How the other half lives

11th January 2008 at 00:00
Scottish teacher Joanna Hall works in one of the largest primary schools in Europe. Tim Broadbent is a teacher in a small, rural school in Oregon. Last August, they swapped lives. Emma Seith finds out how they have been getting on.

For the past seven years, Tim Broadbent has been teaching a third- and fourth-grade composite class in the same room in the 100-pupil strong Latham Elementary in Cottage Grove, Oregon.

This academic year, however, thanks to the Fulbright UKUS teacher exchange, he is teaching P7 in one of the largest primaries in Europe - Mearns in East Renfrewshire - having swapped his job, house, car and lifestyle with Scottish teacher Joanna Hall.

Tim arrived in Scotland in August, two weeks before the start of term, accompanied by his wife Elizabeth and two-year-old daughter Camille. It was his first trip to the UK - and the first time he had taught in any school other than Latham Elementary since qualifying.

Tim, 34, readily admits it has been a steep learning curve. In Oregon, he taught eight and nine year-olds. Now he is teaching P7, a year group that does not exist in American elementary schools (the US equivalent of primary), because they are too old.

Nevertheless, the biggest challenge, according to Tim, has been adjusting to the sheer size of Mearns Primary, home to more than 900 pupils. "The main difference is that I've been used to knowing all the families and kids pretty well before they even got into my classroom," he said.

"Here, it's hard to get to know the kids on a personal level because there are just so many of them. In P7, there are as many kids as in my entire school."

Tim has also had to learn a whole new language. "People say that teachers have their own language, but I never realised until I got here how much we speak in acronyms."

He has gone from the DIBELS (dynamic indicators of basic early literacy skills) and ORFS (Oral Reading Fluency) of America, to the CfE and EAL of Scotland.

However, staff at Mearns Primary have been incredibly helpful and welcoming, he said. And Tim is looking forward to teaching the American history topic that is coming up in environmental studies to show his class the United States is "not all shopping malls and burger joints".

A start was made before Christmas when his class put on a Thanksgiving play for the school. "They didn't realise that America was once ruled by Britain," he said. "That was new information for them and it was fun to share it."

On the other side of the Atlantic, Joanna, 30, is also making the most of her time abroad. She has found she has adapted easily to the American curriculum, teaching a third and fourth grade composite class of 30 pupils. She feels for Tim, she said, who will have a lot more paperwork to get through in Scotland than he did in America.

The main difference between the systems, she says, is that more time is spent in America teaching "language arts" - reading, writing, spelling, grammar, listening - with other subjects taking a back seat.

The exchange, Joanna believes, has been a resounding success - not least because it has brought the outside world to Latham Elementary pupils. "Cottage Grove is a deprived area," she says. "A lot of the children will never leave and will probably never go on vacation to any great extent. Through the exchange, the children have been able to find out about a different country and culture in terms of the different words and expressions I use and the different accent I have. It broadens their minds a bit and makes them more appreciative of cultural diversity."

Joanna has also set her pupils up with pen pals in Hong Kong.

Ann Macbeth, headteacher at Mearns Primary, supported Joanna's bid to take part in the exchange because she saw it as "an exciting continuing professional development opportunity" and a chance for pupils "to share cultural differences".

But she warns that "a considerable commitment (is) required by schools who participate, both in terms of support and financially".

Deborah Gadd, British Council projects manager, agreed that teachers often came back re-energised, with a new enthusiasm for teaching and new ideas.

But applying was a "long, drawn-out process", warned Joanna. The Broadbents had virtually given up on the programme, having been let down by three potential UK partners, before finding a match in Scotland. One was put off by the cost of healthcare in the US, another had a family member fall ill and the third pulled out when care for her horse fell through.

Ms Gadd said communication was essential for a successful exchange. "As far as preparation goes, once an exchange partner is proposed, it should be dialogue, dialogue, and perhaps more dialogue."

Certainly, Joanna and Tim say they exchanged a mountain of emails about everything from the curriculum to how to work household appliances.

However, there were still some shocks in store for the Broadbents, like the cost of living in the UK - namely eating out and "gas" - and the exchange rate.

"I still get an American salary," said Tim. "But, because of the exchange rate, it's pretty much as if that's been cut in half."

The Broadbents used to eat out four or five times a week. When Tim heard that UK restaurant prices were somewhat steeper, he was convinced he would still be able to find "a healthy, organic burrito and salad for $5". The search continues.

In the meantime, Elizabeth, who is also a teacher but is taking a year off to spend with Camille, has started "experimenting" in the kitchen, armed with recipe books donated by her new circle of friends. They have also donated all Camille's toys. One - an alphabet-singing caterpillar - is the source of great fascination for Camille who is reminded of the fact she is in a strange and foreign land every time she hears it sing "zed" instead of "zee".

The lack of funds has its upside, say the Broadbents, forcing them to re-discover their love of hiking. "Our entertainment is hillwalking," explained Tim. "Joanna's dad is an avid hillwalker and, since we got here, her parents have become like our parents - they've been so kind to us, showing us around."

The family has been to Arran, Oban, Braemar, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. They are also gradually exploring the rest of Europe, having already visited Italy and spent Christmas in Paris. In March, they have plans to visit Belfast, then Spain in April.

Joanna, too, has been having an active social life. She celebrated Thanksgiving at the home of the school secretary, where she was one of 24 guests. And Christmas was spent in Florida with friends who emigrated there from Scotland. She has joined a book group and continues to horse-ride - in Scotland she owns her own horse called Dylan.

Fulbright would not be for everyone but it was definitely the right choice for her, she said. "You really have to be able to take opportunities and actively seek out things to do. If you did not do that, you would probably sit at home being very homesick and miserable."

As for the Broadbents, they would be keen to swap lives again when Camille is older. But next time they will be upping the ante and looking to travel to a Spanish-speaking country.


The Fulbright exchange began in 1946 to "contribute to mutual understanding between the United States and countries around the world".

It is the perfect way to introduce another culture into the classroom, according to the British Council, which organises the exchange in the UK. "It helps broaden the horizons of the pupils in schools to better understand the real America, as opposed to the atypical aspects of US culture which they see on TV," said the council's Deborah Gadd.

The British Council admitted that teachers participating in the exchange would be "totally ignorant of the Scottish system" and would need "a lot of support from colleagues and line managers".

Few Scottish schools have accepted the challenge. During the course of this academic year, only three American teachers have come to Scotland via Fulbright. The council speculates this might be because other international exchange opportunities do not involve the "total reorganisation of one's life". But for 2008-09, there have been 11 applications for Fulbright from Scottish teachers.

Ms Gadd says the upheaval is worthwhile: "Teachers in the US and Scotland have the same aim, but they approach the education of their pupils differently. You can only gain a true understanding of those differences by immersing yourself in the culture and life of a US school."


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