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Teaching in London

IT may come to you on the way home from your part-time job, or in the middle of a leisurely stroll through campus on the way to your next class. Perhaps a friend suggested it countless times? Or you've known it since you were in Grade 9, sifting eagerly through the pages of Julius CaesarThe decision to become a teacher is something most of us make for one reason or another and at very specific times. Like a sudden revelation.

Once decided, we propel ourselves to panicked - at times - fulfilment of volunteering hours with students of various ages. We polish our Philosophies of Education and ultimately send our applications to a number of 'Teacher Colleges'. Learning the art of teaching itself within the walls of these colleges and universities is another topic altogether. However, the final diploma and subsequent certification to teach in whatever provinces, states or countries is the lasting achievement of all your hard work. But where to go from there?

There is no need to repeat or even mention the difficulties in securing a long-term teaching job in some parts of the western world. It is a topic and issue trodden upon far too many times. Explained, reiterated and complained about. The point is that teaching is a changed profession, in more ways than one.

Gone are the days of being offered an immediate full-time position in a school in your city of choice and preferred school board straight out of Teacher's College. Many teachers, potentially great teachers, see this as a solely negative situation. It's frustrating, especially since many educators want to be close to friends and family, or just love the city they live in back home. Many teachers start despising the profession or, worse yet, quit altogether. Yet, there are many ways to overcome this with patience, perseverance and a lot of luck. Teaching does not need to be viewed in such a limited way.

Teaching is such a versatile, challenging and rewarding career. There are so many other ways to approach it and grow professionally and personally. The truly hard part is the beginning of the journey. How do you earn those precious first years of experience that will unlock your future long-term goals? Many choose to wait at home and spend several years re-applying to bloated school boards, even just to supply teach. They end up working part-time jobs, getting by, while time passes and, with it, all the enriching experiences, knowledge and skills you learned in Teacher's College and during your memorable practicums actually working with real students. I know, I did it for almost two years.

Your teaching skills start to dull and rust, and by the time you do get an interview, your confidence and comfort in the classroom may be lost. Memories of your practicum will not help you then. The question, "What have you been doing since you graduated and finished your student teaching?" will surely come up.

Why not start doing what you spent your whole undergrad and post grad preparing for now? Think outside the boundaries and restricted box at home. Be strong, take that leap worth daring and think globally.

It doesn't have to be teaching ESL, even though that is a fantastic way to start as well. Personally, when I made the decision to teach in London, England - coming from Canada - there was no hesitancy. I wanted to teach, whether that was Grade 7 English, Grade 10 Math or Grade 12 History. I wanted to start my life now. London provided that experience without the handcuffs that public schools thrust upon you back home. Your resumes/CVs can be sent to individual schools directly. You do not need to be on "the list" just to be able to supply teach. You arrive in a great city and can be in the classroom in no time at all, teaching bright, challenging and wonderful students of all ages and levels.

The first day I supply taught, I remember sitting in the classroom, watching the students work and thinking: "How many years would it have taken for me to be in this position, standing here and discussing the impact of 'Star Wars' on tourism in Tunisia with 30 students back in Canada?" Afterwards, you can always go back home and give it another go when you feel ready. Simply don't limit yourself.

The key is to start somewhere. When someone tells you, "Oh, you have time, don't rush or worry about it," why waste that time when you can start doing what you love right now?

TEACHING WITH HIGHER STANDARDS

I REMEMBER sitting in my classroom just after school one day a few years ago, looking out the window and admiring the plethora of snow that had been descending on London since early morning. Not just any snow, rather, the United Kingdom's version of a snow storm. School had closed early that afternoon and I had just dismissed my overjoyed Year 8s barely past the stroke of noon. I could already see them hurling snowballs in the distance. Apparently there would be snow the next day as well, bringing about even more school closures. 

However, a second thought crossed my mind that day: What of their education? Our students were going to miss out on a whole afternoon of enriched and fruitful learning - to the joy of many, admittedly. But what about Macbeth, poetry, the greenhouse effect... And what of Monday's classes? Hours wasted. How could our students learn outside of the classroom?

This train of thought eventually drifted to the question: Can students learn without the complex and traditional surroundings of a school? Or teachers? At the time, I had only days before read a fascinating article by Chris Wilson, titled, "How to survive the teacher apocalypse". Although it referred specifically to ELT (English Language Teaching), I think it has great relevance in regards to teaching Primary and Secondary school subjects today. In it, Chris wrote about a teacher-less future with autonomous learning.

He asked the simple question: "If you had the option of learning on your own or learning with a teacher, which would you choose?" Seemed like a simple enough question. Why, and even how, could someone possibly replace the face-to-face interaction of a living, breathing, thinking person, filled with knowledge and experience? A person who understood emotion, could sympathise, be a role model. Technology cannot teach critical thinking, can it? However, Chris then made a great point about the quality of teachers out there. He commented on the standards and drive, creativity and effort of a successful teacher who would survive this "coming apocalypse". There is certainly no room for half hearted teachers, dictating solely from a book. The teachers that will survive in the future are the ones who will go beyond the basic duties required of them. They will give a reason why in-person, classroom learning is still the best avenue for a proper education, perhaps even supplemented by technology in its many forms.

The main idea is that teaching is not just a job. There is no room for autopilot mode, corner cutting, sub par lessons and laziness. Chris spoke of conscious diligence and the continual need for teachers to improve their lessons, their positive interactions with students and focus on professional development - because, in the end, students need to have the desire to welcome that knowledge which educators bring them, and they shape and mould themselves, unlocking their true potential. Not to mention, we as teachers are also the ones learning and growing with each day and every semester.

Teaching is a learning process in itself that doesn't end with getting a job at a school, creating habits and routines and not challenging your students or yourself. Stagnation is terrible in this profession. Take pride in what you do, respect it and make yourself and those around you better. As teachers, we have that responsibility at the very least.

BEING HONEST WITH YOUR STUDENTS

REMEMBER Teacher's College? A period of hectic chaos for many apprentices of education. The hours were long, the student teaching memorable, and the lesson plans carefully thought out and carried out, for the most part. We were assessed, scrutinised, commented on. Given advice. Most importantly, however, we learned and improved as teachers and individuals.

I broach the topic for two reasons: One, it was inspiring and a revelation to see so many NQT (newly qualified) teachers in the London schools I taught. They had fresh energy, were innovative and really wanted to teach and help their students, even when they had more harrowing, challenging days at the "office". They worked hard in their respective teacher training programs, and it was so gratifyingly obvious. Two, I came across a great post by a teacher who wrote about his freshly appointed student teacher's first day and the initial, first impression he made with his new students. It's an honest, humble message, to all new student teachers and graduates out there.

So I thought, "why not be honest with your students?" A lot of teachers like to put on a show in the classroom. The act of being serious, overbearing and in control. Yes, there has to be respect and discipline, but I believe that being honest with your students is another way of connecting with them on a more personal, truthful level. They can appreciate that, believe me. It's a fine balance that is never perfect...but what a challenge it is.

In a way, it is a performance. We not only thoroughly construct carefully thought out lesson plans that have outcomes and assessments, but we have to deliver it in front of 30+ students in an effective, engaging manner that stimulates them and their critical thinking skills. Students learn in variously different ways. The gears that their minds function on respond to so many subtleties and techniques of teaching. They want an influx of knowledge, good marks and smiley stickers, yet they also want careful, honest guidance from the teachers they look up to and want to impress occasionally.

There are so many ways to achieve this inside the classroom and around the school itself. Have one-on-one sit downs to review their work from time to time so that they feel comfortable and you can really focus on what they can improve on. Your students will soon discover that you are not just the booming voice of detention. You care for their success and well-being. Talk to your students outside your home form - greet them in the hallways, ask how they are doing when you pass the lunch room. And for goodness sake, smile. Even though your pupils seem like they are scheming all the time, disrupting class with incessant chatter, loud noise and rowdy behaviour sometimes, they are still kids. At the end of the day, your students spend most of their early lives in the classroom with YOU.

A careful, precise equilibrium of honesty and respect, engaging lessons, and proactive encouragement - among many other things - can be achieved in the classroom. For when you one day reach that proper attunement where your lessons are being digested with wide-eyed interest by a group of 12-year-olds, and their hands are flying up with each question; pens drying out with all their writing, and test scores making you nod with pride, you will know: I did it. Followed by: I love my job.

WHY ASKING STUDENTS FOR BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS IS A GOOD THING


ONE bright afternoon at school, one of my Year 7 students approached me after class to ask me one of the greatest questions anyone could ever ask an English teacher: "Sir, what books do you recommend I read?" This was followed by, shockingly, "I am reading Pride and Prejudice right now, but I also like Charles Dickens." Here was a student, in Year 7 mind you, so keen on reading and expanding her mind, whilst surrounding herself with only some of the best company of authors already.

I needed a moment to recover from her question.

I next thought, how do I answer this enquiry? So many novels, so much literature at the tip of my tongue, and my mind kept spawning more suggestions with each passing moment. However, these were books that enjoyed reading growing up. Perhaps she would not share my admiration of them in the slightest bit. What genres does she tend to favour? Maybe it's not science fiction after all, maybe it's not Tolkien. I needed time to prepare my response, so I settled for: "Come back tomorrow after class, and I will give you a list of books to consider."

That evening I thought about several things, but the one reflection that came to mind foremost was the common practice of teachers to continually select literature and materials in their lessons that they had themselves done so many times before. Content that they were so familiar with that they could arrive at school twenty minutes before class started and have a tattered copy of reading comprehension questions for a particularly well-known novel ready for the photocopier's bright lights.

Why the stagnation? Why the laziness and desire for routine? We have all been guilty of it before. I know we have our own lives to live after school, but why not take a delightful evening and read a new novel or a new poem and come up with fresh, insightful activities for our students to work on? Not only will it stimulate their minds, but ours as well. Reading something new for the betterment of our students. We get to enjoy our profession even more.

I know many have done it already, while it might not be possible for others as there are usually certain curriculums in place throughout most schools. Also it is more time consuming. Nevertheless, that is not always the case I think. We have opportunities to select some works to study. At the very least, passages to be analysed for content, themes, sentence structures, characters and so forth - making it work within the boundaries provided by the school. When you get a chance, take it.

Which brings me back to my bright student's request and another thought: Too many times we choose to have our students study literary material that we know in all their intricacies, which have stood the test of time, and that we think must be read. And that is fair enough, they are fantastic books. Yet, we should also make a better effort to discover what genres and titles our students like - no matter how silly we think they are - and incorporate them in our lessons. At least every so often.

The classics will always be there, ready to be explored when the time comes. Perhaps it is I who needs to ask someone, a student perhaps: "What new treasure do you recommend I read?"

THE JOYS OF PARENT-TEACHER NIGHTS


HAVING freshly emerged from the second of three parent-teacher evenings scheduled one spring term at my previous school in London, I noted that it was past 8 o'clock at night. My stomach demanded food, further lesson planning awaited me at home, and my arms had already started groaning in discomfort with the weight of 30 exercise books that had to be carefully marked.

Nevertheless, you will find no intended hint of sarcasm in the title of this post. Simply put, I love parent-teacher evenings. I find them stimulating, enlightening, and one of the best ways to communicate some of the most important educational information you want your students to know, along with their parents.

Parent-teacher nights were like one big comic book convention. Each teacher from every subject had their very own table in the dining hall. They encircled the middle of the hall, forming a perimeter of knowledge and experience. In the centre was a cluttered collection of chairs - some full and some empty - intended for the use of the parents to sit on for comfort as they awaited their interview time slots with various teachers. The time slots had been carefully planned out weeks before. In truth, the schedule went out the window the minute the evening began. Instead, parents lined up in anticipation at each station, report cards ready in hand, and their ears ready for every tantalising piece of information about the schoolwork and behaviour of their children.

On that particular spring night, it was parents evening for my Year 7s. They were anxious, nervous and impatient about what judgment they would be given by each teacher. They being the parents. The students, some terrified, some passive and complacent, were at their honest best. Most would sit quietly during their session, nodding their heads - not really listening at times - and would offer up some of the most sweetest, innocent smiles you would ever see. Questions abounded of the behaviour of little so and so. Glaring looks at little downcast faces when they found out how distracted their kids could get during class sometimes. And, of course, one of my favourite reactions from some parents: "Wait until you see what happens to your X-box when we get home..." During it all, though, there was always a genuine need and desire for the parents to want to see their kids succeed. They wanted to push them and ask what it was they could do to help make that happen. It was so encouraging and delightful to see just how much parents cared about their children and their education.

Naturally, there is also the pressure that parents bring to the table. Certainly, they want their children to excel at school, and it is your responsibility to make sure that happens. Your responsibility, and inevitably your fault if they fail. However, after just one of these parent-teacher evenings, one finds out just how many parents do not actually feel that way. Not one bit. They understand that their children are just as responsible for their own marks and efforts as you are.

When the times comes to meet the parents of your own students, make an effort to relax and enjoy it. Forget about the full day of classes you had just taught, or the dinner you must prepare at home in a pinch. This is a night for you to meet a unique and diverse group of people and see your students in a different light. You get a glimpse into their lives at home and have a chance to chat with your partners in ensuring that the students' education continues outside the classroom every day. Namely, through their parents. It is an opportunity for you to really establish what your students need to work on and improve, as well as talk about what they are doing exceptionally right in the classroom and how to make sure they continue doing so.

Remember, always end each talk with some positive comments. It will mean the world to both parents and children. A joyful night indeed.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SCHOOL HOLIDAYS

THE bells could be heard chiming from the Abbey nearby in the beautiful city of Bath in England. In front of me, a steady procession of locals, tourists and citizens from all walks of life wandered amongst the historic buildings, shops and cafes. Spoken Italian, French, English - among other languages - could be heard in the air, a gentle intertwining of laughter, exuberance and excited deliberation about where to eat. I spared a glance upward, noticed that the skies were clear as the birds soared past majestic spires above. The River Avon continued its gentle flow through the city centre as I took another bite of my panini. This moment best summarises my life as a teacher living in the United Kingdom.

Everyone has heard of the tidy and mouth-watering assortment of weeks off that a school teacher has in the UK. It is beyond comprehension. Words that come to mind include: dream job, amazing, unfair. What you quickly learn teaching in inner-city London is that you earn those weeks off. Every single one of those days. Particularly if you have a long-term placement in a school of certain pedigree and loaded with high expectations. You start early, you come home late. You lesson plan in the little time you have to yourself at home, and diligently mark the work of students during any remaining time. Consuming food is lost somewhere in the chaotic process.

Teaching is certainly unique and cannot be truly compared with any other job. It simply can't be. However, as most know who have been in the profession, you like doing what you do. Scraping and clawing your way to some balance, you feed off of your fellow teachers' strength in overcoming worries, and stresses, working together. Then, just when you think you are going to break - like a boxer desperately fending off a vicious attack in the latter rounds of a fight, seconds left - the stroke of term's end strikes. You close your laptop, shove the exercise books into the dusty closet and smile. Your life is yours again.

Capitalising on these breaks takes on many forms. You have the weekend enthusiasts, dashing off to Holland or Tenerife for the weekend, for instance. Then you have the hostel backpackers, their ventures a little longer and certainly eventful. The Ryan Air intrepid voyagers are my favourite lot. They are dauntless in the face of last minute bookings - no luggage - embracing the random locations and unknown airports in order to get close to the cities of their dreams at a fantastic price. You learn to grasp the bargains in London whenever you can.

There are also those, like myself, who love to explore the local cities, culture and landscapes - as everyone should. The variety in towns, villages and cities is immense. Stately mansions and woodlands pepper the landscape. Medieval architecture and ageless universities. The history beckons you at every turn. That is just one way of looking at it, though. There is so much to see and do.

I had been to Oxford earlier that day, basked in the presence of grandeur and that splendid institution of knowledge in the city centre. The nearby, picturesque Cotswolds and surrounding scenery guided the imagination and resonated with such beauty. Celtic traditions and Saxon artefacts could be found at a moment's notice. Protestant churches and burial mounds welcomed my wide eyes of inquisition. There is always something new to see, learn about, and to inspire us. What more can one ask for? Ah yes, the mysteries of Stonehenge awaited me later that day.

Teaching is a rewarding profession, in the way you help shape young minds and also personally. You teach and watch the young generation - our future - falter and flourish. You have an insight into such a variety of personalities, inspirations and hopes. If one of your students fails or gives up, it bothers and upsets you. You feel responsible, but you always try again. However, teaching is as much about you exploring your own path of further growth and discovery as it is helping your students begin their own journeys of knowledge and understanding - whether that is through reading on a daily basis. participating in extra-curricular activities that help the community, fundraising or just travelling. It is there to be done, opening our eyes and fulfilling us.

As I sat outside the cafe that day in Bath, I remember thinking back to a 1707 quote from Dr. William Oliver I read while exploring the famous Roman baths in the city: "If they can't be cured by drinking and bathing here, they will never be cured anywhere." I feel much the same about half-term breaks. If this time off - filled with travelling and self-betterment - does not cure the ailments of stress and burdens that teaching inevitably brings about, I don't know what else will.

I always smile when I recall the joyous ringing of the Abbey bells in Bath.

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