Last week I got paid to go to the theatre! I enjoyed an all expenses paid trip to a wonderful local venue and saw an incredible play set in 1920's Chicago about the 'Mother of Jazz'- Ma Rainey, with an amazing cast, music and story. Strictly speaking, I was working at the time as a chaperone to around 100 high school students - but nevertheless, I can think of worse ways to earn a living!
In addition to the private school I signed up with last year, I'm now on the books as a substitute teacher at the two huge local high schools. To put things in context, my local school district employs around 200 substitute teachers. As with most things these days, there's an app that sends out notifications of available jobs and you simply select which ones you want to do. But there's a catch - you need the speed of a startled gazelle to book the job before someone else gets to it first. It's like the scene in the Hunger Games film where all the contestants race to get the tools for their own survival. My phone pings and in the time it takes me to put my glasses on and swipe my screen, the job is gone. But I've found a loop hole! I only accept English lessons to cover and word has got out that there is a qualified teacher on the books so now, some teachers are beginning to ask for me; knowing that their classes will complete the work set and that I have the subject knowledge to be able to support their students' learning. Thus, I've been able to secure a pretty steady stream of bookings.
As a qualified and experienced English Teacher, I initially struggled in my earlier attempts to adapt and accept what I saw as a demotion, but now I'm beginning to really see the benefits of my new role. For a start, it's flexible - I can say no if I have other things I need to do (such as lying in bed, drinking tea and blogging!) and because I only accept jobs in the English faculty I'm learning so much about the American curriculum should something more permanent catch my eye. I also have no responsibility for planning or grading and can simply walk away at the end of the day. No piles of marking, no horrendously long hours, no stress.
But of course this lack of responsibility also means that many of the aspects of teaching that gave me such pleasure are also missing: the creativity of designing schemes of work that bring a text to life, the day-to-day relationship-building with students, the staff room banter and camaraderie. In many ways, I feel like I'm on the outside peering in through the window - I'm in the odd, in-between world of the 'not quite'. That said, I'm enjoying near rock-star status with the students. Apparently my British accent and the fact that I lived and taught in west London is 'soooooooo coooooool!' I really haven't the heart to burst their bubble and instead play along with their assumptions that yes, I do know the Queen and yes, I have worked at Hogwarts!
Every time I walk the halls of my new schools, I'm fascinated by the stark differences I see between my classroom experiences in outer London and those in Chicago's northern suburbs. There are some glaring truths which are hard to see first hand. For example, the difference that a well-resourced school can make. Gone are the days when I'd beg, borrow and steal glue sticks and use my own money to photocopy basic resources. Here, it's all Chromebooks for every student and glossy year books. But the differences don't end there; the American Dream may well be flawed, but it certainly seems to create a culture of positivity towards the value of hard work and education - something I did not always see in British classrooms. One particular exchange I witnessed a few days ago can attest to this. I watched one student tutoring another in the library. Whilst this in itself isn't such an unusual sight, it was the way they spoke to one another that really left me in awe...
Student Tutor: Hi! It's so good to see you!
Student Tutee: You too. Thank you so much for meeting with me.
Tutor: That's my pleasure! How's your paper coming along?
Tutee: It's going well but I'd appreciate your help with the structure.
Tutor: No problem (reads through). Wow! This is so impressive, I can see you've worked really hard!
And so it went on... I kept waiting for one of them to drop the facade - to go off task, start mucking about or get distracted by their phones - but they never did. For the entire appointment, this respectful, focused and positive exchange continued, and all during their own free time! I couldn't help but compare how a similar scenario might go with some of the students I'd encountered in the UK...
Student Tutor: Allow it fam, this is long (Translation: I do not see why I have to give up my time)
Student Tutee: Yeah, man, this is peak... (I heartily agree, this is surely against my human rights)
Tutor: Just Google it later, innit. (Rather than put in any effort, you can simply find the answer on the internet.)
Tutee: Wanna go Nandos? (Shall we retire to the nearest fast food establishment? Perhaps for some chicken?)
Of course I'm exaggerating and generalising - most of my UK students were hardworking and diligent, but there's no denying that there is a general difference in attitudes which is hard to explain but impossible to ignore. In the US, hard work is admired and encouraged, high grades are respected and success, celebrated. In my experience, this isn't always the case in UK classrooms and it's a big problem. I also see that behaviour here is generally better. As a substitute teacher, I fully expected students to push all the boundaries, but so far, I've been met with the exact opposite. Students come into the room, introduce themselves and offer to help me, furthermore, they do exactly what I ask, when I ask them to do it. No negotiating and cajoling needed. These are just observations of what I've experienced and wont be true of all settings and students - but it's given me an interesting insight into cultural differences in attitudes towards education and it's pretty unsettling because there are no quick fixes to any of the things that cause such stark differences - things like poverty, educational policy and social care systems.
I'm taking this time to learn about different approaches to teaching and different attitudes to learning whilst also keeping up-to-date with current educational research, all with a view to one day getting back in the hot seat. But for now, I'm happy to just be back in a classroom sharing what I know about Shakespeare or similes whenever I get the chance. With Son#2 a student at one of the schools I'm now employed by, I was uncertain about accepting work there in case I cramp his style. Let's face it, we can't exactly pretend we don't know each other as the only two Brits in the place, as well as having the same last name and looking like two peas in a pod. Son#2 has been extremely gracious - encouraging in fact - in allowing me on his turf, although so far, our paths have not crossed. But what's really interesting is that, back in the UK, he would have been mortified at the prospect of having his Mum turn up in his English class, and possibly teased relentlessly about it, but his American friends have assured him that as far as they're concerned, having a mum that knows the Queen and taught at Hogwarts is just 'sooooooo cooooool'!