, and other costs, “it is a huge investment for subsequently rather low wages.”

Little Consideration for Foreign Languages

Difficult working conditions is also a reason for the constant shortage of French teachers. This is due to how foreign languages are perceived in the United States. While Europeans feel the need to learn languages spoken in neighboring countries, this is not the case in the U.S. Some have put this down to America’s geography and economic hegemony. “When there is no need, there is no encouragement,” says Fabrice Jaumont. “And when there are budget cuts in schools, the first to lose their jobs are often the language professors as their subjects are not seen as priorities.”

There are also vast differences in salaries – between 40,000 and 110,000 dollars per year – with the lowest wages found in the poorest states and school districts. Qualifications and experience also have an influence. A teacher with a master’s can earn 50,000 dollars per year in Los Angeles – the average teaching salary in the United States – compared with 44,000 in Utah and 37,000 in Louisiana. As for the number of jobs, this is dependent on the budget of each district. French teachers are often also asked to teach Spanish to make up for a lack of staff. It should be said that in public schools, teachers’ working conditions are overseen by unions. This is not the case in private institutions, where salaries are generally lower.

Despite these challenges, French is still a popular subject and remains on school curriculums as it attracts the American elite. There are currently 30,000 French teachers in the country according to the AATF, compared with just 10,000 in 2010. Where they work is closely linked to demographics, with most found in and around Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, and in California. The Rocky Mountains and the South have the fewest, with the exception of Utah and Louisiana.

Salt Lake City Puts French in the Spotlight

Utah has invested massively in bilingualism. To such an extent that it is currently the top state for the creation of immersion programs, including in Russian, Mandarin, and French. These programs have been developed on an almost industrial scale since 2009, and are aimed at public school students from elementary to university. The goal is to train multilingual citizens with an international perspective to attract foreign investors to this landlocked region. “We are the victims of our own success,” says Georgia Geerlings, the director of the French dual-language immersion program in Utah. “There is such a high demand that we have been forced to introduce a lottery for applicants.”

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© Boris Séméniako

So, how does it work? “We do not teach French; we teach in French,” says Georgia Geerlings, who welcomes new teachers for a week of training every August before school starts. Classes are taught in both languages by two teachers. One gives classes in English for half the day, and the other teaches in French for the other half. As a result, splitting classes means that twice as many children are educated. Some 39 schools currently offer this program in the state. In total, 8,131 students from elementary to high school are taught math, history, sciences, and art in French by 108 Francophone teachers.

This group includes 57 from France via partnerships between Utah and six French regional education authorities (the académies of Amiens, Bordeaux, Créteil, Grenoble, Nancy-Metz, and Poitiers). Eleven more are expected this year as part of the Jules Verne international mobility program, overseen by the French Ministry of Education, for positions in elementary schools. French teachers receive a two-year J-1 visa, which will no longer be renewable from 2023 onwards. (Their spouses can apply for a J-2 via, but must also request a work permit, which takes around three months to obtain.)

Salaries depend largely on the expatriation contract. Teachers on leave from their French académie are paid by the U.S. school district in which they work (between 45,000 and 75,000 dollars in Utah), while those arriving via the Jules Verne program are paid by the French Ministry of Education. In the latter scenario, finding accommodation in the United States with a monthly salary of 1,800 euros can quickly become problematic. Jules Verne candidates generally have to find affordable housing further afield. And in order to avoid exorbitant realtor fees, many teachers search for listings on Craigslist and take in roommates.

Welcoming French Teachers to Louisiana

The situation is quite different in Lafayette, where the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) is headquartered. Accredited by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, this state agency recruits teachers and helps them obtain three-year J-1 visas, which can be extended to five years. With 26 bilingual French-English programs, most of the immersion teachers in Louisiana are non-American. The 2021-2022 academic year had 114 French teachers, 21 Belgians, 4 Canadians, and 9 from Francophone African countries. “We respect their school stages,” says Peggy Feehan, director of the CODOFIL. “If you are an elementary school teacher, we will not send you into a high school class. And if you are a science teacher, you will never teach geography.”

The heritage of the French language is so precious in this Southern state that the CODOFIL, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, takes good care of its teachers. When they arrive in Louisiana, the agency provides them with a two-week training program at a hotel, before helping them to find lodging. “They make up a small community whom we supervise and support,” says Peggy Feehan. “In August 2021, one teacher’s home was destroyed by Hurricane Ida. He lost everything. We helped him find a new place to live and buy some more furniture.” These teachers generally have a positive experience, and receive a yearly salary of 50,000 dollars.

So, what is it actually like to be a French teacher in the United States? One former staff member, who spent five years working at the French American Academy in New Jersey, and who now lives in Shanghai, says: “The American healthcare system made me want to scream. You book an appointment with a dentist for a cleaning and you leave with a bill for 500 dollars. I was also unpleasantly surprised to discover that income tax is 25%! Teaching in the United States requires enormous effort to adapt to the different educational approach. That being said, I was young and motivated, and it was a great experience. I was able to travel across the U.S., which was incredible. It’s definitely worth it!”

Graduates

The Board of Education in each state defines the recruitment criteria for teachers. Generally, a bachelor’s degree or an equivalent qualification is required to teach in the United States, as well as a Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES) diploma for public elementary schools and a Français Langue Etrangère (FLE) diploma for high schools. The degree can be supplemented with an FLE vocational master’s and a diplôme d’aptitude à l’enseignement du français langue étrangère (DAEFLE). The French National Center for Distance Learning (CNED) offers a remote program for this well-respected diploma. Those looking to teach in immersion programs generally require an elementary education certification, which must be accompanied by another in bilingual education for certain states. Others are less demanding and allow teachers with FLE certification to also teach non-language subjects to elementary students. The website Langcred.org explains the certifications and qualifications needed for teaching French from preschool to the end of high school, state by state. Lastly, the Center for International Career Development connects teachers with school districts and lists available positions.

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© Boris Séméniako

Little Learners

As early immersion is the best way to help children learn a foreign language, there are increasing numbers of French-speaking day cares and preschools in the United States. The immersion can be total – only French is spoken – or partial. For the latter, games, art, stories, and songs are used to introduce children to colors, shapes, letters, and numbers in French and English. They are generally taught in small groups and each class is led by a Francophone teacher, an Anglophone teacher, and sometimes an assistant. In this type of program, children switch from one language to another throughout their time at the preschool or nursery.

“It requires a lot of energy and creativity,” says Ajouada Ndjekie, who teaches first-year preschoolers at Petits Poussins Too in New York City. “We know that children do not understand everything they hear during their first year of learning. I therefore rely on images, facial expressions, intonations, and movements. You have to totally invest yourself and, as a result, you create a close bond with the children. But at that age, my students will never remember me, which is always a little frustrating.”

Most childcare solutions for under-fives are private. What’s more, how children are taught and the number of children under each adult’s responsibility varies between states. A qualification in early childhood education, from an associate degree to a doctorate, as well as a state certification, is usually required to work in these institutions. As a guide, the average annual salary for a language teacher in a New York nursery is 33,000 dollars, but this figure differs greatly based on qualifications, experience, and the nursery itself.

 

Article published in the August 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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