Back to school is a time-tested ritual that conveys its share of iconic images and characters: immaculate classrooms, tidy schoolyards, children with their brand new school bags on their backs and lots of emotions from parents and teachers.
However, there is one character about whom little is said, although he is central to the life of the kindergartens and heavily involved in the implementation of the beginning of the new school year in the kindergarten: the Atsem, or specialist territorial agent for kindergartens – the women pushing themselves for these jobs that are 99% occupied by women.
Invisible for a long time, because they are very dominated in the social space of the school, the Atsem come into light little by little, but remain in a weak position in the social relations at work. As they strike at the beginning of the 2022 school year for a better recognition of their missions and an increase in their salaries, let’s go back to the core of this profession and its daily life, to better understand the tensions it is subject to today .
Towards an educational role
The presence of a “maidservant” is already in 1838 in the legislation on the asylum chamber. This philanthropic institution predated the kindergarten established by the school laws of the 1880s known as the Ferry Laws. The woman on duty has to sweep, air, light the stove in the morning (and thus arrive an hour earlier). But from the nineteenthe century, as Henri Petit has shown, in institutions where there are many children and where supervision is weak, she is entrusted with tasks that bring her closer to the children. They will keep them (at the end of the day, on holidays, when the director is busy, etc.), and then gradually take care of the body care.
In the second part of the XXe century, kindergarten grows in size and changes. The introduction of an abundance of teaching materials in the classrooms calls for new maintenance tasks (cleaning, preparation, storage). These are given to maids.
Their employment status evolved towards that of territorial officials, in the wake of the decentralization laws: they became Asem (specialised kindergarten officers) with the decree of 27 April 1971 on municipal jobs, then Atsem (“t” for “territorial”) with the decree of August 28, 1992 that will frame and officially define their profession for twenty-six years.
In the last decades of the twentiethe century, kindergarten becomes a propaedeutic phase (preparatory) at primary school, and language becomes a priority there. Lessons become more intensive and activities are prescribed in small groups that are very demanding at the linguistic and cognitive level for the teachers (conversations, phonology, math games, etc.). The Atsem then gradually enter the classrooms: they are entrusted with the installation and then, little by little, the animation of manual activities and then “graphic workshops”.
This evolution towards an increasingly educational profession is characteristic of a process described in the sociology of work by Everett Hughes who studied hospital nurses in the United States in the 1950s. A social hierarchical division of labor is established between several more or less prestigious professions (care vs. medicine; maintenance and hygiene vs pedagogy and education).
It is being reassembled as professions evolve with the increase of knowledge and the reconfiguration of social expectations. For example, subordinate workers are entrusted with tasks previously reserved for the more prestigious professions in which they occupy themselves: just as hospital nurses in the United States of the 1950s and 1960s gain access to technical tasks previously performed by doctors, maids gain access to teaching tasks. as a kindergarten and the profession of kindergarten teacher evolve.
It is the first spring of Atsem’s visibility: they are now recognized as teaching staff of the kindergarten. However, this recognition does not alter their dominance in social relations at work and with regard to employment. First, their place in kindergarten varies in a heterogeneous way according to the territories: if certain studies show that a teacher-e-Atsem couple associated with their strong presence in the classroom and the recognition of their educational skills seems to be the norm, others leave see that elsewhere not all nursery classes are equipped with an Atsem and that their place remains closer to the cleaning and supervision pole than to the pedagogical pole.
In fact, the porosity of their status with that of maintenance and catering agents is strong, especially since they often enter the trade through these jobs and a large proportion of them retain service agent status while acting as Atsem. This affects their job stability, their salary and their careers and makes them vulnerable to their employer: “going back to do the housework” (and only that) is a threat that weighs heavily on part of “between them”.
Moreover, the evolution of their missions towards educational and even strictly pedagogical tasks has not led to the disappearance of their historical tasks of maintaining the buildings, materials and hygiene of the children (a contribution made worse by the health crisis) , although their prerogatives now extend to the care of children with special educational needs, extracurricular activities and even leisure care.
Access to educational missions is thus paid for at the cost of an impressive expansion of their duties, as evidenced by Article 1 of the Decree of 1 March 2018, which now frames and defines their work:
Kindergarten Specialized Territorial Agents are responsible for assisting the teaching staff in the care and hygiene of children in preschool or kindergarten classes, as well as the preparation and cleanliness of the premises and equipment used directly for these children.
[…] They can participate in the implementation of the educational activities planned by the teachers and under the responsibility of the latter. They can also assist teachers in classes or institutions that welcome children with special educational needs.
In addition, they may be responsible for supervising children in preschool or kindergarten classes in school restaurants. They may also be responsible during the day for the missions referred to in the first paragraph and for entertainment outside school hours or during leisure time care outside the parental home of these children.
This phenomenon is the principle of another driving force of their visibility: the Atsem make themselves visible in order to claim the symbolic recognition to which they believe they are entitled with regard to the work they perform on the one hand, and on the other the improvement of their operating conditions with regard to the workload and weight of this work (working periods and duration, multiplicity and versatility of tasks, specific weight of work with young children).
Very present on social networks for several years, in particular through an Atsem de France collective created in January 2016, they forge ties and exchange beyond the boundaries of their school and their municipality, describe the reality of their work, organize a National Atsem Day in March and encourage or support social movements, such as the one who opposed the Atsem of Montpellier against their employer on the issue of extending their daily working hours, and who were highly supported.
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