Archive for August, 2014

Sometimes I do this thing where I choose to do the hardest things first. When first learning how to drive (I know this is a continuing journey) with my friend Graham, I insisted on wanting to learn how to drive a standard before I learned how to drive an automatic. I’ve always figured why not? If I do the absolute hardest thing first, then everything else would seem simpler in comparison. If you’re already gathering up the gumption to do something new, (which is in itself difficult) why not just muster all that energy to do the hardest thing right off the bat?

I guess you could say that I applied this logic when it came to my decision to teach in England.

A year and a half ago, I made the decision to move to England. One of the reasons I decided to move here was because well, who are we kidding? It’s ENGLAND.

However, my bigger reason for moving overseas was so that I could finally become a full-time classroom teacher. I had finished my Bachelor of Education degree in 2010 and had made a go of it substitute teaching in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. During that time, I had a consistent, ongoing, honest-to-God fear of being a teacher. As indecisive as I tend to be, I was even worse when I kept going back and forth about whether I should even be a teacher. I knew I liked working with youth, but was I good enough to be a teacher? My friends and family reassured me, they seemed to have zero hesitation about my ability to be a good teacher. I however, was terrified, what if I singlehandedly ruined the educational year of a group of young impressionable students? It was a tremendous responsibility that wore heavy on my mind.

Then I bit the bullet.

I decided that substitute teaching didn’t make sense if I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to be a teacher. So I decided to get my feet real wet by jumping into the deep end of the pool. I decided that I was going to teach full-time so I could decide once and for all, if I was supposed to be a teacher. Anyone in most parts of Canada knows how difficult it is to obtain a full-time teaching gig, so I looked abroad. I decided that England was where I was going to make a go of it for the academic year of 2013-2014.

The world needs teachers. In terms of global flexibility, teaching is a profession that is well in demand. Most of the teaching positions that are available overseas are in non-English speaking countries. Many of these schools are private and many of the students in these schools tend to be from higher socio-ecnomic backgrounds. As lovely as those students might be, I got into teaching because I wanted to work with students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who had a difficult time in school. Cue England. The thing that attracted me to teaching in England was that it was a difficult place to teach. My friends who taught in England would tell me horror stories, and my ears would perk up with interest. 50% of teachers quit within the first 5 years here because the teaching climate is so demanding. I was incredibly intrigued. I thought that if I could survive in one of the most difficult teaching environments in the world (I’ve heard teaching here referred to as “the trenches”), then I could really teach anywhere. So I packed my bags, said goodbye to my loved ones and set off across the ocean to see what I was made of.

Settling into England, relatively speaking was a piece of cake. Settling into my school was also relatively easy that first week, with no students. When my recruiting agency put me with my school, they assured me that they were really welcoming to their staff, and they were right. I was incredibly lucky to be working at my particular school this year. First of all, roughly 10% of the teaching staff is international, so I was in good company. Secondly, I was in an extremely nurturing department that was used to people from Canada coming over to teach. Thirdly, I was surrounded by an incredibly amiable and supportive overall staff.

That was the good news.

Here was the bad:

1.) Teaching in England is a monumental culture shock.

2.) Teaching is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I’m not going to mince words here, I’m an almost thirty year old woman, I’m no stranger to hard work, normally I thrive in brand new situations, but I almost quit, and I don’t quit easily. It’s also difficult because there’s your first year of teaching, which in any culture is going to separate the weak from the strong. Then there’s doing your first year teaching abroad, where you’re never quite sure if teaching is that hard, or if teaching in that particular culture is that hard. I’m going to sum it up to teaching is difficult but teaching in England is incredibly difficult.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m an unfailing optimist. I can take even the most crappiest of situations and find some kind of silver lining, to the point where it’s annoying. This year I met my match. I met my Everest of circumstances I couldn’t just slide my rose coloured glasses and stride through. Oh God no. The first half of this school year was ugly, and I was ugly in it. It…was not good.

I can summarise my struggles in three categories:

1.) The Students are Tougher

It took about two weeks before my first student told me to eff off. It took me a month before I realised that I could actually send kids out of my class for misbehaviour. It took me a month and a half before I finally bawled in a cupboard after my class verbally ganged up on me. Kids are kids all over the world. A teenager with raging hormones and half a developed brain tend to act similarly no matter where they’re from, to a point. In my experience, kids are mouthier here, and respect for teachers is not automatic. As a teacher, my style was described as “Calm and Assertive”, things I came to admire about myself, and that benefited me  in my previous work and teaching experiences. In the beginning, it did not serve me well here. My students saw it as me not being assertive enough, as me being passive teacher. Furthermore, as an chronically indecisive person who tends to see the shades of grey in everything, I was a serious target for my students. To be fair that trait would have been unhelpful no matter what system I taught in, but that trait was particularly bad here. Throughout this year, I’ve become the most polarised I’ve ever been. Individually, with each student, I can be as shades of grey as I like, but in a classroom full of middle school students that are just screaming for boundaries (literally and figuratively) I grew a serious backbone. The thing that I didn’t really think about enough was that I was the leader of my classroom. Normally, I tend to be very communal in terms of leadership and like things to evolve organically. That is not leader enough for my kids, they needed a ruler that say the yeses and the nos, firmly with no over-analysis. Which, let’s face it, does not come easily to me. Let’s not forget, I teach middle school kids who need to understand the profound differences between appropriate/inappropriate, acceptable/not acceptable, on task/not on task, ready for learning/not ready for learning and I’m the one who needs to define and enforce it for them. I never understood the expression “iron fist with a velvet glove” so clearly before this year.

Another thing I really came to understand is that Uniforms Matter. The first day you see a large moving sea of children in uniform, little suits, blazers, ties, skirts, black shoes from 11 year olds to 16 year olds is a jarring sight. Previous to moving here, I was so anti-uniform because it was so foreign to my upbringing. In the beginning, I’m going to be honest, I didn’t give any cares about uniforms. That was my first crucial mistake. Kids wearing their uniforms properly is a sign of respect. I know it sounds crazy, but it really is. When students show up to your class, before they’re allowed into your classroom, they are supposed to be in perfect uniform. Which means they have to have their shirts tucked in, top button done, and their ties or skirts at an appropriate length. Again, I know a Canadian is likely reading this entry and are thinking “really?” Yes. If a student isn’t going to do up their top button for you, then it’s pretty likely they aren’t going to follow any other instruction you’re going to give. Being in perfect uniform is so engrained socially with them being ready to learn. “Sort your uniform out” was one of my most uttered phrases this year, much to my own shock. As the year went on, and the tougher I became on uniforms, the better the kids behaved. Obviously there are other correlations here, but trust me when I say (as a previously huge skeptic) uniforms matter.

The Workload is Tougher

In England, pretty much every single piece of paper that a student writes on needs to be marked by a teacher. To anyone who is not a teacher, this might not sound like it’s a big deal, but let me emphasise that it is in fact a big deal. Especially for an English teacher. Anyone who teaches English knows the pains of correcting work. You’re correcting the ideas in addition to the actual structure they’re using to express said idea. Usually in Canada, the kind of work you’re correcting is the kind of work that students take a little more care in.  Students usually pass in assignments, tests, exams and projects; those are typically the things that a teacher marks to give a student a grade. At my school students are given notebooks that all of the things they write down go into. So imagine the notes that students take during class, that’s the kind of work you also need to mark. They don’t carry their own binders or work, the teacher keeps and corrects it all. Not only do teachers correct it, but their corrections are looked at by their supervisors, which then can be looked at by the Ministry of Education (OFSTED). Essentially, OFSTED could walk into your classroom, pick up your books and if your books are not up to standard, or don’t show a student’s progress, you could be in a lot of trouble. In addition, students also write an actual assessment at the end of the six modules, which are also corrected. This is of course in addition to the other many things a teacher does in the run of a day like teach, lesson plan, manage behaviour, go to meetings, call parents, etc.

The System is Tougher

I knew England was standardised before I moved here, I did my research. What I did not know was how difficult it was going to be for me to adjust to that. I don’t know why I didn’t know, it should have been pretty obvious to me that I spent a great many years in university greatly contesting and fighting against the standardisation of education. Yet, here I was willingly putting myself right in the middle of it. It wasn’t easy, but as they say “When in Rome…”

The schooling here is very traditional. Standardisation is still very much a defining feature of the education system here. Things are heavily, heavily standardised. The Ministry of Education (OFSTED) is a group of people whose job it is to ensure that all children in the UK are receiving a similar quality of education. They come down very hard on schools that are not providing that high quality of education in something called “Special Measures” where basically, the school is completely overhauled. New staff are brought in to manage and teach at the school, and then the school is consistently monitored over a three year period. The school that I work at had recently come out of this procedure, and has worked very hard to ensure that they are following a very strict educational procedure because they want to maintain the extensive progress they’ve made during and since Special Measures. Speaking of progress, that is how everything is measured here, it’s the magic word. Teachers are observed several times a year, and during these lesson plans you need to ensure that every single student in your classroom is making some kind of progress in your lesson. OFSTED considers ‘progress” to be some kind of real evidence that a child knows new knowledge and has gained a new skill at the end of your lesson that they did not know at the beginning of your lesson. You need to be able to demonstrate this clearly. Even if one child is not making progress during your lesson, then technically you’re not doing your job in making sure each of your students are making overall progress. This is an immense amount of pressure, and it has certainly been daunting. During this year, as I’ve struggled with the idea of standardisation, I’ve come to some kind of peace in knowing that OFSTED is taking great care in ensuring that that the education of every single child is held to some kind of standard and that educational institutions and teachers are held to a very high accountability to ensure this happens. In Canada, the accountability is very much student focused, students are responsible for showing up, wanting to learn,wanting to do well, doing the work. In Britain the accountability is very much teacher focused, even for your most difficult students your expectation is to convince them, and ensure that they’re doing the highest quality of work possible, and if they don’t, that comes down to some kind of problem with the way you teach or conduct your classroom. It’s definitely a game changer and to be honest it was something I really struggled with at the beginning of the year.

Exploring the differences between one culture and another, educationally, is a very tricky balance, as I’m sure anyone teaching overseas can share. On the one hand, for the most part, people are typically exclusively educated in one country or system. Even post-secondarily, a system reflects its’ primary and secondary school. So when that same system trains you to be an educator, it’s an interesting shift when those skills take you abroad. On the one hand, you’re invited to teach because your skills and education are recognised as being valuable for the new system you’re teaching in. On the other hand, this system may be completely foreign, so it’s sometimes difficult to figure out the balance of who you are innately as an educator and person, and what you need to be and are expected to be as a professional. It’s something that I’ve spent the last year in deep thought about whenever I had a spare second to contemplate the meaning and reasons as to why I’m here.

I’m here because I wanted to figure out if I could be a teacher or not. It turns out I can teach.

I’m here because I wanted to figure out if I wanted to be a teacher or not. It turns out I want to be a teacher.

I’m here to figure out if I could teach in one of the challenging education systems globally. It turns out that after stumbling and fumbling through the earlier parts of the year, that with a lot of support, encouragement and determination, that I can teach in a challenging education system, and not only come out on the other side relatively unscathed, but sign up for another round to see what else I’m made of.

Maybe there is some kind of method to my madness?


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