Student Tom Conway spent eight weeks abroad as part of the Student Teaching Abroad at Brighton University in Eastbourne, England. Below are his reflections on the experience.
The Uber ride from London Heathrow Airport to Eastbourne was surreal and disorienting. Everything was British. “That is a British street sign.” “Those are British sheep.” Hey look! A British house full of British people!” Were any of the objects fundamentally different from their American equivalents? Of course not. The street signs, sheep, and houses were all essentially the same. Me being on my first trip to another country, though, all the mundane pieces of scenery seemed strange; slightly odd. After a tiring day of traveling, spending another hour and a half driving on unfamiliar streets in a foreign country was stressful rather than relaxing. Looking back on it now, that seems like a silly combination of feelings to have just cruising down the motorway. It goes to show how familiarity develops over time.
Every day that I took the bus (to class or to town), I became more familiar with roundabouts and driving on the left side of the street. It all slowly became commonplace. Compared to the initial disorientation of the first couple weeks, the transformation was drastic. Now, as I prepare to return home, I think I’ve gotten used to living in England. I don’t smirk when people say “cheers, mate” instead of “thank you.” I don’t find the British accents amusing anymore. It’s just part of the experience.
On the other hand, I never really adjusted to teaching in England. The cultural differences of everyday life were small enough to overcome during my two months there. The differences between the U.S. and English school cultures proved to be more significant. First, some context: my American students were older. They ranged in age from 15 to 18, covering every grade in an American high school. I taught electives. Sociology and psychology for students who volunteered to be there. They were also generally quieter; perfectly ok with chatting quietly amongst themselves or playing games on their phones (my American placement had no schoolwide policy for cell phones, so enforcing a classroom phone policy was difficult). I taught them for 50 minutes at a time. It usually seemed a bit too short. I would’ve liked 10 or 15 more minutes to help pace my lessons. Despite that, toward the end of my time with them, I think I found my stride. If I had the entire semester, I could’ve developed excellent rapport with them. They presented a specific set of challenges which, over the course of my six weeks with them, I more-or-less learned how to accommodate.
My English students came with an entirely different set of challenges; a very difficult situation to adapt to, especially when my days in both placements were numbered. Firstly, my English students were much younger (most were between 11 and 13) than my American students. They were also much more difficult to keep quiet. I often had to quell what I call “chain reactions,” which is when one student riles up another student, who riles up yet another student, and so on down the line until the whole class is effectively out of control. I never experienced that phenomenon with my American students. Breaking the chain usually required at least one student to be sent out to the hallway. Adding to the dilemma, the length of each lesson at my English placement was 100 minutes. Twice as much time with classes at least twice as difficult to handle. The learning curve was very, very steep.
Teaching in England has tested my classroom management skills. Unfortunately, it may have forced me to develop disciplinary strategies that I never wanted to use. I found myself yelling. “Eyes on me!” “In the back, stop talking!” It didn’t feel right, especially because my usual demeanor as a teacher is more relaxed than that; but it was the only way that seemed to work with any degree of success.
Because of how difficult to control many of my classes were, I had to modify my teaching materials to fit the circumstances. In the U.S., I had to make lessons as interesting as possible to get my students to respond. The fringes of psychology were my friend. Anything bizarre or debatable; I wanted to make it so my students couldn’t help but discuss the topic at hand. Meanwhile, in England, I tried to hold a simulation of the Treaty of Versailles. Not bizarre, but definitely debatable. I figured it would be the kind of activity that students get excited about. I was right, but I soon learned that it is almost impossible to keep British 12-year-olds on task once they’re “excited.” The delegation from France screamed “we need reparations!” over the quiet girl representing America. “Britain” wasn’t entirely sure where they stood, but I could hardly explain it to them over the background noise. It was a perpetual chain reaction of chatter. I felt exhausted and overwhelmed after that lesson. It might be that they were younger, it might be the school placement itself, it might be their excitement over having an American student teacher, it might be my own deficiencies as a teacher, and it might even be that English kids are naturally louder. No matter the reason, I think it would take several more months to get used to the differences. Ultimately, it amounts to an adaptability challenge. This experience has required me to go from one set of circumstances to another, in rapid succession, with little time to adjust. I can see the unique value in that for a student teacher, but I often wonder what it would be like if I had a typical student teaching experience.
I realize I’ve spent so many words describing hardships, and I don’t want that to be the only thing I discuss here. Yes, my English students have been a handful, but many of them are quite gifted young historians. In my Year 7, Set 1 class (year 7 is the equivalent to American sixth grade. The set represents the class’s ability level, with set 1 being the most gifted), I stitched together what I now consider to be a watered-down unit on the American Revolution. If you want examples of good lessons, talk to Sarah Wade, the other ISU history teacher in England with me. I think she rose to the challenge of teaching in England far more effectively than I have. Still, my students were asking me questions and forming historically sound predictions despite the perceived holes in my lessons. I saw enormous potential in all my classes. An example of inquiry here, a perfectly accurate summary there. I found myself thinking: “if I could harness their energy, they’re capable of high school-level work.”
Any triumphs I had in the classroom, though meaningful, were dwarfed by the most unforgettable part of the trip: Easter holiday (“spring break,” in America). Beginning with three days in Palermo, Sicily, I spent a couple days in Rome, Florence, and, finally, Venice. Given the infinite vacation options Europe offered, I chose to tour Italy and fulfill a lifelong dream. That turned out to be the right decision. Seeing the immaculate tile mosaics of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, walking awestruck through St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, crossing the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, and taking a gondola ride down the Grand Canal in Venice: these are just a fraction of the sights and experiences Italy gave me. As an aspiring history teacher, I feel like a primary source. Travel seems to directly enrich the social studies teacher more than any other. It’s one thing to describe the Roman Forum to a world history class. It’s quite another thing to describe your own visit to the site. Beyond the value of seeing historically significant sights firsthand, the experience implied how dense the world is. I spent a week in Italy. I could have spent months there. And yet Italy is one country on one continent. At the risk of sounding cliché, the trip expanded my horizons, both in the classroom and out.
I came to England hoping to embrace the “different” and have an irreplaceable experience. That has certainly happened. There have been highs: the first full lesson that I ever taught here went so smoothly that my students thanked me for it on their way out. After my first formal observed lesson, my supervisor from the University of Brighton said I have excellent classroom presence. There have been lows: several lessons went so wrong that I questioned why I even came to England in the first place. Throughout, no matter how the day went, the experience overall has been a whirlwind. A new experience nearly every day. In other words, exactly what I was looking for.