On the occasion of the basic school graduation ceremony for ninth grade students on Friday, Peter Pedak, director of the Tallinn French Lyceum, revisits the history of the school.
The Tallinn French Lyceum was founded in 1921 through a joint initiative of Estonia and France. "It was important for Estonia, as a small country, to have a closer connection to the rest of Europe. France has always been a prominent country, and is perhaps even more so now. When Estonia became independent in 1918, we wanted to become a part of Europe, and European culture at that time mainly meant French culture, as it always has," the director of the French Lyceum explained.
The French interest was to widen its influence. "It was after the First World War, and culturally Estonia had been more under the influence of Germany, because even during times of Swedish, Danish, Polish or Russian rule in Estonia, the local power belonged to the German Baltic nobility. And France knew it. In order to compete with Germany, it was important to support the foundation of French schools as widely as possible. This saw the Alliance Française (an organization to promote French and French culture – ed.) partly finance the school."
Peter Pedak has himself graduated from Tallinn French Lyceum in 1999. After studying law at Tartu University and cultural management in Tallinn University, he decided to take another path.
"I always knew that my main interest was in the field of culture. I first became a diplomat for the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2004. I worked for 14 years three of which I spent in France, in Strasbourg, at the Estonian representation to the Council of Europe," he explained.
These years abroad revived his memories from his French school. "My first intention was not to become the head of the school but a teacher. But when my predecessor announced his retirement, many of my former teachers and alumni of the school recommended that I should stand for the post of director, and so I did. This is my fourth year."
Pedak has never regretted his choice. "The life of a teacher is more complicated because what gives strength in the life of a principal is flexibility. I can choose myself the focus and direction where I would like the school to move and the work is never routine. It's a demanding job but I love very much the human contact both with students and colleagues."
It should be noted that the French Lyceum is not part of the network of French high schools abroad, it is an Estonian national Lyceum. However, it remains a French school. "French is our first foreign language; children start learning it from the first grade when they are seven years old and they study it through the years," Peter Pedak explained.
Promoting French culture is also on the program. "French culture is a part of all our events and ceremonies." During the basic school graduation ceremony, the students entered to the tune of the old French song "Plaisirs d'Amour" and the Estonian anthem was followed by the French one.
"There is a focus on the anti-classical French culture. You can see reproductions of famous French paintings in our school, and most of the authors studied are French. French art, music, literature is something that gives a framework to our school."
A tight connection is established with the French Embassy and the French Institute where the students are participating in the jury of the Concours literary prize, taking part of the celebrations of July 14, as well as enjoying language exchanges with the Lyceum in Nantes. "We visited it in spring and the French also came here," he said.
"We also like to ask our French teachers how it feels to arrive in a small northern country's small school and hear French and French songs. And they say that it is touching, more warm and emotional than awkward. As Estonians, we can ask how we would feel if it was the other way, and we would have a feeling of gratitude. We have always known that culture is not limited to a territory, that it is a free choice of people, and when they make this free choice, it can be moving," reveals Peter Pedak.
According to him, promoting French culture is paramount, Europe being one of the main reasons. "After the restoration of independence in 1991, Estonia wanted to join the European Union, and I think it has helped us build better understanding between us and France, and French culture in particular. For us, it's important to have some balance besides the American or British culture to have new thoughts. Because in our imagination, the French are ready to prioritize mental values before some material values."
The current building was opened 16 years later and Estonia and France financed the construction of this building in equal parts. Before the war, it was a private school, but after the restoration of independence, when the school was reopened, it became a municipal school open for all children in Tallinn.
Speaking of students, some of them are here because one of their parents is French. "But I also know a French family who moved to Tallinn for work, and they wanted their children to keep some connection to French, as well as being able to study in Estonian. I think this will be our future more and more. If the French people move to Estonia for work, then it's a logical choice to choose our school," Pedak said.
Fifty-six children are admitted to the first grade and up to 72 to the tenth grade, the upper secondary school level, in which the students are separated between French beginners' class and the advanced one for those who have already studied French. "It is important for us to have the whole cycle because it creates a feeling of unity and family between the younger and older students. They are sharing some events together. In real life, different ages are together, so we try not to separate them."
Tallinn French Lyceum is one of the best schools in town, but overall, the Estonian education stands at a better level than the European average. "If we look at the results of the 2018 PISA test, Estonia comes in first among European countries. New testing procedure was used this year, but the results are not public yet. In general, the level is good, but I think that the concerns in education are the same in all countries. The gap between ideals and reality is too wide, which, of course, is due to lack of resources. Smaller classes would improve the lives of both the students and the teacher. The classes are big, especially in Tallinn, and it means that we cannot always give the students the personal attention that they need. That is the thing that makes me most concerned."
Today, the school is welcoming Ukrainian refugees and many of them will continue to study here next year as well.
"I am very proud of my students and I am sure that all of them will have a good life", Peter Pedak concluded.
Editor: Marcus Turovski