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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 2, October 2004

Exchange teaching experience

by Bonnie Sutherland

A number of years ago, my husband, Don, and I exchanged houses, cars, and jobs with teachers from Sydney, Australia. Adjusting to a new situation in a foreign country is a challenge in itself, but ours was especially difficult as both our schools were located in areas populated almost entirely by new immigrants from Greece, Lebanon, or Vietnam. There was a lot of tension among the ethnic groups as they vied for position in their new country. The Greek and Lebanese students’ behaviour often clashed with our expectations; for example, many students yelled for attention. We later realized that that was because they were from large families—eight or nine children was not uncommon—so yelling was the way to get noticed.

At the high school where I worked, a number of girls told me emphatically that they didn’t need any more education because their fathers were going to find them husbands once they turned 15.

One Friday during this very difficult year, Don was so frustrated that he sat down and wrote up his day as it had unfolded—a day of ineffectual school procedures punctuated by constant interruptions from deafening trains and unnecessary messengers. He taught at a primary school roughly equivalent to a K–6 situation here. The building itself was a large, old brick structure, a rabbit warren by design, with thick, black smoke constantly belching from an industrial-sized smokestack next door.

The good news is that we survived our year in Oz, retained our sense of humour, and came back probably better teachers for the experience.

Dear Diary

9:20 a.m. Horn sounds. The children line up outside. Teacher situated on a 20-foot-high balcony vainly attempts announcements. My mind wanders to the Queen, the Pope, Mussolini; the restless multitude also suffer from wandering minds, and, no wonder: most can’t hear.

About 30 m away, lower primary grades are doing their morning exercises to amplified rock music that almost drowns out our ineffectual announcer.

9:24 a.m. Children line up (congregate) at various locations around the grounds—well, some do. Odd bods are in the assembly hall setting up. Teachers head over to what remains of their classes and they wander into the hall.

9:25 a.m. A deputy teacher is on the hall stage with "mike" exhorting kids to enter without any noise—a well-nigh-impossible goal. Children yak; chairs clack.

9:28 a.m. "Order" is eventually established. Pupils stand quietly for Advance Australia Fair—a musically mumbled version rendered with words displayed on overhead. The result would make any Anzac retreat.

9:30 a.m. Pupils’ council member announces that the vice-principal will address the assembly. Here follows a diatribe listing all the misdemeanors from the past week-mostly directed at those spitting (ugh!) on the drinking taps—"this must stop"...and "some people are not returning library books on time" and "some people are in the halls at the wrong time...this must stop"...and..."the end of the year is near, and some will have to work much harder if they don’t want to repeat a grade." After about five minutes of this emotional tirade (was Nuremburg ever this bad?), she hands the torch to a pupil who announces that we will now have a song: Everyone Is Beautiful.

9:40 a.m. Children receive weekly awards for work, behaviour, etc. The same faces appear each week.

9:45 a.m. Announcements of last Friday’s sports scores. Final directions.

9:50 a.m. Instructions end, and kids march to respective rooms except those paying a dollar for a bus fare that takes them to various sports—roughly 60% of the school. Return to class to retrieve what’s left of the morning.

9:55 a.m. In class. Roll call. Figure out how much of the possible hour and five minutes left of regular class time I’ll be able to salvage.

9:57 a.m. First interruption. Train thunders past in middle of directions—the usual 65-second pause. Only 15 more monsters to go!

9:59 a.m. Second interruption. Two "messengers" present a note from a Greek instructor stating that she wants the Greek dancers as soon as possible in her room—they are to perform at some shopping mall. I treat this typical ambiguity with the respect it deserves and send the six ethnic experts off. What could I teach them in 15 minutes anyway? Besides the next bunch leave in 10 minutes to join the choir for the same extravaganza.

10:02 a.m. Dancers return—she doesn’t want "them" as soon as possible. It was all Greek to me. I’ll try at 10:10.

10:03 a.m. "Well, class, when this bunch go, the remaining 15 (one kid transferred, one sick, one in Lebanon for a three-month visit, one with dad hunting opals) will commence their drafts for the letter to Vancouver or attempt to complete projects on gold in Australia" (now in its 18th week).

10:10 a.m. "Hollywood Goes Greek" group departs.

10:12 a.m. Interruption by the constant, relentless roving messenger. A note: If the weather is still unsatisfactory by 11 a.m., sports will be cancelled. I am not impressed.

10:15 a.m. Class settles. I offer assistance to pupils having trouble with division—very short division.

10:17 a.m. Routine resumes. Routine?—a most misleading term!

10:25 a.m. Magic missive mover returns. "Non-Greek-speaking pupils: Greek language class will not be held. Send pupils to Greek-speaking instructor for work." This is not exactly necessary news.

11:00 a.m. Recess. I am slightly disturbed by the non-appearance of the creeping courier.

11:20 a.m. Non-Greek group exit. I commence recorder without piano instruction to 11 musicians.

11:25 a.m. Working well from page 5; that is, if you consider playing notes A and B simultaneously has musical merit.

11:27 a.m. NGSPGL class filters back completely ruining the mood of my budding pipers. "She said we could work in our classroom." I display magnificent control and merely roll my eyes. I ignore them.

11:28 a.m. Music resumes. Students decide they like the note "A" better and elect to entertain me with 32 bars of same.

11:40 a.m. No rain for past hour. "Orchestra" finally embarks on note #3—"G" when, ah, yes, Nellie the Notewit strikes again. "Sports is on." Fancy that!

11:45 a.m. Music class finally shows improvement, given my ultimatum: Anyone not making satisfactory progress, hie thee to the nearest corner and practise Poor Johnny One Note silently. Oh, yes, it CAN be done.

11:46 a.m. New messenger arrives—one of my soccer boys. "Can I go home and get my boots? I thought it was going to rain."

11:48 a.m. The NG etc. pupils begin drifting out. I ignore them.

11:50 a.m. Another train. You can’t ignore that.

11:52 a.m. The NG etc. return intermittently. I am too numb to react.

11:59 a.m. Ghostly figure of another soccer squirt, name of Mehmtahli appears at my door and taps timidly. I stop the "music" (they’re now playing A, B, & G simultaneously) and wave Mehm away furiously. I will be interrupted no more. He slinks off stage left.

12:00 p.m. NG nerds begin yet another exodus. "Where are you going?" "To get our work marked, Sir." "If you leave this room, don’t come back—ever!" I hiss. They sit.

12:01 p.m. The Seaforth Highlanders are valiantly attempting Au Clair de la Lune. It resembles a pod of whales with indigestion.

12:02 p.m. Another bloody train.

12:10 p.m. Lunch if you are quick.

12:15 p.m. Assemble my two soccer teams and walk three km to our playing field at the local park as our school lacks even this basic facility. "Away games" means bussing—ugh! Teacher of opposing team offers to ref while I patrol non-combatants—the usual tasks: preventing children from harming one another, spitting, disrupting game in progress, etc. Diffuse potential racial incident. Greek boy from my team spits at 17-year-old girl for calling him a wop. Her large boyfriend threatens an ‘otomy on parts unmentionable.

2:35 p.m. Walk back to school. Dump 24 boys at blacktop assembly area for final house points, reports, and team scores. In other words, fill in time until 3:20 p.m. dismissal. Teacher from balcony continues to use usual control method—"Someone is still talking!" Very true. They never stop. "I can still hear someone not listening!" Oh really? Is she or he referring to the groups of teachers gabbing away, setting the tone? Smoke from the chimney stack next door rolls across the assembly area choking all with its pollutants. I have had enough for one day. I slink off to the staffroom.

3:20 p.m. The last house group is finally dismissed for being quiet and sitting up straight.

Friday is finally over!

Bonnie and Don Sutherland are retired Delta teachers.

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