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On being dangled down a cave Down Under

SOARING temperatures - higher than any previously record in New Zealand in February - heralded the beginning of the 1998 academic year. Each afternoon my classroom became an inferno in which teaching and learning came a poor second to ensuring that nobody suffered the worst effects of dehydration.

So I leapt at the chance to join a leadership course for junior students. But any relief turned to horror when I realised the price I would pay for escaping from the hothouse. The plan was to lower me 50 metres by rope into the cool embrace of a pitch-black cave. This was to be played out in front of the gaze of a dozen students.

Details of my hatred of heights left the activity leader unmoved. With characteristic Kiwi sensitivity, he cheerfully informed me that the experience would prove character building.

As analogies go, that of being lowered into a cave in a state of utter helplessness has its uses.

In January last year I arrived in New Zealand to become head of English at a college in the far north, attracted by the govern-ment's campaign to recruit overseas teachers.

My predecessor had, I suspect, come to the conclusion that 25 years in the same post and in the same school had led to a period of stagnation. He had trotted off to Brunei for his own dose of eastern magic. All I wish is that he had left some semblance of organisation. A quarter of a century is time enough in which to put together some schemes of worth, develop some sort of response to a new national curriculum and come to the realisation that contemporary fiction is no longer adequately covered by Great Expectations.

I inherited a mess and I drew heavily on experience gained on a year's exchange to West Africa 10 years previously. Inexperienced and incompetent staff, inadequate accommodation, the need to move towards criteria-based assessments, long-term planning, and budgetary inadequacies were just a few of the issues that taxed and stretched me.

But to return to my caves. I survived my descent and, once there, enjoyed the coolness I had been craving. I even felt a sense of gratitude to the young man who had thrown me into this ordeal.

I have also survived and gained from the experience of being lowered, dangling, in to another educational system, complete with the differences associated with being in another culture, but also complete with the similarities of a system burdened by inadequate resources, social problems and the challenges provided by the need to construct a challenging and relevant curriculum.

* Huw Turner lives and teaches in Northland, New Zealand.

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