Last summer, I was sitting in an art-filled café in Exeter, N.H., reading Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education. Page after page, I dutifully read and made margin notes about the successful performance of students in places like Finland and Singapore, when a simple question dawned on me. What is it really like to teach in other places? My curiosity was piqued.
Since becoming a teacher three school years ago, I have reflected daily on the challenges of this profession. I know that my job is very different than the one I envisioned my teachers doing back when I was a K-12 student; like many things, it’s hard to imagine until actually living through it.
Last year, I started to write about teaching. I wrote one piece on the need to nurture teachers and create environments for collaboration rather than isolation, and another about how teachers’ ignorance of big-picture policy changes limits our autonomy in the classroom. Writing offered a way to think “aloud” about my experience in a way I couldn’t risk doing at school.
Despite the challenges of being a teacher, one aspect consistently sustains me: my relationships with students. I teach middle school, a fragile age where, above all, kids want to feel like someone “gets” them. They’re looking for unconditional acceptance as they try out versions of themselves, some combination of which will one day stick. They possess a refreshing ability to be vulnerable and open in ways that adults have often left behind.
Even in my relatively short amount of time as a teacher, I see that, although this openness and availability flourishes in middle school relationships, it remains in short supply among the adults in a school. I’m not without blame myself; sometimes it’s just easier to shut my door, work through lunch, and breathe a bit rather than seek out colleagues, collaborate, or, basically, be available. But there’s definitely something about this profession that makes us close ourselves off, both regretful of the isolation but reluctant to open up.
Which brings me back to that café in New Hampshire. I wondered if teachers in other countries had the same challenges I was experiencing. I wondered if their professional relationships were different from mine. I wondered what their lives were like outside of school compared with mine. I wondered how others in their culture perceived their choice to join the teaching profession.
With the help of my brother, who has lived abroad, I reached out to public school teachers from various spots around the world, and I found two who were willing (and available!) to share perspectives with: Thom in France and Emily in Australia. In August, the three of us launched a comparative teaching blog called Instruments of Change in which we write every few weeks about our lives as teachers. We have written several diary entries of a “typical” day in our schools, and we’ve touched on other salient topics, including teacher-preparation programs, our choices to become teachers, assessment in schools, and more. We plan to continue writing on the blog until May, hoping to discover more about what it means to teach, whether in the United States, France, or Australia.
As the editor of the blog, I have the role of compiling our entries each time we publish. When Emily sends me her entries from Australia, I curl up as I do when I’m in the middle of a good book because I know that her words will give me a moment to relax and know that someone out there understands what I am going through as a teacher (and has similar hankerings for takeout and TV). I nod in agreement as I read her entries, recognizing aspects of her experience that connect to mine—the way her day unfolds minute-by-minute, the central role of assessment in her teaching, the quest for precision in her lesson planning. On the other hand, I also catch myself, as I read Emily’s words, wishing that I could find the same amount of collaboration in my school, or have the same amount of common-planning time allotted. I also wish I had the same level of clarity that Emily seems to receive on what to teach, when, and how.
In the case of Thom’s entries, there is an extra layer of discovery for me in that I also translate his contributions from French to English, and though there was a time when I lived in Italy and spoke Italian, I’ve never studied French. Translating his entries takes me back to high school Latin and reading The Aeneid line by line, trying to make sense of not only someone’s words but his meaning. From Thom’s entries, I have also learned about a whole school system within a system, as he teaches in a “priority education school” (a “ZEP” school) that focuses on a predominantly immigrant population within the public school system in France, an schema for which I’m not sure a parallel exists here in the States.
When I read Thom’s entries, I am consistently fascinated by the orderliness and structure of his days, from the desks in rows to his clear-cut explanations of discipline issues and classroom management. He commands my attention from afar, so I can imagine what a strong presence he is to his students.
Thom’s descriptions illustrate the complexity of the French public school system, from his entry into the profession to the unique school he currently teaches in. Thom was placed in his school only after passing national teacher exams, and, as Thom writes, it’s common in France for newer teachers to start out in placements in more difficult areas—which, of course, draws interesting comparisons to programs like Teach for America or to general hiring in understaffed, high-turnover urban school districts. As mentioned, Thom teaches in a specialized middle school that serves a primarily low-income, immigrant population—students whose native language is not French. To an outside observer, it has elements that remind me of an urban charter school in the U.S. But even having completed some research in connection with the blog, it’s difficult to fully imagine or appreciate the role of a ZEP school or how it could compare to our system here.
In all, Thom’s teaching experience comes across as more traditional in its approach (a standardized curriculum, handwritten books of correspondence between school and home, strict meetings to decide whether students advance to the next level), whereas Emily’s experience seems more progressive than mine (especially in terms of planning time and collaboration with colleagues).
Ironically, the three of us have never met in person. But through this shared experience of written reflection, I am able to visit them in their classrooms and host them in mine. Just like our students, we want someone to “get” us, and now we have each other.
Although I started this blog to study differences of teachers around the world, each time I publish our entries, I find myself drawn to the ways our days overlap. I find this alone to be fascinating. Despite widely different national approaches to education, student populates, and even student outcomes, we three teachers have so much in common. In a discourse dominated by data and student outcomes, I hope our contributions provide some balance and a reminder that, whether in the States, France, Australia, or elsewhere, a whole lot of people wake up, head to school, and teach these kids—and face surprisingly similar challenges and rewards.
Please enjoy, read, comment, and contact us through our blog.