Bell was a Scot, Miss?

10th February 2006 at 00:00
A debate about the telephone made exchange teacher Laurene McIntosh want to defend her heritage to her US pupils. Su Clark reports

Shortly after she arrived in the United States, Laurene McIntosh discovered her class at Seaborn Lee Elementary school in Georgia, thought no one other than an American could have invented the telephone.

Not any more. After introducing them to Alexander Graham Bell, Ms McIntosh has taken her five and six-year-old pupils on a hunt for Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, shown them Highland games, allowed them their first taste of haggis, had them design their own clan shield, tartan and Celtic motto, and even taken them on a flying visit to meet the queen.

All from the safety of their classroom.

"When I discovered that my team thought it was an American who invented the telephone, I was determined to share my culture and country with them," she says. "It is important that people learn about how much Scotland has actually given to the world."

Admittedly, Bell's famous conversation with his assistant in a neighbouring room - "Mr Watson, come here. I want you." - took place in Boston in 1876, and the Bell Telephone Company is as American as Uncle Sam. But Bell was born in Edinburgh, so let's give credit to Scotland. (The US House of Representatives decided in 2002 that the telephone was first invented by Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant, but that's another story.) Promoting multiculturalism and a broader outlook among American students is at the heart of the largest US teacher-exchange system, the Visiting International Faculty programme, in which Ms McIntosh is participating.

Founded in 1987 in North Carolina, it has invited thousands of teachers from more than 55 countries to the US. In the past couple of years, it has targeted Scottish teachers. This year 10 teachers, from Hawick to Shetland, have been tempted to work with American pupils. They can stay up to three years before returning home, armed with a more global outlook.

"We want to attract teachers from all over the world so that our students can learn about other cultures and become less insular," says Ned Glascock, the faculty's spokesperson.

"VIF teachers, such as Laurene, are pursuing a unique opportunity for professional development and personal growth, and at the same time are teaching US students about their countries.

"They are wonderful cultural ambassadors, breaking down stereotypes and helping prepare a new generation for leadership in international affairs and in the global marketplace."

The faculty matches candidates to schools in the 10 states that participate and helps them apply for visas and certification to teach. The service is free to teachers; the school that receives you pays.

"It was intense but all pretty straight forward," says Vivienne Doak, who spent a year teaching at Guilford Elementary School in North Carolina, four years ago.

She is now back in Scotland, working in a special unit for communication and language disorders, based at St Anthony's Primary in Renfrewshire, but is convinced she got the post partly because of her experience abroad.

"During the interview we talked a lot about my year in America," she adds.

"t showed that I was a confident sort of person and was willing to try new things. I also had experience of working with ESL (English as a second language) children, as many at the school were Hispanic."

She now approaches teaching with a more global perspective. It has also helped her put the Scottish education system into perspective. "The States is very test-oriented. I was teaching grade three, the equivalent of P4, and they are expected to pass their grade at the end of the year before they can move up. If they fail, they have to go to summer school.

"It meant teaching was very targeted on getting the children to the next level, and that meant lots of pressure. Saying that, my principal recognised that I came from a different system and gave me room to teach the children rather than just teach for the test," adds Mrs Doak.

Laurene McIntosh is experiencing the same differences in her teaching.

Classes start at 7.35am and finish at 2.20pm. Teaching is more traditional, with less use of the whiteboard and materials. There are specialist teachers in PE, art, music and computers.

"I really miss teaching these (subjects)," she says, "so I try to incorporate them as much into my lessons as I can. My children have produced amazing pictures of Scotland and Katie Morag's island."

Ms McIntosh will return to Scotland at the end of her three years. Like other UK nationals, she could reapply for another three years after a year's residence in Britain. However, the people who run the programme are keen that teachers return to their home countries permanently, so that the experiences gained can be shared with other colleagues. The aim is not just to put US pupils right about who invented what; it's also to encourage foreign teachers to become goodwill ambassadors for the United States.

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