Sunday, July 19, 2009

36 hours

For the past 36 hours my head has been in danger of exploding. My school in England closed for the summer, I have said goodbye, and there is so much to process.

I won't deny that I have found it tough, arriving in January to pick up the pieces after two teachers that left before me and attempting to hit the ground running. There were times when I thought that I wasn't going to make it. But I have.

I can't claim to have made any sizeable difference though, or to feel anything close to the sense of satisfaction and completion that I experienced after leaving my school in Australia after five years in 2008. I know that I have only been teaching over here for a short time, and I'm sure that if I stayed for another year it would get a lot easier, although I'm not sure that I would want it to. This isn't an education system that I have any desire to 'get used to'. Even if there have been recent signs of the UK learning from the past. The decision at the beginning of this year to do away with the Year 9 SATs is one, and the recent reports in the media about government plans to return some autonomy to schools and local districts is another. But I am looking forward to getting back to teaching the Victorian curriculum with its emphasis on multimodality and metacognition, where creativity and deep thinking aren't sidelined by 'the basics'. Not that it is this simple- I know full well that curriculum documentation is only a small part of the conversation in a learning environment full of diverse students and teachers. But at least without the constant oversight, the threat of Ofsted inspectors and heavily regulated teacher performance system, they at least have a fighting chance.

There have been numerous times this year when I have stopped and thought to myself, 'oh, where is that learning focus gone?' or 'why are the processes of reading and writing treated so seperately over here?' I guess the fact that I have had the opportunity to ask these questions, to realise what it is possible to lose from our curriculum back home is worthwhile enough, particularly as we continue to march forwards towards a National Curriculum. My experiences here will certainly colour my perceptions and contributions to this ongoing debate when I arrive home.

For now, I am going to attempt to 'let go' and enjoy the rest of my travels before I head home and have to figure out what I am going to do with myself in 2010.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Heathrow airport at 10pm in January is a miserable place. After queuing for hours in customs and retrieving my two-ton suitcase containing all of my worldly possessions from the luggage carousel, I gazed bewilderingly at the regimented rows of Britons marching smartly towards signs to the tube station. I, on the other hand, sought out the counter for the national express airport- to-hotel bus service that I had booked back in Australia, not wanting to risk complicated transport routes on my first night in the country.

I was directed by a woman in a twin-set to take a seat on the lonely row of moulded chairs beside the automatic doors. I pulled my massive suitcase over to the chairs and peered out through the glass doors for my first glimpse of England. An occasional set of headlights loomed through the darkness, but no sign of my bus. Through the mist a man in a fluorescent orange vest appeared, walking purposefully towards the glass doors. The doors slid open... the shock of cold sent me scurrying back to my suitcase to retrieve my coat.

Precisely thirty minutes later I, along with a few other hapless Aussies, drove through the swirling mists towards central London. We seemed to take a circuitous route through streets lined with curry houses and signs reading ‘off-license’ until, two hours later, I was unceremoniously dropped in front of a BnB in Bloomsbury. Too cold to revel in the fact that I was standing on a street that members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood may have strolled along, I pressed the buzzer beside the bright blue door and waited, hands thrust deep inside my coat pockets.

‘Hiya,’ said the blonde in a sing-song voice as the door pulled back. ‘Are ye a’right?’

I blinked. Am I alright? Unsure how to answer the question, I responded with, ‘I have a booking’.

‘Brilliant,’ she replied. She stepped back and allowed me to retrieve my suitcase from the pavement and haul it up the short flight of stairs and into the carpeted hallway. A forbidding staircase appeared before me, covered with red and yellow paisley carpet.

‘I’ll get my husband’.

‘Sure,’ I replied, staring at the portrait of a stern individual in navy uniform who glared at me from above the sideboard.

Minutes later a short, thin man with a cream t-shirt tucked tightly into his jeans stepped into the hallway. ‘Good evening,’ he said.

‘Good evening,’ I replied, stepping forward and revealing my suitcase cowering behind me. His eyes widened in horror.

‘We don’t have a lift,’ he said softly.

‘What?’ I replied, looking around in confusion, ‘well, that doesn’t matter, I...’

‘We don’t have a lift and you’re on the fourth floor.’

‘Oh,’ I replied, still not sure what the big deal was- I’ve climbed stairs before in my time. Then, I became aware of his fixed gaze on my suitcase.

‘Oh,’ I laughed, suddenly comprehending, ‘that’s ok, I can handle...’

‘No,’ he sighed, stepping past me and grabbing my suitcase handle determinedly. ‘I’ll do it.’

‘No, really, I...’

He heaved my suitcase up the first two steps and balanced there for a moment. I stepped meekly behind him.

‘What have you got in here?’ he scowled.

‘All my worldly possessions,’ I laughed, then stopped. My host wasn’t laughing.

‘I’m moving here,’ I tried again. ‘That’s why I...’

I let my voice trail off as he sucked in a deep breath and pulled my suitcase up another couple of stairs.

‘Hmph,’ he said.

Ten minutes later, he unlocked the door to my tiny room. ‘Breakfast is at 8:00,’ he huffed, before heading back down the stairs. I could still hear him wheezing as I stepped inside and closed the door. I held out my arms to touch each wall. I felt the tears well.

‘I’m here,’ I whispered, and unzipped my suitcase to pull out my scarf, gloves and thermal underwear, ready for tomorrow.

(after reading the prologue of Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes from a small island’)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Late night photo shoot

Possessed by the night spirits, I left my flat at 10pm with my camera, pen and journal. Here is the result.
I sought the river, but it was the shadows that followed me home.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Sound of Music

I am heading to Salzburg next week- looking forward to the Sound of Music tour!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Good News Stories

I have been consumed with what is lacking in my new school, in this UK education system. I must remind myself to keep looking for the good learning and teaching moments, because they are there. This week, I will be getting my Year 7 classes to design their ideal school. We have been reading David Almond's novel, Skellig, in which the home-schooled Mina agrees with William Blake that schools are institutions which "drive[s] all joy away".

Hopefully, they will prove the poet wrong.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


I had an extremely frustrating lesson with one of my year 8 classes today. The first objective, which I wasn't expecting to be at all problematic, was to return their reading and writing assessments (discussed in last post) and have them record their 'levels' and 'targets for improvement' on their ongoing progress record, which was what I was instructed to do. Sounds pretty simple, right?

My first mistake was to assume that they were familiar with their assessment grids, or at least had gone through them before. I was told not to provide written feedback for this task (thankfully, because I only had a week to assess 60 of them before recording their results on their reports) and circle the outcomes that they needed to improve in order to progress to the next level.

I started to take them through it- they couldn't make head nor tail of it, and so began to lose focus and concentration pretty much straight away. This is a pretty tricky group at the best of times- so them not having a clue descended pretty quickly to mayhem. I was so frustrated at the time, and still am, at myself now rather than them (during the class, I wanted to throttle every last one of 'em). I should have known better. But, the question needs to be asked, why are we even bothering to return these app grids to students when they include language like, 'syntax and full range of punctuation are consistently accurate in a variety of sentence structures, with occasional errors in ambitious structures'? I mean, what is it that we are trying to achieve here?? What the "*&! is a Year 8 kid meant to do with that?

There is a clear focus in the school (and I'm assuming other schools in England as well) of students knowing their current 'levels', and what 'level' they are expected to reach by the end of each stage of schooling. Students even have them on the front of their exercise books as a stark reminder of what is at stake! There is nothing wrong, on the surface, with students having clear achievement goals set before them. But when it becomes so arbitrary, and mathematical, like 'every student should be able to improve by two sub-levels within a year', there are so many assumptions being made about student learning (not to mention teacher performance) that simply aren't being addressed.

At Key stage 3 (years 7-9) the assessment grids are the same for each individual assessment- one for 'reading'tasks, one for 'writing' tasks. The criteria are weighted differently (sentence and paragraph structures rank highly; writing 'imaginative and interesting texts', for example, is lower down the list). So, there are assumptions made about the skills that are valued, for a start. More troubling to me is the way that the same assessment foci for each task limit possibilities in the classroom- in terms of creating assessment tasks that 'meet' these same criteria, rather than using the learning itself as the starting point. And, when student performance data is so important for schools over here, it doesn't take a great leap of thinking to see that that is a likely outcome. 'Negotiating the curriculum' is one thing, schools having the courage and fortitude to go completely against the grain and value other skills is another.

Thinking more deeply, what is truly worrying is how such narrow conceptions of 'successful' writing and reading will affect the way that students, as citizens of the world, will be able to value, appreciate, critique and, indeed, create texts that do not subscribe to these narrow parameters. What kinds of writers and readers are we trying to foster?

I guess I'm just sick of feeling bad about the crap job that I feel I'm doing when I am having to grapple with so many limitations and parameters.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Surface

I commented to one of my new colleagues the other day that I feel I have been 'tunnelling along' and have only just managed to stick my head up and have a look around during the past week or so.

I am working with good people, but in a flawed system.

Still, I suspected that would be the case before I even arrived in the country.

This past week has had a heavy assessment focus- year 8 assessments using very rigid (and frustratingly narrow) app criteria for 3 classes with a one week turnaround, and a day of moderating GCSE (year 11) coursework. This was a very 'quiet' day, and I missed the discussions over benchmarking that occur in my school back home. Still, they have a lot more to get down over here- whole folders of coursework have to sent off for external moderation (the paperwork alone seems ridiculous) and it is important to get them 'right' before they go. I found out today that things will shift again in 2011 when all coursework will be required to be completed in classtime under exam conditions. The UK did the right thing by getting rid of SATs this year, but they seem to be counteracting this move with even more rigid assessment practices in the GCSE. One step forward, two steps back.

My mind feels so alive at the moment- like waking up after a long sleep. I feel that I am thinking more thoughtfully, critically, about my own work and education in general than I have for a while.. but at the same time I am wondering what is the point of it all. Since my head has managed to pop above the surface, I have noticed all of these 'gaps'- missing pieces of my subject knowledge that I have taken for granted in Australia. Like multimodality... critical literacy... alternative readings... where have they gone? Where is their place in this strange, CS Lewis Wonderland of an education system?

I keep getting frustrated at myself when classes don't go the way I planned, or when it is taking longer than I would like to forge positive relationships with some of my classes, or when I feel lost and inadequate trying to make sense of an app grid... but then I have to stop myself from taking it out on me all the time- there are so many systemic reasons why these things are happening that aren't all my fault, that may in fact have very little to do with me. Everyone is very helpful, but trying to figure out what the right questions are to ask sometimes to get the answer that you don't yet know you need can be tricky, particularly when you don't recognise the pitfalls in a system that is not (thank God) your own.

Anyway, now that my head is above the surface, at least some of the time, I am going to work on feeling like my old 'teaching self' again.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Notes from a moleskine journal

29/12/08, Somewhere over Russia

I am flying over Russia, following the sun. I was so nervous before I left home, but now that I am on my big adventure it feels right.

When I woke in South Korea this morning, there was snow on the ground. Korea reminded me of Thailand in some ways; the high level of organisation with stickers and directions and prompt service, but without the chaos. I didn't feel as though I was walking into another world the way I did when I walked, as though in slow motion, through the outer doors of Bangkok's airport into mayhem. Incheon is neat and polite, unobtrusive.

On the first leg of my flight, a Korean movie was playing called, well, I forgot what it was called, but it was about a sports coach trying to make it as an English teacher. A noble feat indeed. Here, as in Thailand, English is held in the highest regard- it is a source of power.

I was reminded of this again during breakfast this morning, reading an English translation of the 'Korean News'. The front page story- above the news of 200 dead in the Gaza strip after the Israeli bombings- was about the Korean government relaxing its immigration rules to allow other English speaking foreigners (outside the US, UK, Aust and S. Africa) to apply for positions as English teachers in Korea. Their hope is to expand the pool of qualified teachers for conversation classes. The America accent- their preference- is not so highly valued anymore. And, as I modify my own English in order to communicate, as I attempt to cut out my colloquialisms, mannerisms and excentricities, I wonder why English has ended up ruling the world for so long.

The sun is a yellow haze on the horizon. Soft, gentle. It must be growing colder- the clouds are no longer visible beneath the grey fog.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Austen moment

Reading Mansfield Park is a totally different experience when you are living less than an hour away from Portsmouth and less than two hours from Bath. ;)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Starting in a new school has reinforced how important relationships are in my teaching. They are taken for granted until you have to start building them all over again. I am amazed at how much my teaching style has had to change without that 'relationship capital' in my backpocket. Slowly, surely, I'm building them again...

We had the experience but missed the meaning,

And approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form, beyond any meaning

We can assign to happiness.

T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages (Four Quartets)

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Snow Event (February)

Sixth letter home (extract)

10th March, 2009

I should be marking because I have just collected 90 pieces of work this week (the downside of having multiple, 30+ junior classes) but I can’t be stuffed and I want to write.

I am settling into 'new school' now that I am here five days a week, which is both good and bad. I am glad to be in the same place every day (kind of), but I am finding the place a bit challenging, in a number of ways. The glossy, pretty picture that I was shown at my interview of those ‘excellent’ results and that angelic year 7 class has certainly faded, I am starting to think that this school is just plain weird. I have certainly been to Mass more times in the past two weeks (Lent is to blame) than I have in the last five or so years. I still remember everything. But that isn’t the weird part. The weird part is the way that people interact within this school community, what is expected of each individual, and what ‘teaching and learning’ actually means here.

The last two weeks have been a case in point. GCSE coursework (for Year 11 students) was due at the end of last week, and consequently my colleagues have been running around like Molly (my dog) after some cruel person hides her ball. The reason for this is that they are not simply having to chase students for work that should have been completed during the last few weeks, but coursework that may have been set sometime during Year 10 (how re-doing an oral on Romeo and Juliet six months after the text was studied is actually going to help anyone is beyond me). There are no penalties set by the school for late coursework, or by the Welsh board, it seems, so as long as students get it in before final deadline (ie, the end of Year 11), everything is all hunky dory. In many instances, the students that teachers have been chasing are repeating coursework, because they did not receive their ‘target’ grade the first time around (or the second) and are therefore asked to resubmit. At a first glance, this might sound like a policy with student learning at the centre, right? Let’s give them opportunities to develop their skills over time, and learn from their mistakes? Wrong. It is patently obvious that the only reason for all of this pressure on teachers is the school’s desperation to get as many A-C grades as possible in order to look good in the league tables. Not that this is just the school’s fault, of course. The Education system has become so entrenched in this culture of statistics and numerical values and quantitative data that little else seems to matter. Which is why the school deems it necessary to hold staff meetings in which individual teachers are asked why student X did not receive a C for this task and whether the teacher thinks it would be at all possible to lift their result (please, pretty please?). Only if it is justified, of course (wink, wink). The result of this is that students are encouraged to take absolutely no responsibility for their own learning, and teachers have to shoulder it all.

Anyway, I was disappointed at first when I heard that I wouldn’t have any senior classes as part of my load, but after seeing the stress that people have been under during the past few weeks I’m not at all sorry now.

Some days, I feel like Alice in Wonderland. For example, this is the gist of a staffroom conversation that I overheard between two colleagues (one local and one from further afield):

A: Is this the criteria for the speaking and listening task?
B: Yes.
A: But... this criteria only refers to content, not skills. Can I change it, so I can give them some more useful feedback?
B: Well, that’s made from the official National Curriculum.
A: Yes, but can I add to it, and clarify some things?
B: It’s from the National Curriculum.
A: But it doesn’t actually say anything about speaking skills.
B: But that’s what’s in the documentation.
A: Ok, but...
B: It’s just the way it is.

See? Straight out of Lewis Carroll.

Speaking of assessment, well, you probably don’t want to get me started. You probably don’t want to hear about any of this, actually. How the kids can make head or tail out of the results they get when I can’t is beyond me. There are outcomes based criteria grids for each task, which is fine, but the grades that actually come out of them seem to be determined largely by gut instinct. But the thing that really annoys me is the complete lack of appreciation of how the reading and writing processes are connected. An assessment task is classified as either a ‘reading’ or a ‘writing’ task. A text response essay, for example, is a ‘reading’ task. All of criteria relate strictly to a very narrow definition of ‘reading’ and the fact that it is in fact a piece of writing that the student has produced and is also learning about writing in the process has simply no bearing on their assessment. Apparently, I’m not supposed to take structure, language, vocabulary, etc, into account, even though that is how the student is making meaning from the text that they have read. It’s completely infuriating, because it’s just so blatantly WRONG.

In the classroom, I am having to change my teaching style completely, but not in a way that I feel very happy about. I am having to design lessons that are far more tightly structured than I would like because that is what the students are used to and that seems to be, for the time being at least, all that they can cope with. It is taking me a lot longer to train them up than I was hoping for! It hasn’t helped matters that I am their third teacher for the year and the first two were fairly clueless, so I’m trying not shoulder too much concern over it myself (but you know me, I can’t help it). They are so dependent on the teacher, and when you take the culture of the school into account and some of the issues that I’ve already mentioned, it seems obvious why this is the case. It’s frustrating though. I am finding group work and even discussion close to impossible with a couple of my classes. Not all of them, but enough of them for it to be terribly frustrating. They find listening terribly difficult, to the point where I am wondering if it is actually a cultural thing, since kids were similar at the other schools where I have taught over here as well. It could be my fault, I’m out of practice with teaching 13 year olds, but I don’t think it’s that.

Oh, and having basically no access to technology is driving me insane, but that’s a whole other letter.

Anyway, I am not unhappy, I’m doing ok, I’m making friends and having fun, and I’m not spending all my time working, or at least I haven’t been- the next couple of weeks might be a bit of a slog, but Easter is less than four weeks away. But, I couldn’t teach if I didn’t care about what I was doing, either. Who would choose this life if they didn’t care?!

Bring on Italy at Easter!

Fifth letter home (extract)

21st February, 2009

It has been difficult to write to everyone about happy news over the last couple of weeks, especially after seeing the coverage of the bushfires and hearing about the effect that they have had on my old school community in particular. It has been difficult to be here, and not there, but probably not as difficult as it has been to live amongst it. I was sad to hear about A’s house in particular, after having him in my tutor group, as well as the others.

Anyway, I had intended to write some more about school, but now I just want to write about Paris! I spent the half-term break (schools in England have at least a week off every six weeks, gotta love it) in Paris, and arrived back in Guildford last night.

I went over on the Eurostar when I found a special deal that I could use that wasn’t going to cost me much more than flying, and was so glad I did, because it was so much fun. I love the Eurostar. Drinking wine whilst watching France slip by at breakneck speed- what could be better?!

I stayed in a hostel that was fairly far out of the centre, but it was right near a metro station, so that was fine. It smelt like disinfectant so I knew it was clean, so I treated the smell as a plus. It was much quieter than I had anticipated, not many people around, but that was ok because I was out and about from 7:30 each morning until about 11 at night. I crammed a lot in, but still only managed to do about a third of what I had hoped.

When I arrived I made a beeline for Notre Dame and arrived when the organist was playing, so that was pretty incredible. The tower had closed for the day so I couldn’t go up and inspect the gargoyles.

On my first full day I went on a free walking tour of the city that lasted for about four hours with Ange, the teacher from 'tiny town' who was staying in the same hostel as me. It was run by a slightly annoying but fairly knowledgeable Canadian ‘dude’ and it gave me a good sense (kind of) of the layout of the city. I still managed to get lost every time I tried to use a map though. We went to Montmartre in the evening and unknowingly ate dinner in Amelie’s cafe and I had my ‘Amelie moment’, tapping on the crisp toffee shell of my crème brulee.

Sacre Coeur was beautiful at night (there are photos on flickr) and I thought of you while I was there, P.

After that, I ditched Ange during the days so that I could see Paris in my own way, and we caught up in the evenings for dinner and plenty of glasses of kir (a regional French aperitif, or at least that’s what the Polish guy in the bar who recommended it to us said). We ran amok in streets of Paris, taking extremely un-Parisian photos, and discovering the free view of Venus de Milo (I can tell you which window if anyone wants to know!)

I saved the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay until the end of my trip, because I knew that if I didn’t I’d spend too much time there and miss out on seeing everything else. The Louvre was a breathtaking spectacle, but the long hallways and crammed walls meant that there was just too much to see. I spent most of my time with the Italian paintings, but even that was too much to achieve any sense of narrative or understanding. Mona, behind her wall of glass, was nowhere near as impressive as Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. I loved, loved, loved the Musee d’Orsay though. The Van Gogh room was just incredible, seeing his brushwork close up added so much to my appreciation of his work. And it was wonderful to see so many Monets. It was such a beautiful space, too.

I spent one of my days in Chartres, about an hour out of Paris. I wanted to see the Chartres Cathedral, which is the oldest medieval cathedral (I think, one of them at least) in France, and it was just incredible. Such an ancient, solid, echoing space. It was so much quieter than Notre Dame with its hordes of tourists, but every sound echoed endlessly through the cathedral. It was interesting to compare the cathedrals in France with the churches of England. The space itself seems to have prominence in the French churches, whereas the English churches were more cluttered and haphazard, filling organically with memorials and tombs over the centuries, even to the present day. The town itself was lovely too, with remnants of the medieval town still in evidence along the river.

What else did I get up to? I spent a morning in Versailles, which was a beautiful place, but a strange place too because of its history. It was interesting to see the souvenir shop selling little girls Marie Antoinette parasols and fluttering fans- no hint of where it had all ended! I spent a couple of nights wandering through the streets of Montmartre- I loved that area- and found one of Van Gogh’s houses and Picasso’s workshop. I visited Galleries Lafayette which didn’t excite me much at all, apart from the heaped baskets of salts and spices in the foodhall (although H would have loved the place). I loved the Latin Quarter (ate a number of chocolat crepes there- purchased in a dingy little milkbar style place that sold incongruous items like baguettes, cognac in Eiffel tower shaped bottles and orange vodka shots, but I swear that they are the best crepes in Paris, they must be) and walking along the Seine at night. I spent a beautiful sunny afternoon sitting on one of those green metal chairs around one of the fountains in the tuileries. I visited a number of markets near the place de la Bastille, as well as the flower and bird market near Notre Dame. I visited Saint Chappelle, walked to the Arc de Triomphe and climbed the Eiffel tower.

On my last morning before I caught the train back to London I returned to Notre Dame and managed to climb the tower. I thought that the view was better than from the Eiffel Tower, and enjoyed communing with the gargoyles. I drank a heck of a lot of coffee, because I was aware that I was unlikely to get another good cup until, well, until I get to Italy in six weeks’ time! I brought back some cheese and wine, which I will keep to share with whoever comes to visit me first (the wine, not the cheese!) so there’s an offer for ya.

Back in Guildford, I was planning to spend today getting stuck into my marking before Monday, but it was such a beautiful sunny day that that didn’t happen. I left my flat without my coat this morning for the first time(!) and went for a walk along the River Wey. I didn’t intend to go far, but I ended up walking all the way to Godalming (about five miles-dunno what it is in kilometres), gazing at the canal boats, the river locks and the pill boxes (left from world war II- Dad would have liked them).

So, I have a busy day of marking (not mine, a gift from the previous excuse for a teacher) ahead of me tomorrow. Perhaps I’ll write about school next week!

Fourth letter home (extract)

31st January, 2009
I can’t believe that I have been in England for over a month. At the same time, it seems like much longer than that, because so much has happened. I am looking forward to everything being a lot more settled now that I have the job front sorted, but I’m also lamenting an earlier return to regular marking and lesson planning than I was hoping for! Oh well.

My first three days at 'new school' went well, although it was certainly a case of ‘information overload’. Starting four weeks into a term, following a supply teacher who had only stayed for three weeks, is going to mean a lot of careful planning to ensure that I can cover the learning outcomes within the time remaining- before I have really come to grips with the individual skill levels of the students under my care. From what I can gather, the students have been left to mostly faff about or watch the dvds during the last three weeks, so we have a lot of catching up to do. The fact that I am still teaching at 'tiny town' two days a week until half term (because I’m more interested in doing the right thing than my agency was) also means that I am having to leave extras for the teaching assistant who will be filling in for me at 'new school' while I’m not there- hardly ideal. Anyway, we’ll get there.

The English faculty has ten members, and from what I have seen so far they are all intelligent and engaged, and mostly young. They have been really helpful and I have no doubt they will continue to be, but at the same time 'new school' has no staff induction system to speak of. I rocked up on Monday morning and was teaching my own lessons from period one onwards... and that was it! At least the curriculum is well planned out so I’m not going in there completely blind, but the assessment and reporting practices are still a mystery, so I’m hoping to come to grips with that asap so that I don’t end up with a big mess on my hands.

Getting to know my students will be more difficult than I am used to- I have three year 7 classes, two year 8s, a year 9, a year 10 and a year 8 drama class. That’s double the number of classes that I have been teaching in Oz over the last couple of years, and I’m actually under allotted by four whole periods. The 7-9 classes have over one hour less class time than they get at my old school, and the senior classes are about the same. I am missing 70 minute classes in which you can actually get quite a bit done. I am also missing laptops and access to technology in general. The change is going to make quite a difference to my teaching style, but that’s not the only change, of course.

Working in exercise books has become quite an art-form over here! The students use different codes for course work and homework, and get quite agitated if you forget to write the date on the board or give them a heading, or don’t specify whether or not you want something written in the margin (margins? Try getting a kid at my old school to even rule one). Even the senior students, who wouldn’t give a stuff about headings and whatnot at my old school ask for bloody headings. I have to work pretty hard to bite my tongue and not say, ‘who cares? This isn’t learning- you’re never going to write in a bloomin’ exercise book again once you leave school and it’s just wasting our learning time’... but that wouldn’t go over very well. Suffice to say, I don’t think that developing independent learners is a focus of the English education system.

The students are quite cute (a lot of them anyway- not the year 10’s so much) but I am so out of practice at teaching the middle years. I am missing my year 12s. One of the year 7 classes in particular are endearingly keen and so desperate for my undivided attention that I tend to feel like I have 30 toddlers attached to my ankles when I am teaching them. They seem younger than Australian year 7s, especially considering that they are already more than halfway through their school year, but I guess the timing of the school year makes a difference as well. Anyway, I think that teaching the younger years will be fun- I just need to train them up a bit!

It’s a very traditional school in lots of ways- I nearly fell over when I walked into my first class and began to take the ‘register’ (call it the roll and you get either laughter or confusion) and every student responded to their name with ‘Yes Madam’. Seriously. I’m not joking. It is taking some getting used to, and it is hard not to feel a certain sensation of identity loss when you realise that not one of your students is actually going to address you by name, ever. Even when kids are trying to get my attention during independent work I don’t get the singsong ‘mi-ss, mi-ss’ anymore- I get ‘madam, madam’. I can still hear it in my head today. Ugh.

Anyway, we’ll see how it goes. I think that I will learn a lot, but I’m not really thinking beyond keeping my head above water by following the workplan and getting to know the kids at the moment. Hopefully that will change in time. It has only been three days, after all!

Third letter home (extract)

15th January, 2009

I have had an ‘interesting’ week (this is me remaining optimistic). After spending the weekend ‘moving in’- lugging my two-ton suitcase up the four flights of stairs and walking back and forth to main street with things like ironing boards and saucepans in my arms- I got an early night on Sunday night to wake up early on Monday morning. I showered, breakfasted, and sat and waited for the phone to ring. It did, eventually, with the pronouncement that there was no work available today, but that I would be paid anyway because of my contract (they have to find me five days of work a week and I need to be available every day). It was a bit of letdown... for about five minutes before I decided to head into London and visit the Tate Modern instead. Not bad for a day’s work! On Tuesday, the same thing happened again- I got up early, sat around in my work clothes until nine, tempting by pouring over guide books deciding what I would do if there was no work, then headed off to nearby Salisbury (about an hour away by train). I visited the beautiful cathedral, strolled around the town and got on a bus to visit Stonehenge before the sun set. Again, not bad for a day’s work.

On Wednesday, when after I went through the same morning rigmarole with the same outcome I headed into town to attend to some errands, and bought some postcards with the intention of sitting in a cafe for the afternoon and writing to you. Before I made it to the cafe (the Garden Room, if anyone is interested or likely to be in Guildford any time soon(!). You walk in and it literally feels like you are in a greenhouse for the first five minutes until you adjust to the temperature, but after that it’s fine. They serve fruit scones with jam and clotted cream, and make their own mayo for their sandwiches. I would be the size of a house if it wasn’t for all the exercise that I have been getting, but I think I am actually losing weight.)... anyway, I got a phone call from my agent and my blissful plans for the afternoon changed in an instant.
He reported that they had overestimated how much work would be available in Surrey (the agency had just opened up in the area, and their idea had been to use me to help them make connections with schools) and as a result they would have to terminate my guaranteed work scheme, as of Tuesday next week. I couldn’t begin to tell you what I thought. I had done my part-the only school I had been sent to so far had said they would contact the company with more supply work if it was available. After repeating how sorry he was he asked me if I had anything to say, and I had nothing to say (I had plenty to say later on, after I had gotten over the shock). So, I had signed a six-month lease just two days previously, and now the company was ending the contract that guaranteed me five days pay each week... after just three days of no work. I won’t go into this anymore, apart from saying that I’m not letting it beat me and I’m working through it. My agent is working doubly hard to find me work, and I believe that he is genuinely sorry for what has happened- Surrey was the first region that he was put in charge of and I think he got in over his head. My contract wasn’t terminated by him, but by his money-obsessed senior manager (I’ve never met him, this is just how imagine him when I line him up in front of a firing squad in my head) and as a result there have been some fairly intense conversations taking place between him and myself.

Anyway, I’ve made contact with another agency that specialises in long-term contracts and I have an appointment with them on Wednesday. They will be looking for a full-time position for me beginning after half-term. My agent has since found two days’ work for me on Monday and Tuesday in school that is in need of a full-time English teacher that sounds quite interesting because it offers the IB, so if I like it I might stay there. Otherwise, I still have 'tiny town' on Thursdays and Fridays until half-term, and I think that they’ll be able to find me enough work on the other days (even if I have to travel closer in to London) until half-term, when I will be looking to find a place at one school until the end of their academic year. I’ll make a decision then about what to do next, but that will get me to the end of my lease, in time to travel around Europe over the summer.

From a more philosophical perspective, what I couldn’t get my head around was the callousness of it- this rather bizarre convergence of the corporate world and the world of education. Here was I doing the typical things that I do as a teacher- getting to know the teachers that I was sharing classes with, helping to prepare lessons and keeping up-to-date with the progress of their classes on the days that I wasn’t there via email, getting to know the kids and chatting to their teachers about them, and while I was busily doing that the agency was busily watching their bottom line. When I spoke to the other agency that I have an appointment with on the phone, they asked me if I would accept a position if one became available within a couple of weeks, and I said no because I didn’t want to leave 'tiny town' school in the lurch! After just two days I already felt a sense of responsibility for the students in my care and a commitment to the teachers I had worked with, particularly after they were so used to temporary teachers coming and going, but that notion of working relationally seems to have little connection to the work of an employment agency- which I find somewhat surprising.

Anyway, I was really keen to work differently for a while and experience a range of school settings, but it’s too stressful doing that without the guarantee of money coming in, so I’m going to work on finding a long-term position. It shouldn’t be too difficult. I just wish that the agency had done a little more market research before bringing me all the way out here.

Second letter home (extract)

9th January, 2009
I have been living in Guildford for about a week now, which is quite a large town in Surrey (Jane Austen country) about 40 or so minutes out of London. It’s bigger than W-gul, but quite similar in terms of demographics (apart from socio-economic status, so rent is more expensive here it seems than in London). It wasn’t until I arrived in Guildford that I started hearing predominantly English accents- I heard mostly European voices and languages in London, particularly French and Italian. Guildford was alienating in a similar way to the way I found W-gul to be, when I first started working there (the sameness).

It’s a beautiful town- it has its own castle (built in the 12th century), cathedral, and canal boats. But it also has Starbucks, Maccas, KFC and Marks and Spencer! I have enjoyed getting to know the town and getting myself settled whilst making friends with my real estate agent, bank clerk, employment agent, etc. (I’ll take friendly voices where I can get them, right now) but it has been quite stressful, too, as you can probably imagine. I am looking forward to my first paycheque in pounds so that I can stop watching my Aussie dollars disappear before my eyes, but it won’t be for a little while because I am using this dodgy (well, it seems dodgy to me, but everyone does it so I’m not arguing) off-shore bank account kind of set-up where I don’t pay anywhere near as much tax but have to wait slightly longer to get paid.
I started work on Thursday at a school in a tiny town, about a ten minute train ride from Guildford. I will be there every Thursday and Friday until half term at least, filling in for a sick English teacher, so it will be nice to have a bit of consistency without too much responsibility! It went quite well, mostly. I taught mainly Years 7-9, including Romeo and Juliet to year 8’s (I can’t escape from that bloody play), poetry to year 7’s, etc. I had one Year 10 class at the end of my first day which was an absolute nightmare (but probably nowhere near as bad as it could have been if I was in central London). It started with their teacher announcing to them that he had to go and look after another class that had had a string of supply teachers, so he was going to have to leave them with a supply teacher (ie, me) for a lesson. (yes, thanks for that- very helpful). So that was great! To add to the agony, they had just come straight from a mock exam, and it was the last lesson of the day. I haven’t been in a situation even similar to that since one of my teaching rounds. There were too many spotfires to put out, I didn’t have a list of kids’ names, and the task that they had been left to do was, quite simply, stupid, and very confusing. So yes, not fun. But the rest of the classes were lively, but nice. English kids are just as funny as Aussie kids, which was nice to discover. So, I had a few successes, and I’m feeling quite good about going back there next week. Where I end up from Mon-Wed will be a mystery until Sunday night.

I’m not even close to understanding the curriculum yet, but one thing that was really interesting (but quite the norm in England) was the way that each year level was streamed- and not just into top and bottom, but into about four-five different levels. I think that it is an absolute travesty. Great for the top kids, perhaps, but it is quite clearly a myth that the kids in the bottom groups will get what they need when there are so many behavioural problems and learning difficulties lumped together in a room of 30 plus kids. There was a teacher’s aide in a couple of classes that I took, but he didn’t seem to be assigned to particular kids and spent most of the time watching from the back of the room, and occasionally telling a chatty kid to shut up.
Another interesting discovery was the impact of supply teaching on the education system in England. There are some classes that were clearly used to being abandoned, and I had to assert very clearly that I would be around for a while to get them to take any interest in me. They seemed to be a lot ‘needier’ than kids that I have taught before, and I think the fact that they change teachers so frequently is the reason for that. Apart from supply teachers, many of the classes (particularly those in the lower levels) are shared by two, sometimes even three teachers, who have them for one or two lessons each week. How full time teachers can possibly get to know their students well in situations like this is beyond me.

Anyway, it was an interesting, but relatively successful beginning, so we’ll see what next week brings.

First letter home (extract)

... So far, everything has felt more familiar and comfortable than I was expecting during the admittedly anxious weeks before I got on the plane. As soon as I was looking through the plane window at a miniature London during a very slow descent into Heathrow, I regained that sense of euphoria that I had when I dreamed about this adventure before it became reality. It was a relief to feel that again.

When I arrived at my shoebox of a room in a hotel in Bloomsbury (yes, Bloomsbury- I like writing that) it felt like 3:00am, because it was, back in Melbourne. Despite being determined to stay awake until a later hour to combat jetlag, I fell asleep immediately.
Walking off my English breakfast the next morning, I discovered so many places that already had meaning in my literary imagination. Russell Square... Bloomsbury Square... Bedford Place... Just metres from my hotel I stumbled across this:

And then this:

Although I searched for Virginia Woolf’s plague in the area, I haven’t found it yet.
I have spent each day since my arrival travelling around London and trying to see as much as possible. I visited good ol’ John Donne in St. Paul’s Cathedral which was absolutely incredible. The religious shrines have been my favourite sights so far- Southwark Cathedral, which I stumbled upon whilst the bells were ringing was even more beautiful than St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey to me.

What I have found most surprising is how compact central London feels. I can walk from Bloomsbury down Tottenham Court Road and end up in the West End after 10 minutes or so, and every time I turned a corner during the first couple of days I discovered yet another cultural icon (or monopoly square). I have been to the Tower of London, looked up at Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, Leicester Square, Buckingham Palace, elbowed my way down Regent Street during the sales (big mistake), strolled around Covent Garden, walked awestruck through the British Museum...

I feel like a pro at navigating the tube now. I love it. For one thing, it’s underground, so I don’t need to rely on my awful sense of direction, and as long as I follow the little coloured lines in the right direction, it’s all good.

Two of the highlights for me so far have been seeing Twelfth Night on the West End, and walking around the Serpentine in Hyde Park. I was queuing in the freezing cold outside the theatre for returns on New Year’s Eve (I am very grateful to everyone who made me get thermals) when an American couple came over and asked if anyone was after one ticket. I said, ‘Me! I am!’. They were going to give me the ticket for free but I insisted on paying, we agreed on 20 pounds and I ended up sitting smack bang in the middle of the second row! It was wonderful, and the theatre was beautiful. Since then, I have resisted temptation and haven’t seen any more shows, because it could easily become a very expensive addiction. I will have to pace myself.

Hyde Park was all wintery and atmospheric. I will have to go again during the spring, but I love the way that London’s parks look in the late afternoon when the mists hang in the air (and the squirrels are very cute).

Tomorrow I am moving to a hotel in Guildford, Surrey, and then reality will have to take a front seat for a while whilst I look for somewhere to live. There are a few options, so hopefully at least one of them will be decent. Then, I have a meeting with the teaching agency on Monday the fifth and after that I will start work, and then reality will really set in!