Czeching out the competition

Eleanor Caldwell looks at how 'Peter the Jannie' is benefiting from a Comenius exchange. And a cook could soon be visiting

Eleanor Caldwell

It's not just teachers who can enjoy a Comenius exchange abroad: janitors can now sign up and dinner ladies may be able to do so in future.

Peter McGeown, the janitor at Shawlands Academy in Glasgow, spent a week at Obchodni Akademie in Teplice, in the Czech Republic, earlier this year. With the help of an in-service training grant from the British Council-run programme, he was able to shadow his counterpart in the Czech school.

Obchodni is a smaller school, with 300 pupils compared to 1,260 at Shawlands, so size was a factor. But Zdenek Rezek's job included more physical and outdoor work with a stronger emphasis on maintenance and repair, says Mr McGeown. "It was more like the old-fashioned janitor's job in Scotland," though cutting the "wee tiny area of grass" at Obchodni did not compare with the extensive playing fields in Glasgow.

The managerial roles were different too. Zdenek Rezek is in charge of a cleaning team of two, while Mr McGeown supervises 20 cleaners and two assistant janitors. Mr McGeown was impressed by how clean and litter-free the Czech school was, and is encouraging the children at Shawlands to make minor improvements of their own.

Classroom arrangements made a considerable difference to the janitor's day too. As in many European schools, the teachers come to the class, rather than the pupils moving. This led to much less pupil traffic and congestion in the corridors, he says. But he missed the day-to-day contact with the youngsters that he enjoys at Shawlands. "You get to know the kids when you meet them in the corridors here," he says.

Mr McGeown has been giving talks at his own school and been interviewed by pupils about his impressions of the Czech Republic. "He hated dumplings!" they said; even so, he is looking forward to introducing his counterpart to a roll and sausage.

One S1 personal and social education class is preparing a bilingual book, "Peter the Jannie goes to Teplice", giving their own interpretation of his experience. The children were not convinced about the system of teachers moving to classes instead of pupils and think the Czech janitor might find their corridor system "a bit funny".

They show folders with written notes. Artwork is to be added and they are delighted that Mr McGeown, who has previous experience in graphics, is making an artistic contribution to the book. One boy said they had no idea "a janitor could draw such great pictures".

The Czech contribution to the book will be written by the pupils' counterparts in Obchodni, perhaps with a helping hand from two Czech pupils currently at Shawlands. There are even plans to widen the linguistic scope and produce a version in broad Scots. The class aims to offer the book to pupils in middle primary.

Mr McGeown has enjoyed his work with the class. "It's given me such a confidence boost," he says. His sense of identity at the school has also been enhanced by involvement with the pupils.

Shawlands is an inclusive community of pupils who speak 50 different languages, so headteacher Ann Grant was very supportive of Mr McGeown's application. As with teaching and learning, she expected the exchange to reflect not only the differences, but also the many similarities in the two janitors' working days. "Peter is a valued member of staff, whose involvement in school life is whole-hearted," she says.

The school's international education co-ordinator and teacher of English as an additional language, Lesley Atkins, is now a Comenius Ambassador. She was keen for them to develop a more inclusive approach to the programme, by involving other members of staff who have been integral to the school's international success.

Tentative plans to allow one of the school's cooks to travel to Teplice are being considered. Alison Sheridan, the Comenius co-ordinator at the British Council, is keen for schools to consider all members of school staff for inclusion in the project.

Mr McGeown says he has formed a real friendship with Zdenek Rezek and is now looking forward to taking his family on a trip to Mr Rezek's house in the country. The Czech janitor is due to visit Shawlands in March, when he will no doubt get his first taste of a Scottish roll and sausage.


Comenius School Partnership, February 20, 2009

In-Service Training Grant, deadline January 16, 2009

Further information from: www.britishcouncil.orgcomenius.

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Eleanor Caldwell

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