No more rainy nights in Luton

20th August 2004 at 01:00
Mary McCarney has moved out of Ofsted's reach by becoming a cultural ambassador at a school in America's deep South

I hope you're enjoying your summer hols. Six glorious weeks, eh?

Not long enough, of course. Well spare a thought for those of us who went back to school again in July. Ever had the feeling you're missing out on something?

Hubby and I left lovely Luton at the end of term and flew straight to sunny Georgia, USA to begin our cultural exchange adventure. We are among 1,800 teachers from all over the globe joining this year's Visiting International Faculty (VIF) programme.

Apparently, Americans rarely venture beyond the 50 states (only 20 per cent have passports), but thanks to VIF recruiting teachers from around the world, the kids here still get to learn loads about other countries. Clever stuff. As VIF's latest "cultural ambassadors" (how big does that make us feel?), our mission is to share our culture, celebrate diversity, promote international understanding and exchange experiences with our new pupils.

Oh, and teach them too, of course.

Bring things about Britain, they told us. So we shopped till we dropped at the tacky souvenir stalls on Oxford Street and stuffed our suitcases with Union Jack tea towels, inflatable London buses and cardboard cutouts of Charles and Camilla. And here we are, armed with quality cultural artefacts, in our new schools, all ready for US-style orientation before lessons begin next Monday. Goodbye summer holidays, hello American dream.

It all started when I spotted an ad in The TES last year. "Teach in the Sunny Southern States," it said. "Do you want to make a difference?" Like you could say no to that one.

But I also blame hubby, of course; ever since his 40th birthday, the need for a "really big adventure before it's too late" has hit us hard. And so, on the brink of a joint midlife crisis, we decided to apply, take up the challenge, have the experience of a lifetime and hopefully make a difference too.

Acknowledging our Irish roots, we said farewell to friends and family with a huge American wake and had the best send-off ever. But unlike our forebears, forced by famine to leave home and never return, we haven't come to the land of opportunity seeking a better life, and thanks to the wonders of modern travel, can be back across the pond before you can say "two tickets to Gatwick please".

No, ours is a very different journey - we've come in search of adventure, and a spot of professional development too. What better way to gain a new perspective on teaching, discover different approaches and explore alternative ideologies? It reminds me of all those comparative education lectures at college, except this is the real deal.

Anyway, since arriving in Atlanta we've had literally days to find somewhere to live, apply for social security numbers, take a driving test (20 years since I last did one of those - Jaagh!), remember to drive on the right side of the road and go straight into school.

Steep learning curve? Tell me about it. The words "frying pan" and "fire" spring to mind. New systems, new jargon, new faces. I feel like an NQT all over again. And then there's the deep southern accent. It'd be too cliched to even suggest that everyone sounds like Rhett Butler or Scarlett O'Hara, but everyone sounds like Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara.

Having said that, everyone here is going crazy about my Lutonian twang, and apparently I talk "just like Queen Elizabeth of England". Fair enough.

As someone who doesn't do hot, I'm so not coping with everyday temperatures of 90 degrees plus. But then that's why God invented air con and installed it in my car, apartment and classroom. Thank you God. Home sweet home is now a two- bedroomed, two-bathroomed apartment in a luxury countryside complex with electric gates, a gym, pool and clubhouse. And all this for the same rent as a box-room in Brixton. Shame I haven't had much time to enjoy it yet.

Did I mention we're back at school already? It'll take me a while to get over that one. Of course, my new students have had a 10-week summer vacation, but that started in May when we were still doing Sats. As far as everyone here is concerned, summer is over.

The next break? Thanksgiving in November, and right now that seems a very, very long way away. On the other hand, this is the biggest adventure of my life. I'm buzzing with enough adrenalin to keep me going till Christmas (or "holiday" as we say stateside). I'm living in luxury, making new friends from all over the world, the sun is shining and, as from Monday, I'll be teaching a class of just 20 kids. Oh, and OFSTED doesn't exist in America.

Perhaps some things are worth sacrificing your summer holiday for after all.

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