A view of life across the pond

20th May 2005 at 01:00
The American dream, or is it? Beatrice Collin talks to international exchange students about our education differences

Hyndland Primary's P6 pupils are bubbling with enthusiasm for all things American. "The statue of Liberty has 354 steps," says Charley Irvine. "And it's 46.84 metres high," adds Liam Park.

The class goes on to quote the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, the height of the Empire State building and the population of New York. Big numbers is their maths topic and New York has them in abundance.

Part of the reason for their enthusiasm is the newest recruit to the classroom, Jessica Gartner, a student teacher who has come all the way from the Big Apple as part of an international training programme.

Along with Andrea Cox, who has a P1 class, she is one of the eight students from Elmira College, a private liberal arts college in upstate New York, who will be spending a month in various schools in the West End of Glasgow.

The exchange programme, now in its fourth year, is hosted by the International Education Office and is so popular that the organisers handpick recruits from dozens of applicants.

"I really wanted to come to Scotland," says Jessica. "I'm having a great time and I've learned a lot. My teacher is really welcoming and the kids have been great."

Jessica is 20 and from the small town of Rutland in Vermont. She is in the third year of a four-year course to teach at elementary level in American schools. But unlike Scottish student teachers who may only notch up classroom experience in Scottish schools, she can choose any establishment approved by the college, in any country, to do teaching practice.

The college currently runs placement schemes in Scotland, England and Spain. Suzanne Kaback, assistant professor of education at Elmira College, points out that teaching in Scotland, however, is not regarded as an easy option.

"The reputation is that Scottish schools are very strict and the students wear uniforms," she says. "We also think a lot about your national exams, how students are winnowed out as they move through the grades. We see that as more intense than in the US."

If the student teachers come expecting a classroom straight out of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, however, they may be surprised. The Hyndland Primary uniform code is fairly informal and P6s are learning presentation skills.

So, apart from the obvious linguistic difference - they say notebook, we say jotter, they say recess, we say playtime - what are the main differences?

"Well," says Jessica, "at home we have teachers that teach music or health or art. Here the teachers do everything; they are primary educators. Also teachers are stricter, but we have such different cultures that you can't compare discipline."

Although American schools face problems concerning guns in classrooms and the increasing number of school shootings, these incidents are relatively rare. Smaller class sizes, a litigious culture and a different attitude to childhood in general mean that discipline is maintained in a less confrontational manner.

"One thing that surprises our students is how often they hear the teachers raise their voice, to little kids especially," says Dr Kaback.

"But I ask the students if they see the kids cry and they say no.

"In the States, if a teacher raised her voice, the kid would be devastated."

While American children are rarely yelled at, they are also rarely left alone.

"When it comes to giving children freedom outside the classroom, it's much more relaxed here," says Jessica. "Students leave to get their own lunches and they go outside at playtime on their own.

"In the States, you don't leave the school during the day, especially in the primary. There are aides outside, watching the students all the time.

"It's a liability issue," clarifies Dr Kaback. "Teachers have it written into their contract that they have to be on duty in the cafeteria, in the hallway, at recess. It existed before 911 and some of the school shootings."

Jessica prepares for her next lesson with the help of the class teacher, Debbie McAuley. The sun streams through the top floor windows and the children have their heads down in books. It is a picture postcard vision of the perfect classroom. No wonder spending time in a Scottish school is seen as such a formative experience.

"One of the benefits will be latent," says Dr Kaback. "Part of it is developing in them some of their first impressions of intense classroom life. This is setting a certain standard for them to think about education."

One of the main differences between US and British education is financial.

Although the majority of American graduates go on to teach, in public or state-funded schools, the cost of training to be a teacher in the States can be considerable.

Elmira College administers a scholarship fund and nearly all of its students receive some kind of financial aid, but the price of a year's tuition is still more than $26,000 (pound;13,000). The trip to Scotland costs extra.

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