Half the world away

31st January 2014 at 00:00

Recently, in a successful attempt to lead me off the topic, a student asked how long I had lived in Australia. Seven years, I replied. "Then why've you still got an accent?"

It had been a long time since I'd been aware of myself as different. The buildings, landscape and voices around me have become familiar and unremarkable, just as I have to my students. Now I understand my students' backgrounds and have just enough of a clue about things that matter to them to make my teaching engaging and relevant. But when I first left London for this rural coastal town in Western Australia I was fairly culturally clueless.

I began by doing supply (or relief as I quickly learned to call it). "Oi, Supernanny!" the kids would shout (I swear the similarities between me and Supernanny end with our black-rimmed glasses). In the classroom my instructions were often mimicked back at me, and for a while I was repeatedly asked to say "Fluffy bunnies".

In addition, it was sunny almost six months of the year, the uniform looked like a PE kit, Shakespeare wasn't on the syllabus and I didn't have an interactive whiteboard in my classroom. It was a lot to get used to.

As an English teacher, I realised how much of my teaching was culturally nuanced. When I started teaching here full-time I hadn't read any Australian or Aboriginal authors. And I knew next to nothing about surfing or fishing. Many of my previously successful lessons fell completely flat. I must have been about 10 minutes into an explanation of how we would design an advert for trainers when a student asked me what a trainer was. "What do you call the shoes you wear for sport, then?" I asked. "Sports shoes," was the reply.

Nothing compared to the time I asked some students to stop doodling on their books. How was I to know "doodle" was a phallic euphemism?

There is a lot I miss about teaching in London - above all the diversity of staff and students - but how nice to work in a place where there's no such thing as an inspection regime. People are a product of their environment and there's no denying that sunshine and open spaces make for a more laid-back attitude than endless drizzle and concrete high rises. Yet teenagers are pretty much the same wherever you go, and I have to say that my behaviour management skills are just as challenged by a defiant, coastal malaise as they were by tough, urban rebelliousness.

So now I've learned to ask my students not to wag school with their mates. I remind them that thongs are inappropriate footwear for school without batting an eyelid. I tell them to have fun playing footie on the oval and wish them a good arvo as I wave them on their way. And if I think they haven't completely understood me, I go up at the end of my sentences.

Truly, nothing beats interaction with teenagers for speeding up acclimatisation to a new place, as well as improving your idioms. After all, as a successful teacher you build positive relationships with your students, and to do that you need to be a part of their world.

Ellie Ward teaches English at a high school in a small coastal town in Western Australia.

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