It'sa small world

23rd March 2007 at 00:00
Selected as the best of 1,700 teachers from 52 countries, Kim Karam has put Scotland on the map - in the United States

A 31-year-old Shetland teacher on an international exchange to America has been honoured as "outstanding cultural educator" of the year in the United States for excellence in educating students about Scotland's culture.

Kim Karam was chosen out of 1,700 teachers from 52 countries who are on exchange programmes in the US. For the past three years, she has taught kindergarten at Shelton Elementary school in Acworth, near Atlanta, Georgia.

Ms Karam, who is from Unst and went to school in Shetland before graduating from Edinburgh University, was given her honour by the Visiting International Faculty programme, which claims to be the largest international exchange venture in the US sponsoring teachers from abroad.

Teachers can spend up to three years in the country.

She says she has made "huge personal and professional leaps" since joining the VIF programme. "Despite taking this girl out of Scotland, the experience has not taken Scotland out of the girl, much to everyone's delight," she says. "I would recommend this eye-opening, comfort zone-enlarging, spirit-enriching journey to any British teacher who believes that there's still a challenging adventure out there for them."

David B Young, president of the VIF program, said: "Kim Karam is an extraordinary teacher and a world-class cultural ambassador for Scotland.

She has made an enormous contribution to the education of her students in the United States by teaching them about the rich culture and heritage of her homeland.

"Through her daily efforts in the classroom and community, Ms Karam is helping prepare a new generation of Americans to understand the importance of global citizenship and co-operation among the nations of the world."

Sharing her culture with the entire school, Ms Karam has started a Scotland Club and keeps the hallways posted with information about the Shetland Islands, Scotland and the United Kingdom.

One of the parents commented: "Beyond establishing a solid foundation of the fundamentals, Ms Karam has promoted a rich awareness of other cultures and traditions. I have been consistently impressed with her ability to integrate interesting and fun lessons on Scotland within the standard educational curriculum. My son enjoyed building his spelling and teaching skills, using newly-learnt Scottish terms, folk tales and songs.

"She has been a model teacher: creative, deeply conscientious, professional and hard working."

Ms Karam says that having taught in Scotland and in London before going over to the States, she found the Scottish system the best of the three. It is quickly obvious why she takes that view.

The Georgia school system is ranked in the bottom five in America. Her class is limited to 20 pupils, but has a wide spread of ability from special needs to those who can read on entry. Children have 15 minutes "recess time" per day (no matter the age) and it is supervised by the teacher. Lunch is technically 30 minutes in the cafeteria and, usually, this is supervised by classroom assistants who are pulled from their rooms to do it. There is no recess after lunch.

Ms Karam says: "I have to be at my desk by 7.20am. When I arrived, the class contained desks and chairs, four computers and some shelves. We are given a limited amount of coloured paper and some pens and pencils, but everything else is bought by the teachers or sometimes donated by parents, depending on the area you are in.

"Each year, I have spent about a month's wages on resources, mostly from yard sales - because I'm Scottish and always out for a bargain. I have bought every book in my class library, all the games and most of the manipulatives. It is very strange that the system can keep going like that, but there is not really a teachers' union here.

"Teaching is pretty focused on testing and test scores, certainly from first grade (six to seven-year-olds). I've been teaching kindergarten and we do much more than in the UK, but much less observational recording and child-centred learning. Learning through play is almost unheard of."

So, what's in it for her? "It is rewarding and I am in a nice community,"

she says. "Although I get paid less than in Britain, I feel I am more appreciated and money goes a lot further. I've managed to buy my first house, which I wouldn't have been able to do as a single teacher in the UK, and I can afford to eat out two or three times a week.

"If petrol reaches $3 a gallon (pound;1.54 a gallon), everyone is distressed -it sure beats the $8 a gallon (pound;4.11 a gallon) in Shetland.

"My lifestyle here is such that I feel twice as affluent, more able to enjoy cultural experiences and going out. I can leave school some days at 3pm and walk into nearly year-round 65-90 degree temperatures. The work-life balance is easier than it is in Britain."

As for the future, Ms Karam says she may be tempted to become a headteacher. If not, she would like to write educational books for children and teaching manuals or schemes "to make life easier for the frontline teacher".

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