Friday, March 13, 2009

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.

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