Mission accomplished: Houston to Ae

4th June 2010 at 01:00
David McIsaac made the transition from large US inner-city classroom to small Scottish village school

From Tucson, Arizona to Ae village in Dumfries and Galloway is 5,000 miles as the crow flies. Not that any sensible corvid would attempt such a trip. But five years ago, teacher David McIsaac did just that, and the journey, he says, has been more than geographical.

"I'm now the headteacher of a small rural primary. But until I came to Scotland, I'd taught in large schools in the States. The toughest was in Houston, Texas, a few years after I began. We were in the inner city and almost every child lived below the poverty line. I had a class of 35 in a school of 1,200 and trying to teach seemed almost impossible."

The contrast with his current situation could not be greater. Located eight miles from the main road, through rolling green forest and farmland, Ae is reputed to have the shortest place name in Britain and is the first of Scotland's forest villages, built in 1947. It consists of one street of clean, white houses with grey roofs, overlooked by a small playpark, beside which stands the village school.

Small but more than adequate for its current roll of 12 pupils, from P1-6, who move between two large classrooms and a library, Ae is officially a one-teacher school, although a supply teacher comes in to release Mr McIsaac for management.

"I love coming to Ae," says Nan Bell. "I've been teaching here two days a week for nine years. You get to know the kids, their foibles, what makes them tick. And their parents.

"We do lots of shared activities, with a big one and a wee one working together. It lets the older ones model good behaviour. The kids here are lucky, I think. There's a special bond with the teachers. There is a structure but at the same time a freedom to express yourself."

Inevitably, the infants do that most readily and sometimes randomly, with frequent toilet trips and requests for instruction, or comments that make perfect sense, but only if you're five. "I'm wearing it because it's hot," Cameron, P1, explains about the bright red cap on his head. "I don't want my hair to catch fire."

Most pupils at the school live in the village, Cameron says, but not all. "Aimie doesn't. She lives in Scotland, in a town five miles away."

Aimie's mum, Sharron Knight, the school catering manager, who also takes pupils once a week for cookery and healthy eating, has good reason, she says, for bringing her daughters to Ae, rather than the larger school on their doorstep.

"My eldest was painfully shy, so a friend recommended Ae. Within a year of coming here, her confidence began to grow. I had hoped that would happen. I was shy at school too, so knew how she felt. When you're quiet in a big school you blend in and it's the noisy children who get noticed. By the time she went to secondary, my daughter was brimming with confidence."

Older pupils at Ae learn to work independently, often at one of the many computers, while the teacher is attending to the wee ones. But it does get "hectic at times", says Corin, P6. "Sometimes they play in the house corner and march through in different clothes while we're trying to do maths. They do all sorts of stuff and you stop to watch."

Using that kind of active learning was something Mr McIsaac first learned in Houston, he says, where it was more than good practice - it was survival. "The inner city is a tough world where kids have to look out for themselves. In class you wanted them relaxed but alert, so they could forget the other stuff in their lives.

"You had to be firm and consistent - but also be there for them. They needed to see school as a safe place where they didn't have to worry about the threats. The best way was to have fun and keep it lively, so they weren't just sitting and dwelling on their problems."

Children had to be engaged as soon as they entered the classroom, he says. "You'd do lots of problem-solving, games, live simulations. We'd set the classroom up as a bank, for instance, with the children as tellers and people coming in to make withdrawals. In social studies the teachers would dress up and the kids would get a big kick out of seeing Abraham Lincoln walking around the school."

For a middle-class Boston boy, the learning curve at first was frighteningly steep, he says. "I was a total failure. Three weeks in, I went to the teacher next door who'd been there 40 years and said: `I'm lost.' She was a tremendous support.

"She told me you had to be firm, even hard, with these kids because that's what they expect. There was also a race issue, I think. I was one of only a few white teachers and all the pupils were black. It took them a while to see I wasn't there for the short-term, to realise he's not going to walk away because it's tough. It was the most frustrating but rewarding post and in the end I loved it."

Another lesson learned at Houston was the importance of teamwork, says Mr McIsaac. "It's very much a team effort here at Ae. It's called a one- teacher school but I couldn't do it alone. The staff are wonderful. We have a supply teacher two days a week, two part-time classroom assistants, a PE teacher, Sharron who does the meals, Hazel in the office and, of course, my custodian."

The unfamiliar word needs explanation. "If you called someone a janitor in the States, they'd be insulted," says Mr McIsaac. "Margaret is the custodian of the building. She also works with the children in the garden and one afternoon a week in the classroom."

When she began at the school 12 years ago it had twice as many pupils, says custodian Margaret Stitt. "The numbers have gone down quite a bit. But most people in Ae have been here a long time. Only about half a dozen now work in forestry. There are all sorts."

Mr McIsaac begins a sentence construction session with the infants at the whiteboard - except Andrew, P2, who is seated on his own, reading a book on Greek mythology.

"We live quite far from Ae," Andrew says. "But my mum or dad brings me to school. My sister and me started at a different school, but she wasn't coping very well. So we came here. I've learned quite a lot.

"Mythology is the stuff the Greeks believed in. It's about Heracles, Theseus and Daedalus. Some of the words I get stuck on, but most I don't. I'm a pretty good reader."

He demonstrates with two pages of fantastically fluent reading aloud about Cerberus, "the three-headed hound of Hell", complete with big dog sounds that make him chuckle.

Andrew's word decoding is unbelievable, says Mr McIsaac. "We know he doesn't understand them all, but he can read and pronounce them. We need to challenge him with vocabulary while working on the comprehension. We've now got his mum and dad working on the material at home with him."

That kind of in-depth differentiation is one of the biggest challenges of a multi-composite class, says Mr McIsaac. "In a bigger school, you'd have P7 pupils still at A or B levels, but they'd be able to work independently. Here you have a wide range of ability and maturity. Primary 1s can work on their own only for short periods."

But it's a challenge his previous life had prepared him for. "We moved from Houston with my wife's job - teachers don't get paid well in the States, so she was earning more than me - to Chicago then to Tucson, Arizona, where I taught in a large primary school for 14 years.

"I ended up with a class of highly gifted 10-year-olds teaching basically a secondary school curriculum. It was a teacher's dream. They were all talented in different ways. Some were brilliant at mathematics but struggled with English. Others were great at reading but couldn't do maths. Trying to balance all that wasn't easy. But it was incredibly rewarding and again I was reluctant to leave. But I was coming to Scotland."

The need for a new challenge had been growing and a summer holiday in this country with his daughter, who was dancing at the Highland Games, planted the seeds of an idea. "I loved Scotland and came on holiday again the following summer. That's how I heard of the shortage of headteachers in small rural schools."

Having decided to try for one of these it took a further two years, he says, to get through the paperwork, gain approval from the General Teaching Council for Scotland and find a job. "They wanted transcripts of all the university work I'd done in my career - grades, dates, proof that I'd graduated.

"That was a total of 10 years at three different universities - seven at bachelors and masters, then coursework to maintain my teaching certificate over the years. I also had to get letters of recommendation from my employers. It was a slow process.

"But the real frustration came when I started applying for jobs and getting nowhere. By the time I got my first interview, I had 20 letters of rejection on my refrigerator. Then I realised what the problem was - nobody wanted to pay my expenses from the States."

So the next application included an offer to pay the airfare, which was accepted by Dumfries and Galloway who then, following the interview, took him on as a supply headteacher.

"I did that for two years, then I was acting head at a small school for a year, but that was 40 miles away from my home," he says. "Then three years ago I got this job at Ae, where they'd had an acting head for a year, after the previous headteacher had retired."

Having remarried, Mr McIsaac is settled here, he says. "I love it. My staff are completely committed. They come into school even when they don't feel well and give so much extra. They come to meetings and activities in evenings and weekends. Every time I turn around, they're right there."

The one problem with being Ae headteacher is lack of time in the classroom, he says. "I do like making decisions, but it's the teaching I love." He smiles.

"Most days. There's always something you can do better or wish you'd done differently. Teaching is not a job you can go home and forget about. Getting that work-life balance isn't easy for any teacher.

"It drives my wife crazy."



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