It's a long way from Dorset to Arizona - in every sense. Gordon Stevens meets a primary teacher who exchanged the south coast for a Navajo reservation
There can't be many British teachers who send Christmas cards wishing that "your moccasins make happy tracks in many snows".
It was in January 2002 that Sheelagh Wanstall, a key stage 2 teacher at Winton primary school in Bournemouth, first heard about teacher exchange programmes. It got her thinking. "It's hard being a teacher here," she says. "You never finish the day. There's always something else to do. I suddenly wanted to see what it was like elsewhere."
Her application to the British Council, which organises exchanges, was simple: "Anywhere in the United States except a big city." "Anywhere" turned out to be the Tse Ho Tso intermediate learning centre on the Navajo reservation at a place called Fort Defiance, Arizona, which doesn't even appear on some maps. Hence the Christmas card.
Sheelagh flew out last July. "You have to be laid-back but organised," she says. "You have to build up a trust with your exchange partner. Then you have to let go of what you've left behind, and focus on what's ahead."
She spent a week on an orientation programme in Washington, where she met her exchange partner from Fort Defiance, Zelda Can, before flying out to Arizona. Teachers from the school met her at the airport and took her on a four-hour drive across a spectacular red desert with huge red, black and green rocky outcrops, underneath a fiery sun and bright blue sky.
Fort Defiance wasn't quite what she'd expected. "You think of America as the land of plenty. I looked around and thought: so where's the plenty? It was very rural: they herd sheep, grow corn, run a few cattle. The houses are called hogans - traditional eight-sided homes - often with extended families living in trailers, and sometimes with no running water or electricity. And the school, 420 students in grades three to five, was made of tin and asbestos."
The cultural leap was harder to make. It was not just another culture, but a culture within a culture. "I didn't know the extent to which Native Americans are a separate people," says Sheelagh. "They have their own language, customs and ceremonies, many of them still secret. Until they trust you, all you see is reserved faces. In fact, they are very kind and generous, with a sense of humour."
The teaching method was also very different. "Teaching was from textbooks, page by page. Many of the students couldn't read well, so I resorted to my own style, with a lot more interaction." But here she hit another cultural barrier. "The students seemed to find this hard. They were very reserved.
Part of this was the Navajo way of learning - observe, go away, try, observe again. It's very slow. And part of not responding is the fear of being laughed at. You have to listen a lot more, be more tolerant, not expect something to be the way you're familiar with."
There was, however, one major plus at Fort Defiance. Teachers had school time to carry out tasks such as marking and lesson planning which British teachers are used to doing in the evenings. And a class size of 20 meant less work than in a British class of 30-plus. "I finished work at 4.30, after which I could go home and choose what I wanted to do rather than be governed by what school work I still had to finish."
She teamed up with another teacher, joined a book club, met a whole range of people, and explored the reservation. At weekends, she'd jump in her 1986 Toyota and do things she dismisses as "the tourist thing", but which most people would consider trips of a lifetime, including a visit to the Grand Canyon.
Slowly, things began to happen in the school. A pen pal exchange between her two classes began to take off. She was invited to her first Navajo ceremonies. Elders came to her class to talk to students caught between their own culture and the modern world of cell phones and satellite television.
Six months later, it was time to return to England. And she was gripped by the usual teacher concerns. "I wanted to know how my students did at the end of the year. I wondered if people thought I'd done a good job, if I'd made an impact."
She needn't have worried. On her last school assembly, the principal thanked her and asked her to accept a small gift - a magnificent Navajo blanket.
But what did Sheelagh bring back as a teacher? "A great respect for the system here," she says immediately. "As long as we don't get pulled further into the results syndrome." As far as children are concerned, she says she is now more aware of their need for space, both physical and psychological.
"In the UK, children get irritated. You have 300 children in the playground, so they're bound to get in each other's way. None of that happened in Fort Defiance because of the space."
And what about herself? "In the UK," she says, and searches for the word, "you get 'aggy' with other teachers and with children. In Fort Defiance I didn't. Smaller classes is the obvious answer, but we won't achieve that here." She's more tolerant, she says, and more flexible. "You have to be to go on an exchange, but I'm more so now, more laid-back."
And there's one more thing, though it's some time before she comes out with it. She's determined, she says, not to bring schoolwork home on weekday evenings, although it's unavoidable at weekends.
Dilys Nicholls, Sheelagh's headteacher at Winton primary, is convinced the exchange was a positive experience. "Even though it initially meant additional work for staff in introducing someone new," she says, "this was balanced by the exchange teacher's enthusiasm and freshness."
Zelda Can says she found the UK system of targets and tests "more than a challenge" but thinks she adapted her practice. "One of the interesting things was having objectives laid out, then planning activities to meet them, rather than teaching straight from a textbook. I'm seeking to incorporate this back at Fort Defiance."
Sheelagh herself, Dilys says, came back reinvigorated, and willing to share her experience and ideas. Worries that parents would think their children might lose out while Sheelagh was away were unfounded. "They really benefited," she says, "from what Sheelagh brought back for them, and from the pen pal exchange she set up, which will carry on running.
"Sheelagh gave the children contact with a totally different concept, with a totally different culture, which they would otherwise not have had access to."
Information on teacher exchanges: www.britishcouncil.orgeducationteachers cbetxus.htm. Contact: Caitriona Flynn, tel: 028 9024 8220 ext 226; fax: 028 9023 7592; email: email@example.com