From Dannevirke to dangerous minds

September 2012

 

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Education Review talks to Kiwi teacher CAMERON ANDREW about combining teaching with travel and his eye-opening experiences teaching difficult kids in London.

Q: What was your teaching experience in New Zealand before you headed to London?

Cameron: Before teaching in London, I taught at Dannevirke High School for two years. There, I became fully registered while teaching physical education and health. I also taught maths four lessons per week in my first year at the school. After finishing teaching in New Zealand, I took two years off teaching to travel before getting back into teaching when I arrived in London.

Q: What steps did you take in finding a teaching job in London?

A: When I first arrived in London, I talked to mates who were also teachers and asked them about the best agencies to deal with and what type of work each agency has been able to provide them. There are a lot of teaching agencies over here. I then signed up to three different agencies that I think suited the type of work I was looking for (secondary teaching) and that paid reasonably well on a day-to-day supply basis. I managed to do all of this within two weeks of arriving in London, then went travelling for four months. During these four months, the teaching agencies applied for Police Checks for me from New Zealand, United Kingdom, and Canada as you need a check from all the countries you have lived in for more than six months. They also sorted out all the other paper work required to teach in the UK. This meant that when I arrived back in London, I was able to go straight into teaching. I worked on a day-to-day supply basis at this point for two months in a mixture of secondary and primary schools. During this time, I was placed in the school I am currently at and they were looking for a maths teacher. After working there for a week, I was offered a job beginning in January. I didn’t have an interview at all. Instead, the head teacher came into one of my lessons and must have been happy with how I controlled and taught the class, then offered me the job.

Q: Was your visa status an issue in terms of finding a job?

A: I’m on a two-year working holiday visa and it wasn’t an issue at all in getting a job. There are so many people in London on working holiday visas that all employers are used to it. The agencies see the visas come through every day, and schools have Kiwis and Aussies on contracts all the time on all sorts of different visas.

Q: How would you describe your teaching job?

A: My job is quite different to what most teachers will opt for and experience when they come to London. I work in a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) school. It’s a school for students who have been excluded from mainstream education for many different reasons. These include repetitive instances of bad behaviour, drug use, serious violence, carrying a weapon, and so on. Some have also come from juvenile detention centres. The students all have pretty rugged backgrounds and the majority are heavily involved with the police and social services.

The students at the PRU I work at are 14-16 and the older students have just finished sitting their GCSE exams (equivalent of

New Zealand’s NCEA). I’m the only maths teacher at the school and am in charge of data analysis. We’re also looking at starting up a sports course for the next academic year, which I’ll run with the science teacher. The school has 40 students on their roll, but only 30 students are at the school on a day-to-day basis at present. We run class sizes of a maximum of eight students and always have a second adult in the room to help deal with behaviour and extra learning.

Q: I imagine this sort of teaching environment has been an eye-opener for you. What are some of the sorts of behaviour you’re faced with?

A: It certainly is tough. You definitely have to take a different approach to discipline. Just because you can discipline a student one way, another student will not respond the same to the same approach. You have to be really on your toes to know what is going to work with the situation you’ve been presented with. It took a while initially, thinking about and watching people use different strategies. Also getting to know the students made a huge difference when it came to discipline. We also use a far more physical approach to classroom and student management as well, as we do have to look after the safety of others.

I face several instances of misbehaviour a day: some small, some huge. I’ve had a student get angry and let off a fire extinguisher in class at teachers who were trying to get him to calm himself. This was after he had sprayed a 1.5L bottle of water across the classroom. I managed to take the fire extinguisher from him and he had to be physically removed by four staff. I’ve had to physically intervene between a guy and a girl who were kicking each other, after one tried to throw a water balloon at the other in my class. I ended up wearing the majority of the water balloon, the rest of the water was all over the students’ work. I’ve restrained students so that they won’t harm others and also when they have lost control of their temper. You cop a lot of abuse for this. The words I get called should not appear in an article! But at the end of the day, it’s their temper talking, not what they actually think.

The majority of day-to-day management, though, is getting students into classes and keeping them in the class, including keeping them in their seats for the majority of a lesson. I’m pretty happy with a couple of lessons a week in which students actually learn for the entire lesson.

The things I overlook in this school in comparison to what I would in mainstream is astounding. You definitely have to pick your battles, otherwise you would never achieve anything in class.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

A: Every day is different. I never know what I’m going to get out of the students from one day to the next. One day, the school might be faced by a riot with things being smashed and students being removed from the premises. The next, all the students come in, sit quietly, and listen to almost everything you have to say, ask questions, and work to the best of their abilities. I also enjoy how well you get to know these students in such a small setting. The students will tell you almost anything and they see the school as a safe haven for them. For a lot of the students, it’s the only place in their lives that has any structure. We struggle to get students to leave a lot of the time at the end of the day. Even though the students might not always show it, they enjoy being at the school and it’s a real pleasure seeing these students achieve, no matter how big or small the achievement might be. It really feels like you are making a difference in their lives.

Q: What do you least enjoy?

A: Honestly, I can’t think of anything I don’t enjoy about my job. I enjoy going to work almost every day. It’s a great environment and the students are always interesting to deal with. I guess the one thing I could say I enjoy the least is getting to work on the tube. Work is a 50-minute journey from my front door and the tube is often packed on the way to work. It gives me an opportunity to catch up on the news though, or read a book.

Q: How does your experience of teaching in UK differ from that in New Zealand?

A: The type of school I am at is far different to what I had experienced previously. The exam structure is also quite different. It is more toward the old New Zealand School Certificate structure, and the announcement that has been made very recently is that an overhaul of the exam system will take it even more towards that old system. There is also a much larger range of ethnicities in London to teach than most schools would experience in New Zealand.

The similarity is that even though the exams are much different, the subject matter is still the same. The students still respond the same to praise and the teaching in general is still what I experienced in

New Zealand.

Q: What is the attitude towards Kiwi teachers in general? Are there any others on the staff?

A: Kiwi teachers are definitely sought after. There are a lot in schools all over London. Any student I’ve ever spoken to has had a Kiwi teacher at some stage in their learning and schools are happy to take them on. Currently, there are no other Kiwi teachers on the staff but we have a huge contingent of Aussie teachers and support workers at the moment. At Agincourt House, there are more Antipodeans than there are Brits.

Q: Have you been able to fit in much travelling around your job?

A: I’ve managed to travel every set of holidays so far, and I can’t see that changing. With how the holidays are set up here, you have school holidays every six–seven weeks, so it’s not long between each bit of travel. The travel opportunities are massive. I’ve been on skiing holidays, sailing the Greek islands; I’m off to Ireland soon and hopefully the Balkans as well.

Q: Do you think your experience has enhanced you as a teacher? In what ways?

A: I certainly think my experience here has enhanced my teaching. My repertoire of behaviour management strategies has grown ten-fold. I feel my preparation for anything and my ability to think outside the box has expanded. Teaching in primary schools prior to this job has opened my eyes more to what is involved before entering the secondary schooling system and where there are gaps before reaching us. A change in subject for me has enhanced my knowledge and repertoire of teaching experience.

Dealing with data every day also has made me look at how to approach learning and think about strategies in more depth to improve student learning. The UK is a brilliant place for expanding and developing your teaching. You are faced with new challenges that you don’t see in New Zealand, and it puts you outside your comfort zone where you tend to learn best.

Q: What advice would you give to other Kiwi teachers considering teaching in London?

A: Do it! It’s a great experience and there is no shortage of opportunities. You can come over here and just do supply every day through different agencies or you can let them help you find full-time work. It is in the benefit of the agency to place you, so they are always trying their best to get you work. Schools enjoy having Kiwi teachers in.

Sign up for no more than three agencies as they call you all the time. You don’t want to be confused as to who you’re talking to! If you can also bring a current New Zealand police check over with you, it will reduce the time you need to wait for it to be sent over.

Give it a good shot if you do come over. Some people come and don’t enjoy it straight away. If you don’t, then just stick it out. It becomes easier, and people I know who have just turned around and left, have regretted it.