For the 2014 calendar year I am on an international teaching fellowship in New South Wales, Australia. I am teaching high school mathematics in a small rural K-12 school serving a livestock farming area on the edge of the outback. What follows are excerpts from my blog http://teacherexchange.ca that most relate to the professional experiences of swapping careers (and lives) with another teacher on the other side of the world.
While I am always mixing up my program, following kids' leads, and pursuing new technologies, I was ready for a bigger change. Not a permanent change though; I love my school, my colleagues are progressive and we are close both professionally and socially. The community is terrific too - there is a lot that is fabulous about my professional life at the moment. However, after more than a decade in the same situation, I needed to freshen up.
The international teaching exchange offered just what I was looking for: a temporary change, a professional challenge, and some travel opportunities for me and my family. Teaching a new grade, in a different school, in a different district, in a different state, in a different country, on a different continent is a great learning experience. Longer term visits like this offer deeper understanding of philosophies and processes.
December 3, 2014
Imagining the year ahead on a teacher exchange
We talk about the adventure, the experience, the challenge of trying something new. Conversations in our family started big - forest view, so to speak – an exchange to Australia, the continent, on the other side of the globe. With a specific destination now, our conversations have started to narrow in focus as we look at states, capital cities, town names, river locations, and the beaches. GoogleEarth and street-view images bring us to the ground and help to appreciate that the gestalt view we have of the Australian continent is not the reality of daily life, in the same way that our daily lives here in Canada are not filled with majestic mountains on the horizon backing herds of caribou sweeping majestically across the snow-covered prairies. Rather, we wake up, eat meals, go to school, drive to work, pick up groceries, pay bills – the essential activities that make life work.
Connecting with my exchange partner and his colleagues on social media, and “Liking” my destination school’s Facebook page lets us see some of the people, places, and activities of our home-for-a-year. This causes both excitement and a little anxiety as it brought the forest view down to the trees. It’s easy to think about travel and a little holiday, but it is so much more than that. Set that beside the new curriculum documents I’ll be teaching next year and it is a little like sitting at the top of a huge waterslide - you’re nervous and excited, it’s terrifying for a while, then just exhilarating. For my son, when I asked him what he thinks about when he thinks of the exchange he said something like, “I don’t really think about being there… I think about going there.” For him, so far, it’s the journey and not the destination. Time enough ahead to process everything!
December 13, 2014
A year of switching places: Stonewall Teulon Tribune article on Teacher Exchange
We’re only 10 days away from departure and it’s feeling a lot more real with every passing day. I have such a terrific group of students that will be hard to leave, and friends at work who, while we’re away, will be getting married and growing families, maybe even a retirement or two. While we sure would love to be there for those events, we also know that you could spend a lifetime enjoying other people’s lives without really living your own. I may be overstating the sentiment, but all three of us, in some way, are experiencing that tension.
Today our school staff is putting on a farewell lunch for us followed by a last night out with our amazing work friends. We’ve had a lot of good-bye’s over the last couple of weeks with people we know we won’t see again until we’re back. So thankful for digital communication and social media that will keep us connected while we’re on the other side of the planet. In preparing for the exchange, we have been looking at our world with fresh eyes – acutely aware of how much we value our family, friends, our community, work, our cozy home, even the weather, as cold as it has been… all of it is highlighted as the unique elements that make us who we are.
Dec 22, 2014
Journeys and Destinations… it’s all journey if you’re in the moment
Tomorrow we are off on our big adventure. It hardly seems real – so much of our attention has been on preparing the house and classroom, managing paperwork, running errands, and fitting in last visits with friends and family. In fact, we have finished so many little jobs, and purged so much from the house, we’re actually quite happy with the state of things here, almost makes us want to stay (haha!)
A few weeks ago I asked Carlen how he was thinking about being in Australia for a year and he said something like, “I don’t really think about being there, I just think of going there.” An interesting distinction that focuses on the journey more than the destination. And boy, do we have a journey ahead of us! almost 12 hours from Vancouver to Beijing, then another 12 hours from Beijing to Sydney. I’m rather looking forward to those flights. For each of those days there is nothing to do but “sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight”.
Jan 28, 2014
Starting work at my Australian exchange school
Because we are rather rural and it is incredibly hot and dry here, my school qualifies for a “Climatic Disability Allowance” and an extra week summer holidays.
Everyone back in Winnipeg battling the worst winter in recorded history is rolling their eyes in disbelief. Yes, it is hard to beat having to clear 2m tall snow drifts in -42c weather to find the car for weeks on end. Let’s just say the NSW Department of Education and Communities knows how to treat their staff and recognizes the challenges of living in extreme weather and locations!
Today I spent the day at the school – wandering around, mostly; sitting, staring at the walls thinking, meditating, and getting into my teaching/learning space. I recall my first teaching job and walking into the classroom full of books, binders, and resources. Where do you start? How much do you have to read before classes start? How on Earth will I be able to manage it all?!
Of course, more than 20 years later, some of those same feelings emerged walking into my office space and then the classroom. I have been dealing with the same grade and the same curricular outcomes for the last 12 years which brings a great deal of comfort, confidence, and a firm foundation for experimentation and innovation. Here, flipping through the planning binders my exchange partner left for me (extremely well-organized and tremendously detailed! Thanks Matt!) everything felt a little uncomfortable and uncertain – though this time I have the benefit of a couple of decades of experience.
I started by making a file for my timetable – that helped me understand the flow of the day and the groups of students with whom I would spend the day. Later I went through all the planning documents for a couple of the courses: scope and sequence, unit plans tied to curricular outcomes, assessment tasks. That helped me get a sense of the planning requirements, terms used, and the flow of the year. Also poked around the classroom a bit to see what was there for texts, resources, and flipped through some documents related to the school’s personal management strategies. Also got my department network login and email which is exciting in its own way.
That was a good first day – gave me some context for understanding the work environment. Tomorrow I’m hoping to get class lists and maybe some pictures so I can focus on the most important part of the job – my students. I’ll be walking into that classroom on the first day of school just as much a learner as the students there with me.
February 8, 2014
A newbie with twenty-three years’ experience
First week (and a short week at that) is done and I am wiped. It’s early days, of course, in this teaching exchange experience, but getting my head wrapped around everything is very taxing. There’s new curriculum, program acronyms, unfamiliar planning and assessment practices, not to mention a lot of names, personalities, and a new timetable to get used to. Even a different length period means getting used to pacing a class differently.
I really want to understand why things are the way they are. The well-understood philosophy in my home school division in which I have worked for so long is, of course, the lens through which I see educational issues. This last couple of weeks I’ve been working hard to develop a second lens with which to understand my new professional environment.
Prior to the start of school I flipped through a lot of stuff in the office trying to understand what I was even looking at, often without success! It was rather like looking at pieces of a thousand-piece puzzle without the benefit of the picture on the box. Now, thanks to my fabulous Aussie colleagues, I have some context which is enough to get me started and gives me enough understanding to know what questions to ask! I really appreciate their patience and support as I adapt myself to this new system.
February 16, 2014
Exchange Teachers’ Weekend in Sydney
Valentine’s Day this year had my family out on a walk around Sydney and me in an orientation event with current and past exchange teachers. It was fun to meet others in Australia on their exchange year as well as a number of Australian teachers who spent 2013 in Canada. We met with some folks from the NSW Department of Education and Communities, had a talk from a Sydney policeman about safety, and an environmental educator about wildlife and safety.
During breaks, and over the weekend, we shared a bit about our new communities and schools, what we have done for travel so far, and what we have planned for the rest of the breaks. We also talked about some of our challenges: getting around, connecting with colleagues, managing classes, learning new systems, etc. None of the challenges are insurmountable, and we acknowledge the challenge as part of the exchange experience. Someone said something like, “I didn’t come here to have the exact same experiences I do at home!”
The NSW Teacher Exchange League was awesome putting together some activities for families while we were in meetings, and the harbour cruise was a terrific time. We had more time to visit, sight-see, and had a shore lunch at Clifton Gardens before heading back to the harbour. Sunday they organized some other events but we had a few things to do before making the long drive back home.
We did encounter a road closure on the way home and learned that there was a fatal collision between two vehicles. Gave us about three extra hours drive home to think about how much we have to be thankful for. To top it off, we had a close-up encounter with a koala, a spectacular sunset behind cloud-shrouded hills near to home, and we didn’t hit any of the many kangaroos alongside the road.
Life is good.
February 25, 2014
A Day at the Races (literally and metaphorically)
You may already have read on my son’s blog about our day at the races. It was a new experience for all of us despite living so close to the Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg. Our experience at the Coonabarabran Jockey Club felt more like our favourite home-town community hall events – lots of visiting, catching up with people you haven’t seen for a while.
Almost a month into our work and school life here in Australia and we’ve established a bit of a routine and feeling very much at home in our new space. Reviewing our bank statements provides ample evidence of a couple of months of travel and exploration. We remind ourselves that the six or seven weeks that we were travelling is the longest stretch we will have and it won’t be too hard to stem the flow of cash out of the account now that school has started.
We’re all happy in our daytime pursuits though I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit that the teaching hasn’t been a bit of a race itself. There is a lot to take in, a lot to manage, a lot to understand in a new system with different approaches to teaching and learning. As hard as it is, it is also intellectually and professionally enriching. There is much that I value from home and many things that I appreciate from here that will guide my practice for a long time, I’m sure.
If you’re interested in what’s going on at my school, our latest newsletter is available on the school website. Have a peek at what the start of school is like at a rural Australian school!
Reflections on Teaching So Far
Here are some observations and challenges I'm dealing with given the lens through which I see education. It is early days still and, as I explored in the past, I am mimicking processes while I seek to understand the motivation and philosophy that drives the system.
- Data: data driven decision-making tends to focus discussions more on statistics and benchmarks rather than student achievement. While there is little wrong with using data to guide decision-making, I find that conversations focus on “raising scores” as a whole and very little on helping individual children. There is a tremendous amount of information generated for each student and is useful for targeting interventions with individual students, but must be weighed against classroom experience and personal knowledge of the students interest and performance.
- Departmentalization: segmented days make it hard to form relationships with students, little opportunity to integrate curricula. Dealing with a child one subject at a time makes it challenging to see the big picture and see the child as a whole, as part of a family, and a member of a larger community.
- High stakes testing process where only a select few items, often fewer than 6 per year, average out to a final grade. Turns those assessment events into the only things that "count". The rigid bureaucracy with assessment schedules, compliance registers, assessment notifications, and assessment task records feels like they serve to mitigate liability rather than contributing to student achievement. It appears that there is an increasing awareness of assessment for/as/of learning.
- Compliance / Rules put the processes and procedures ahead of people; they are a means by which behaviour is controlled. Token economies with reward and punishment schedules require a lot of monitoring and are very hard to standardize from situation to situation which reduces its’ effectiveness.
- Huge bureaucracy makes for impersonal, numbers driven, administration with lots of top down mandates and control through testing and accountability measures. Smaller districts have opportunity to form relationships with staff and students. Growing people rather than administering policy.
- Rigid Planning is an interesting exercise in weaving together outcomes, content, delivery, and assessment into a pre-determined, administrator-approved package. Students, teachers, and administrators sign off on the plans that result in clear, but inflexible schedules. The plans then drive what happens in classrooms; pushing content to stay on track, rather than really exploring concepts and interests with students. Focus appears to be more about acquiring knowledge rather than mastering processes.
March 13, 2014
Challenging classes are “Mettle Detectors”
Well, it finally hit. A bout of homesickness. For me, at least.
There are a couple of challenging classes that make me wonder where my 23 years experience with classroom management has gone. The persuasive restitution-based strategies I have successfully employed back home for the last 12 years `seem completely ineffective (so far) and I’ve had to revisit strategies I haven’t used since my first few years in the classroom.
So today was one of those days – a few challenging classes in a row then, on my break, I happen to flip through some photos from home. The familiar images with the unseen, but intimately felt context outside the picture’s frame, filled with warm memories stirred up the emotions.
But every day there is plenty that makes me smile thinking about where I am, what I’m doing, how fabulous this opportunity is for me and my family. And, to be fair, relationships are harder to form with some kids when they know you’re leaving at the end of the year. I knew it would be a challenge, and that it would be like starting fresh again. As difficult as things are at times, I have no regrets, and it won’t kill me, and I’ll be a better teacher for it.
(now keep repeating until you’ve convinced yourself!
Wednesday afternoon (Same day)
Well, I pulled myself together and had a fabulous class with a smaller group where we all brought our desks together and just did math for 40 minutes – figuring things out, working equations, visiting, helping each other. IT WAS AWESOME!! I told the students that when I found out I’d be here teaching math that THIS was what I dreamed of – gathered around learning together.
One of them said, “Awww, we made sir’s dream come true! High-five, everyone”
What a joy. I love it.
March 15, 2014
Virtual Faculty Meeting on the Edge of the Outback
Virtual faculty meetings bring together math teachers from small rural schools for professional development and dialogue. The most recent meeting was in the town of Cobar, about 400km drive west from Coonabarabran (almost 700km inland from Sydney). Surprisingly, I wasn’t the only Canadian there, and another Australian teacher taught in northern Manitoba near where I was many years ago.
We talked about the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) tests Australian students write a few times over their school career. There is a tremendous amount of data generated about each child with rankings and comparison to school and state averages. Small schools like the ones we are in are subject to statistical anomalies and the online data interface warns viewers about the small sample size for our respective schools. This generated some interesting conversations about assessment and test scores.
The drive there and back was relaxing and I listened to a bunch of lectures on Australian Aboriginal History from La Trobe University. Each little town has the same kind of grand hotel with a second story railed balcony providing shade over the ground floor walk into the pub. I wonder sometimes how little towns like these can support two or three of these enterprises. Either they all have thriving tourism industries, or the locals drink a lot of beer!
March 15, 2014
More Media Coverage from Manitoba and New South Wales
I recognize that this exchange program is supported by our respective departments of education who believe there must be some value for our teachers and students. Initially I thought it would be a good experience for me, professionally, to recharge my batteries and experience some new things. While the exchange teachers benefit, our students, hopefully, also benefit from our unique perspectives on the world. Our families enjoy hearing about our experiences abroad, and our friends and colleagues appreciate the experience working with a colleague from away. Within the community, we make connections and share our experiences and stories. These teaching exchanges have a huge ripple effect. Upon returning, we will be rearticulating our experiences and understandings through a new lens.
I have committed to recording my experiences on this exchange – not just the travel and family experiences, but the professional challenges and experiences through my teacherexchange.ca blog. This blog, for us, serves a few purposes:
- a venue for recording our experiences; whether anyone actually reads it or not, journaling is a good way to process stuff that needs processing
- communicating to friends and family some general updates
- a resource for others considering an international teaching exchange – we have appreciated reading other exchange teacher blogs and gained a broader understanding of the experience to come; this is our contribution to that bank of knowledge
We will continue to analyze and process our experiences sharing them on the teacherexchange.ca blog. In conclusion, I wish to extend my deepest gratitude to my school division Board and administrators for supporting this experience and accommodating me and my exchange partner.