Got my BTA;Career development;Interview;Sonia Garland

29th October 1999 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh talks to a teacher who spent a year in the US and came back brimming with ideas

In the Fifties, the joke among young graduates was that if you really wanted to get on, you needed another degree - a BTA (Been to America). Such post-war glamour may have faded, but there are still good reasons to go and see how they do things over there.

When Sonia Garland, deputy head of John Stocker Middle School in Exeter, was visiting friends in the States, she heard that a British teacher was working nearby on an exchange under the Fulbright programme. She decided that she wanted to do the same thing, applied, and in the autumn term of 1998 began teaching in Barnardo Heights Middle School in San Diego, California, while her counterpart from the States faced up to her class back in Exeter.

A year in California has obvious attractions, and Mrs Garland made the most of them - "San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Hollywood, Disneyland, Palm Springs, Tahoe, Death Valley, Wrangler jeans for pound;12. And the weather!" But she went with a serious professional purpose. As assessment co-ordinator to a group of Exeter schools, she had a particular interest in the American system of grading, testing and assessment. "Lots of ideas have been imported into this country," she says. "It's interesting to see where they've come from and how they have been developed."

She found, too, that there was a parallel concern with literacy. "The district ran a whole programme of training which echoed our training for the literacy hour. Both countries have borrowed much from Australia and New Zealand, and it was quite eerie thinking I'd heard it all before."

In one particular area of literacy, she felt that her American school district had something that her Exeter school could make use of. "They were very strong on writing. They had a wonderful programme, developed by teachers. I've brought it back and anglicised it. You can use it at all levels, including very advanced writers. We're trialling it now with our Year 7."

Another idea that Mrs Garland plans to import is the use of a school counsellor. In her Californian school, she says, "pastoral matters, discipline - all that side is covered by counsellors. In a school of 1,800, we had three counsellors. I couldn't believe the difference it made." Before her American experience, her Exeter school had a part-time counsellor. "Now we're looking to see if we can have one full time."

Clearly, though, there were many real, though less well defined, benefits - the contact between children in the two schools, and the opportunity to meet families and community groups. Mrs Garland's family also travelled with her. "My 15-year-old daughter went to the high school and benefited a great deal from the experience."

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